According to the NSPCC, bullying (particularly cyberbullying) is on the rise as Childline reported an 88% rise in cyberbullying sessions.
The Annual Bullying Survey (2015) has also reported that 43% of children aged 13-18 have been bullied, while 50% have admitted to bullying another person. Around a third of parents of 10-14 year olds have said that bullying was their biggest worry when their child joined secondary school.
The word ‘bully’ is hugely emotive and with bullying, there are no winners. It’s important to reduce bullying both by addressing the issues that encourage children to be bullies, and by helping children avoid the negative spiral of being bullied.
Whether your child is the bully or is being bullied, it can be extremely difficult to know what to do and to decide if interfering will only make things worse.
What is Bullying?
First things first, all children argue and can be quite horrible to each other. This is not bullying (it still needs dealing with, but the underlying causes and ways of dealing with it are different). For behaviour to be classified as ‘bullying’ there needs to be a power imbalance, albeit sometimes only a perceived one. The bully has the power to ‘force’ the victim to behave in a certain way and the victim’s behaviour is motivated by fear.
It’s too simplistic to say that all bullies are cowards; many have complex emotional needs that are not being met. However, poor self esteem does play a huge role in bullies’ persona. A child who is happy, confident and relaxed rarely becomes a bully. Another key feature of a bully is a lack of empathy. These children don’t understand how the victims feel, they just enjoy the feeling they are getting of being powerful and in control.
How can parents help children to avoid feeling the need to bully?
Role play and small world play are great for developing both confidence and empathy. Parents can engage with the play and interject with questions like – ‘How do you think the pirate is feeling?’ or ‘what would you do/how would you feel if this was real life?’. The important factor in this play is that it’s child-led and parents need to be a little opportunistic with their involvement, otherwise it feels contrived and children will not engage with the play properly.
Team games also develop cooperation and strengthen friendships. A child with lots of good friends is less likely to feel the need to bully others.
In every day life, parents can help children feel more in control of their own lives by letting them earn the trust to make certain decisions for themselves. Whether it’s how they spend their own pocket money or what they do in their spare time, children thrive when given respect and age-appropriate amounts of responsibility for themselves. Again, if they get a healthy amount of control over their own lives, they are less likely to want to control others.
So what about the victim?
Again, self-confidence and friendships are key to preventing a child becoming a victim. From an early age, parents can encourage play dates and help children nurture friendships.
Like most things bullying is easier to deal with if it gets identified early, so parents should encourage children to talk to them about whatever is going on in their lives. Most parents know the monosyllabic answers children give when you ask them what they’ve done at school that day, but children communicate much more openly through play. It’s amazing how much can be learnt about a child’s day over a game of snap! Family meal times are also great opportunities to sit and chat with children and check that everything’s okay. Even families who have different meal times for adults and children can still have a family mealtime if the parent sits down at the table with the children whilst they eat.
Watching how children play with small world figures or fantasy role-play you can get real insights into things that are on a child’s mind. Children often act out scenarios that they’ve seen or are trying to make sense of. Rather than challenging children about the play parents should get involved and let children lead the role play, asking relevant questions such as ‘what is … feeling/thinking?’. In the safe environment of play, children are more likely to ask questions of adults about things that they don’t understand or that are worrying them.
Whether parents are worried about children becoming bullies or victims providing all children with a healthy, play can be a key tool in the fight against bullying. It gives children the opportunity to develop a range of skills, and build important relationships that can help them avoid getting involved in bullying.
Childline is a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of 19, to discuss bullying as well as any other issues affecting them.