Dr Emily Lovegrove (BSc. PhD), AKA “The Bullying Doctor” is a psychologist who specialises in developing successful anti-bullying strategies. She is a popular speaker and trainer in this area, as well as being the author of ‘Help! I’m being bullied’. She has very kindly provided this guest blog for Axcis to help spread awareness and understanding of the issue.
Anti-bullying week brings sharply into focus just how anxious we all are about bullying and how much of it goes on. We see it daily on TV where politicians bluster and strut, and we see it on programmes that are set up to deliberately humiliate in the name of humour.
Being aggressive is part of what makes us human – we fight for resources to make sure our children have the best start possible in life. And if we are helping children who are in any way different and have extra needs, you will know how very hard this is.
The difficulty is that some folk are way, way more aggressive than others and love the power it brings… They learn early on that putting others down – physically or psychologically – gives them that sense of power, regardless of the distress it causes others.
Those who are the recipients learn early on that their needs are not important and that there is no point in trying to fight back. In settings where there is particular emphasis on compliance in order to ‘fit in’, there is even less sense in the child that their personal needs are important. It may well help them to fit in but sadly it often also makes them particularly vulnerable to bullying.
As adults we were probably taught one of three main strategies for bullying – to ignore it, to fight back, or to tell someone. Unfortunately, these are all LOGICAL processes that require smart thinking and high self-confidence. But when we’re bullied – or even just feel bullied – we feel EMOTIONAL and our biological stress processes instantly kick in.
Feeling threatened sets off a whole train of those biological responses! Oxygen is diverted from its biggest user, the brain, towards muscles that make flight (running away), fight (standing your ground) or freeze (literally frozen to the spot) possible. We are quite literally unable to think logically at this point!!
This stress reaction also means we’re actually physically unable to ignore bullying (breathing becomes shallow, heart rate speeds up, digestion slows down). In this case the best thing to help is to learn to take a couple of very deep breaths to allow more energy to the brain. NOW you might be able to utilise that logical strategy of ignoring…
Learning to feel the power of breathing deeply is something to practice so it’s not just an added stress to try to learn when feeling bullied! Teaching children to breathe in a colour that makes them feel braver can be very effective. Also, it’s good to explain the concept of being rooted into the ground. Explain that trees with shallow roots will blow over in a storm (being bullied) but a tree with deep, spreading roots will just sway a bit! The might lose the odd branch but that will grow again! Drawing pictures of this is a useful class or individual activity.
What about fighting back – physically or verbally? I know this can result in stopping bullies in their tracks so that they leave you alone. But they’ll simply find someone else which is not a good thing. Encouraging children about what might make another child (or adult) bully rather than behave kindly is always worth doing. Some children live lives that are fraught with danger at home and lack those essentials of love and care that grow a decent human being. A little understanding of the stressors of others can go a long way to stopping bullying from escalating.
And finally, what about just telling someone? This too is fraught with difficulties. Children absolutely do need to be able to tell someone. But what they fear is how we, as adults, deal with that information. Do we listen and ask how we might help? Or do we charge in, all guns blazing, regardless of their wishes? What about parents who threaten the perpetrator (who then ridicules the bullied child to his/her mates)? Or the teacher who blames the whole class and insists that everyone miss playtime… (now the whole class is likely to side with the bully). Telling somebody else about bullying is definitely a good strategy but never forget it is also a risky strategy.
What all children need, and so few get, is a sense that whoever they are is much loved and respected by both families and teachers. Most teachers tell me there are days when their patience is sorely tried and they find it hard to like certain individuals or classes (they forget homework, sports kit, try our patience with exquisite finesse)! As teachers it’s often tempting to let a class know exactly how difficult they’re being to teach! But replacing that with positive thoughts and verbalising them “You are such a brilliant person / class! I always look forward to my sessions with you!” will not only do wonders for our personal sense of efficacy, it will do wonders for their self-confidence!
What we know is that children who feel good about themselves are more confident. Children who are more confident are better able to recognise when they’re being bullied. They’re more able to ignore the irritating things that happen in a group setting. And they are much more likely to come and tell us when the bullying is not something they can deal with.
It’s easy sometimes to think that the important bits of teaching are making sure they do well academically. Indeed, parents and rigid school curricula makes this extremely hard to ignore! But remarkably soon they will leave school. Letting them know that you believe in them just as they are, and helping them to understand and cope with bullying in positive ways may well be the most important thing you ever do for them.
Dr Emily Lovegrove, psychologist.
Trainer, Speaker, Researcher, Author (‘Help! I’m being bullied’, 2005. New edition in preparation).
Sessions for teachers, parents and pupils.
Individual and small group sessions