(The Vancouver Sun, September 9, 2002)
Dear Teresa: Last year my shy, nine year old daughter was relentlessly bullied by a group of girls in her class. They left her out, called her names, even made up stories about her. The abuse went on for weeks before we found out about it. When we became aware of it, we spoke to the teacher on numerous occasions but nothing seemed to get any better. Over the summer we watched her self esteem slowly begin to come around again. She is stronger this year, but I still worry about what this school year will bring. Do you have any tips for how we can help her avoid the same experiences that hurt her so much the past year?
T.C., Kelowna, BC
Teresa: I am sorry to hear about the bullying your daughter experienced last year. Every year there are new terrifying accounts of physical, verbal, emotional and social bullying happening in our schools. Teachers express their frustration at the task of trying to be everywhere at once in attempt to control a classroom of students that seems to get larger every year. (We dont envy their job!) Parents speak of being afraid to send their kids to school. Students talk of how deeply hurt they are by their experiences. I will never forget an across Canada interview I did on the radio that had dozens of adult callers calling in to express how deeply scarred they still feel by the bullying they went through decades ago in school. Fortunately, we do have increasing resources enabling us to better understand the dynamics of bullying. Schools now have zero tolerance policies for bullying and programs teaching students about bullying. Girls are the unfortunate experts at the social bullying you described. Behaviors like spreading rumors, gossiping and exclusion all qualify as forms of social bullying and can leave a victim feeling truly traumatized. I have some tips for both you and your daughter that I hope will be helpful:
- Have your daughter as informed as possible about bullying. There are several good books at the library. She will need to know why bullies bully so she doesnt blame herself or internalize the experience as something about her. Inform her that many bullying behaviors like threats, assaults, criminal harassment, vandalism and stealing are against the law. Explain that bullies bully for attention and power. Their drive for power often originates from previous experiences of feeling powerless. When they are able to intimidate people they get a rush of power that takes away their powerless feeling.
- Brainstorm what she could do if anyone bullied her again. Role-play assertive I statements combined with walking away. Like, I dont like how you are speaking to me then leaving. Get her to practice leaving without letting the bully see they hurt her. It will help prevent the bully from getting power out of the interaction and may deter a second incident.
- Raise your childs awareness of her body language. Communication experts tell us that 55% of our communication comes from our body language. Children need to be taught what confident body language looks like. Though perfectly natural to be nervous on the first day of school, walking into a room with your head held high and looking confident sends the message I am not a vulnerable target.
- If your daughter knows someone in her class, encourage them to stick together during recess and lunch. Kids are safer when they are not on their own. If she does not know anyone, encourage her to stay in busy areas of the school.
- Teach the difference between ratting and reporting. Many kids dont tell anyone because they are afraid the bullying will get worse if they are seen as tattle tales. Ratting is telling on someone just to get them in trouble no matter how small the incident. Reporting is letting someone know if you are anyone else needs help. You can also help her think of ways to anonymously report any incidents of abuse.
- Ask her to tell you about the best and worst part of her day every day after school to keep tabs on how she is doing. Ive been amazed at how much information I get when Ive asked children I have counseled this question.
- Establish immediate rapport with her teacher. Let the teacher know about last year and that you would really appreciate knowing if the teacher notices any further incidents.
- If she is bullied again, document and date any incidents of abuse. If you are not satisfied with the teachers response, take a friend who can take notes, and attend a meeting with the school principal. Give the principal a copied letter of your concerns in writing attached to your documentation of the bullying. If the bullying persists, attend a PAC meeting to voice your concern, talk to the RCMP school liaison officer or as a last resort, meet with the school districts superintendent.