Every teacher knows that bullying is a very nasty problem. Alas, horrible though it is, bullying and being bullied seems to be something which is ingrained within the nature of any largeish group of children. Arguably, its roots lie in our need to define ‘pack’ boundaries and discover our own place in the ‘tribe’ – something which is particularly pertinent during childhood, when we are trying to establish our place in the world. Without fundamentally changing the human character, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever entirely eradicate the problem of bullying. Partly this is because the nature of bullying is as flexible as humanity itself, and changes with the times. One of the best things that we can do is to try and spot the early-warning signs of bullying, and try to help both victims and perpetrators to get over it before some serious psychological damage is done. Unfortunately, children who already feel vulnerable due to bullying are unlikely to want to make themselves appear even more ‘weak’ and ‘pathetic’ in the eyes of those whom they love and respect – and often will not tell anyone that they’re suffering. With this in mind, here are some signs to watch out for, which may give you advance-warning that a child is being bullied.
Sometimes, a case of ‘bullying’ is as simple as the victim being physically attacked. In this case, it’s fairly easy to see the damage which occurs – although distinguishing bullying bruises from the kind of bumps and scrapes incurred through natural rough-and-tumble play can be tricky. It’s perhaps a good idea to keep an eye on any frequently bashed-about child, and look for secondary physical signs to confirm your suspicions. Bullied children are likely to be extremely stressed, and this stress will bring about certain symptoms. Frequent headaches, low mood, unexplained muscle pains, excessive loss or gain of weight, nausea, and a susceptibility to illnesses (due to lowered immune response) are all symptoms of stress. There is a school of thought which posits that such symptoms may also reinforce the bullying – the theory runs that bullies expect fewer repercussions from physically weaker children, and thus pick on those who are more frequently ill. Whatever the truth of this is, it is certainly the case that the stress of bullying can turn a strong child into a physical wreck, and will drive a weak one further into their weakness. Keep an eye, therefore, on any child which seems to be physically ailing, and watch closely for bullying incidents.
The psychological effects of bullying are perhaps the most damaging aspect of the problem. Studies have shown that those who are bullied as children are likely to suffer from lifelong mental and social issues. It is therefore really important to catch bullying early on, and give the child the coping skills they need to process, cope with, and move on from their experience before it begins to affect them negatively in the long term. The psychological signs of bullying are much harder to spot than the physical ones, for obvious reasons, but can often be the most telling. Bullied children are likely to become withdrawn, to lack in self-confidence, and to display anxiety or discomfort in social situations. They may become irritable, or even aggressive due to the stress they are under. They may well become secretive, trying to hide things (including their own knowledge and personalities), and will do their best to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Naturally, this can impact upon their school performance. The effect of bullying upon a child’s state of mind should not be underestimated. It can consume their entire sense of self, particularly as children are in a state of particular powerlessness. They must return again and again to the environment in which they are routinely tortured (school), and have little recourse against their tormentors if they don’t tell an adult what is going on.
Watching the way in which a child behaves within his or her wider social context can be very revealing when it comes to bullying. Bullied children, quite naturally, may well be very wary of other children – fearing that they may attack them (either physically, verbally, or emotionally – it is important to note that bullying comes in a variety of forms!). They are likely to be socially isolated. As a result of this, they may either try to avoid other children, or respond to overtures of friendship over-enthusiastically (friends and the security of a social circle being something that almost every child needs). If you do a lot of group work in your class, watch out for the child who looks anguished when group work or team sports are suggested. Look for the child who is the last to be picked by their friends, or who has trouble finding someone to partner up with. Look for the child who has nowhere to sit at lunchtime. Look at how the other children behave towards them – plenty of children have periodic spats which don’t particularly affect their social status, but bullied children are likely to be avoided systematically by their peers lest the attention of the bullies turn on anyone associated with them. Warning bells should also ring when a child misses a lot of school due to illness. This may well be avoidance behavior, designed to keep them away from the bullies. Once you've identified a bullied child, then you can start working on helping them and stopping the bullies. But half the work is in identifying the problem in the first place!
This article was written by Helen Calvert.