By Zoe Clews
It’s a sad truth that on average, one child in every classroom in the UK experiences bullying on a daily basis. That’s one child in every lesson in every school experiencing misery on a colossal scale every single day.
The enforced isolation we’re observing under the current social distancing measures around Covid-19 will provide some respite for children from the physical reality of schoolyard bullying, but isolation brings with it greater time for introspection – and introspection is the fertile ground in which self-doubt and unhappiness to grow.
And while we stay at home to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, another sinister seed – anxiety – is also taking root and spreading poison, because even the youngest child knows that one day, soon, they will have to return to the classroom and face those who’ve made it their mission to torment them.
Anxiety, being what it is, will magnify that threat by a factor of ten or more.
I don’t need to describe the pain of watching your child being bullied, because if you’re reading this then the chances are you’ve experienced it for yourself.
There’s also no need to describe the anguish that comes from feeling as though you’ve failed at the one job you were given when this amazing small human became part of your life, because those emotions are probably also familiar, if unwanted, companions.
What I can do, though, is give you the inside track on the psychology of bullying so you know what you’re dealing with and can acquire the tools to tackle it.
We see – and help – a lot of children who experience bullying both in and out of school, and the reality is that physically and emotionally unpleasant as bullying is, it doesn’t have to have a lasting or defining effect on young lives.
But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s start by stating the obvious. Bullying has been around since the dawn of time. It features in the earliest writings of Chaucer and Montagu – Lord knows Dickens would have been scratching his be-whiskered face for something to write about without it – and has been a weapon in the quest for dominance since we existed in caves.
People often believe bullying is about the attainment of power, but in fact it’s motivated by the complete opposite – a lack or absence of power.
But what we often don’t realise or understand – and what it’s really important to grasp – is that for children, bullying is trauma. And when we know that, it becomes more tangible, because we can focus on solutions that are within our control rather than ideals that aren’t.
To unpack that a bit, there is a fundamental difference between children and adults in how they respond to and are affected by bullying.
To experience bullying at any age is a huge issue, but as adults we have the advantage of possessing a fully formed, fully developed rational and logical mind, and one of the gifts that rationality and logic bring to life’s party is perspective.
Although we may not be able to utilise this tool as effectively as we might sometimes hope, we are nevertheless much better equipped as adults to see that the problem is with the person doing the bullying than with us – and in this context, I mean both the conventional stereotype of someone being deliberately unkind, cruel or physically aggressive, and the more passive-aggressive sense of someone who is emotionally domineering.
For children, and especially those under the age of nine, who don’t have a fully developed logical mind and exist purely within the subconscious, perspective is not something within their toolkit and so isn’t an option.
Instead, the words and actions of the person doing the bullying, and the self-image they create, are hardwired into the subconscious – where they stay until time or a trigger unlocks them.
That’s the thing about the subconscious. You simply can’t hide from it. While you busy yourself with distractions in the hope of outrunning your fears, the subconscious remains steadily and resolutely on sentry duty, making sure you won’t ever be able to ignore the perceived threat you face.
For children, this sense of dread, that grows larger with every day that places them closer to the threat they fear, is almost more intolerable than the reality of being bullied.
Children’s minds are like sponges – they accept whatever information is given to them, without question. And that information slowly but surely shapes and moulds the image those children have of themselves.
Being repeatedly told you’re fat, or ugly or stupid becomes a relentless exercise in affirmation, and pretty soon it leads to self-affirmation and the validation of negative beliefs – and we create an image of ourselves that becomes a superglued self-truth.
This is bad enough when a child is bullied by one individual, but when a pack mentality within the oppressive group evolves, and several children also pick up the stick to beat a child with, these negative beliefs are reinforced tenfold or more.
And ultimately this process of repetition, reinforcement and self-judgement does a wonderful job of disconnecting us from our ‘self’.
In my career as a therapist, I’ve seen plenty of people who were bullied as children but who went on to enjoy pretty happy childhoods, yet come to me as adults with panic attacks, anxiety disorders, depression that ranges from mild to severe, or eating disorders that were seeded by a kid being told they were 'fat' at school.
Add to that issues like body dysmorphia disorder in the kid who was singled out for physical features – told they are too tall or short, for a birth mark or for having ginger hair, acne, a wide nose, braces, a large forehead or ‘FA Cup’ ears. The list goes on and the only sure thing is that the kid grows up to be self-conscious about their ‘imperfect’ body.
The other truth of trauma is that while repetition magnifies its impact, trauma only has to happen once for it to impact a child’s tender psyche.
To understand how to deal with the impact of bullying, it’s also important to understand the characteristics of the subconscious.
Broadly speaking, it has four main traits:
1. It’s your inner protector. The single most important role of the subconscious is to keep you safe, and it does that at the expense of everything else, including your happiness. So, if you’re bullied, the subconscious logs it then works 24/7 to ensure that you don't have to experience that pain again. This can lead to reclusiveness, withdrawal and social anxiety.
2. It generalises. It’s not the one boy who bullied you, it’s all men. This can leave you with nervousness and a lack of confidence around that archetype.
3. It’s dominant. All those times when you’ve had a knot in your stomach or butterflies of anxiety and you’ve rationalised the problem and explained it to yourself, but those symptoms persist? That’s your subconscious overriding your rational conscious self. If your subconscious mind deems a situation unsafe based on previous experiences – in this case, bullying – it will crush any attempt at rationalisation. This is why bullying often leads to isolation and social anorexia and, later in life, can impact on intimacy.
4. It seeks to resolve. The subconscious is always after a happy ending. It wants to resolve what was unsatisfactory - so if you have been bullied at school (and by the way, the unconscious sees school and work as the same thing) you’ll often find yourself gravitating towards bullying acquaintances or bosses.
This is because bullying has been 'normalised' for you and like a frog placed into cold water that is slowly heated up to boiling point until the frog dies, you don’t recognise the danger.
But the fact is the effects of bullying trauma can all be resolved by clearing the original traumas, belief systems and damage to self-image.
And although you might feel powerless to change the tide of pain that your child is going through, there’s so much parents can do to change this story for their children.
Here are the things that you can control:
- Make sure your child knows you are their safe harbour. That seems obvious, but repeating the mantra that they can talk to you, that you will listen, that their home is a safe space in which to share can do a lot to roll back the negative impact of bullying;
- Help them to build their self-esteem. Tell them they are wonderful and talented, celebrate their successes, their personalities, their determination, their resilience and their achievements. Do it often and unconditionally, and you’ll chip away at the seeds of self-doubt and self-judgement;
- Lead by example. We spend a lot of time telling people about our imperfections and shortcomings. But if you love yourself for who and what you are, and articulate it for your child, they will follow your lead and be far more likely to see and believe the best in themselves;
Keep giving them affirmation. Let them know that their best is good enough and that they are unique and precious and special.
But most of all, let them know that they are loved and that they inspire you to be the best version of yourself.
That is the power their bullies don’t have, and it’s Kryptonite.
Facts about bullying
Definitions, potential risks and the impact of bullying.
Advice for parents and carers
Dealing with bullying, working with the school, online safety and encouraging positive behaviour.
Kidscape log and school contact record
The Kidscape log and school contact record is a simple way to promote open communication with the school and ensure that each bullying incident is recorded.