March 02nd, 2020

Zero tolerance for intolerance

A couple of weeks ago an Aboriginal Australian mum put up a video of her son on facebook. It went viral. The video showed the aftermath of a bullying incident involving her 9 year old son who suffers from a form of Dwarfism. The video is heartbreaking. Quaden buries his face in the car seat and cries uncontrollably. He asks for a knife with which to kill himself. His obviously distressed mother tells the camera that her son has, in fact, attempted suicide before. "This is what bullying does," she says, "Can you please educate your children, your families, your friends?"

If we want to help children in Quaden’s position we need to stamp out bullying. Whether a child is bullied because of a disability or because of the colour of their skin or for any other spurious reason Quaden’s mum is right – it does involve educating people and that won’t happen overnight so we also need to build up our children’s resilience.

How do we eliminate bullying? Well as usual it starts with the adults. We need to ask ourselves some searching questions. What are we modelling for our children when:

  • we elect politicians whose modus operandi is to force their will upon and treat others with contempt
  • they witness us deal with our disagreements in ways that involve violence or psychological control or criticism and contempt
  • we stand by when others bully. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept
  • we don’t teach our children to stand up for others but let them think it’s none of their business when others are being hurt
  • we use coercion at home to get our kids to do what we want them to do

The definition of bullying is ‘the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power’. We adults obviously have more power than children and we have a duty to ensure that we don’t use our power in a coercive way, to hurt or control. We need to be very careful that at home we are showing our children how to get their needs met through discussion, not by just bulldozing the other. Have you ever said, “You’ll do it because I say so” or “because I’m the boss”? Instead we need to use respectful and consistent disciplinary tools.

How do we get our kids to be strong and pick themselves up after setbacks? Is resilience something that can be taught?

Emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, empathy for others and resilience, is not something that we are just born with. It can be taught and we must teach it if we are to raise our children to not be bullies themselves, to protect others from bullying and to respond well if they are bullied themselves.

Empathy is taught at home by parents showing empathy to their children (and to others).

  • When kids are upset we need to not dismiss or deny or minimise their feelings. Don’t say “it doesn’t matter” or “you’ll get over it”. It does matter to your daughter that she wears the Elsa outfit today. Empathising doesn’t necessarily mean she can wear it
  • Leaping to the defence of the teacher or the child with whom they’ve fallen out won’t teach our children to consider others. We need to first show we understand their feelings before they can do the same
  • When they’ve behaved in ways we don’t like we need to ask ourselves “what was the emotional driver for this behaviour?” That’s not to excuse but to understand it. It may be that after you have acknowledged your child’s feelings they will need to make amends in some way
  • Let them hear you speculate with compassion about how the homeless man you encounter came to be living on the street or why the road rage guy is behaving like that
  • Read books or watch films where you consider how the characters feel
  • Talk about your own feelings (without burdening your child), those of your partner and your family and friends. “I’m going to ring Grandpa. I think he’s been feeling quite lonely recently.”

Before a child can develop empathy they need to have an awareness of their own feelings and the fact that someone else may have different feelings than their own. This will start to develop about the age of two years. Children have an innate capacity for empathy but it needs to be nurtured. Parents can help a child develop the self-awareness necessary for emotional resilience by putting feelings into words for them from a young age. Describe to your child how you think he is feeling. This gives them a vocabulary for emotions but also validates the feeling. When we do this repeatedly it gives the child the message that in this family we care how other people feel.

If your child has had a bullying experience you will need to acknowledge how that feels. Use ‘sensing’ words rather than ‘knowing’ words. “I’m guessing that felt awful.” “Maybe you felt really isolated when that happened. Perhaps you were scared.” “I wonder if you felt betrayed when no one helped you.”

Standard advice for kids who are being bullied ranges from “walk away” to “go tell a teacher” to “stand up for yourself”. None of these methods works all that well. Walking away might be sensible in some circumstances as it deprives the bully of the reaction they were looking for but it’s not always possible. Teachers are not always trained to deal with bullying and if they do anything it is usually to tell off or punish the bully which guarantees reprisals later. Telling a child to fight back will not only get them in trouble but it is encouraging exactly the kind of behaviour we’re trying to get rid of. The best approach for an individual is to have a form of words ready to take away the bully’s power to hurt. Examples of retorts to verbal bullying are: “Why should I care?” or “I hold a different opinion”, looking uninterested. Brainstorm for ideas of what to say with your child and practice saying them together.

Resilience also involves feeling confident and believing that next time you can handle things better. That means having a strong sense of one’s own capacities which is nurtured by parents consistently pointing out to children their strengths.

But the best remedy for bullying is to have a united community approach that we will not tolerate seeing unkindness to others, particularly those in a position of less power.


Posted in: Bullying





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