John was bullied at school every day for eight years. They called him a 'stupid, fat wog. He was excluded and physically pushed around. He felt like the class buffoon or punching bag. The teachers oftenjoined in, and even instigated some attacks. Following his suicide attempt, John finally left that school.
Now that he is suing the school for disregarding his welfare, he is aware of how his obsessive behaviours, poor social life and fear of others mocking him resulted from the bullying. Despite being a successful lawyer, every day he recalls his horrible experiences.
Nobody enjoys being bullied. When a child believes that she has been bullied and feels hurt, vulnerable and powerless, many different groups of people can be affected. These include the target, the bully, the reactive target, parents, siblings, teachers, peer group, onlookers, school and community.
The many painful experiences include:
• the child's perception of the actual bullying experience
• a single, painful event can be traumatic but discounted ('It only happened once')
• powerlessness: any attempt she makes to block the bullying fails
• the effort it takes to pretend it isn't happening or to deny it
• difficulty reporting at school and at home because it's too painful ('I don't want to talk about it')
• the inability to express the sheer depth of her pain to anyone
• hating feeling ashamed, humiliated and a failure
• fear and embarrassment about requesting help ('Please don't tell my parents or the school...')
• fear of future attacks (which exacerbates their impact)
• when she risks seeking help and fails, she feels betrayed and abandoned ('Nobody can help me, I am alone to be attacked again.')
• peers witness her emotional and social vulnerability; some join the attack, while others distance themselves
• as the bullying continues, the damage escalates, other activities deteriorate and the situation worsens - her level of fear, frustration and powerlessness increases
• many may still minimise their painful experiences/feelings - 'I'm okay, I can cope. I still want to stay at this school because I have friends' (who don't support them)
• targets become paralysed or else retaliate
• when superficial anti-bullying policies, programmes and crisis intervention procedures fail, the target feels bullied by the school -'It wasn't fair', and
• those who fight back or provoke may feel guilty and become hostile to professional assistance - 'Why do I have to be here talking about it? It's too painful'.
All types of bullying can injure a child. The impact will be affected by the target's personality, the support provided by the school and the parents, the peer group reaction and the bully's style. (The most painful form of bullying is teasing: its impact can linger the longest.)
When Jodie was bullied, she went a deep shade of pink, her eyes watered, her voice trembled and her mouth twitched. She looked scared, sensitive and vulnerable.
Targets don't look, sound or behave like normal, happy children. You can see they have difficulty coping. Their eyes, face, skin tone, body language, voice and words broadcast their fear, anger, distress and powerlessness. When a child is injured, it will be evident in some or all of the following areas.
Judith wasfiveyears old and quite babyish. Some other children forced her to eat dirt, pinched and punched her. As a result, she was wetting her bed and complained of stomach pains.
Targets of physical bullying may suffer the following consequences:
• cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds
• headaches, backaches, stomach aches
• bedwetting, soiling
• loss of hair, skin disorders
• sleep difficulties, nightmares
• menstruation difficulties
• loss of appetite or over-eating to compensate
• pale, taut and tense appearance
• poor posture, stooped, and
• stress hormones reduce the immune system's ability to combat viruses and other infections, so children are more likely to become ill.
Jenny was a bright girl who could have gone to university but she never achieved her potential because of the teasing and exclusion. She finished school with mediocre grades.
The immediate intellectual consequences include:
• Suffers reduced concentration, learning and memory difficulties.
• Lacks motivation to work or enjoy his studies.
• Focuses solely on his studies but avoids extra-curricular activities.
• Attends class irregularly and misses out on schoolwork.
• Moves to a new school to avoid bullying but takes time to settle in and adjust to a new curriculum.
• Unless very diligent or intelligent, his emotions handicap his studies.
• Most children want to be like everybody else. They might do their work but keep a low profile. Targets don't question, contribute or complain to avoid attracting attention. Their schoolwork suffers.
• The child with learning difficulties hides his disabilities for fear of being called 'stupid', so is denied extra assistance.
• Gifted, intelligent, sensitive children fear exposing their knowledge. They dread being ridiculed by jealous students. They don't develop their potential; they disguise their unique talents and restrict their achievements. Everyone misses out.
• Although cooperative learning in a group is an excellent way to learn, some children fear group work where they are expected to do all the difficult work, and thus risk criticism or mockery.
• Sensitive children fear all feedback, even if it's constructive. They sabotage their learning by hiding their thoughts in order to reduce further feedback.
• Teachers assume that the bright, bored, quiet or shy target is content. They under- or overestimate the target's abilities, instead of providing extra help or extension studies.
Jason was teased about hisfamily name. He avoided the playground at lunchtime and escaped into a computer. He was lonely but left alone. Followingfive counselling sessions, he blocked the bullies. Now he spends lunchtime with four quiet friends. They talk about computers, go to weekend computer markets together, and work on their software collection at home. He is enjoying his social life.
• Bullying handicaps social skills, and children with poor social skills are more likely to be bullied.
• The average child feels uncomfortable around tense, uptight children and rejects them; perhaps he doesn't trust or respect them. (Maybe they remind him of his own vulnerabilities.)
• Some targets remain padlocked to one friend, whom they obey in order to prolong the friendship. They are too scared to express their opinions, possibly lose this friend and be alone.
• Some kids trail after a trendy group, believing it's better to be bullied by the popular kids than to be associated with nice 'nerds'.
• When targets inadvertently set themselves up to be bullied repeatedly, they get sucked into a destructive downward spiral. As the bullying escalates, the target becomes more vulnerable and powerless, thus his peer group rejects him.
• Many targets socialise with children who have poor social skills and who congregate at the bottom of the social ladder. Unlike most normal friendships, where children support and protect one another, these students can't support the target.
• They are the last to be chosen to join a group project, join a game, or share a cabin at camp.
• Their social life on the weekend or holidays is poor. They are not invited to parties or sleepovers.
• Targets may feel safe at home or with special friends, but fear bullying elsewhere.
• Some targets are scared of being hurt again and stop socialising, becoming shy dropouts or socially isolated.
• Targets may have difficulty establishing normal friendships because they forget how to socialise.
• Some targets are so traumatised that they can't establish friendships once the bullying stops.
Bella used to befriendly and gregarious. Although she is now at a lovely,friendly school, the painful bullying she experienced at her last school has left her quiet, shy, unfriendly and alone. She feels bad that although she has moved schools, she still can't cope or make friends.
• Many children are teased because something about them is different. If they don't accept this difference, their sensitivity invites further teasing, especially when peers harass and exaggerate it. This lowers their self-esteem.
• While their internal bully constantly harasses and reminds them of their personal inadequacies, the school bully identifies their sensitive points and targets them mercilessly.
• Children with poor self-esteem display a sign saying, 'I don't like myself. Other children think, 'Ifyou don't like yourself, why should I like you? So I'll treat you as you treat yourself.'
• Targets blame themselves for not blocking the bullying like other children seem to. This reinforces their feeling of being different, and their self-esteem falls further.
• They become extremely sensitive to criticism and reject even constructive feedback that would improve their social survival skills.
• Their self-esteem deteriorates as they become embarrassed, lose confidence and give up. They find it hard to be open and sharing or trust others.
• They become self-centred, extremely sensitive or critical of everything they do.
• They despise their personality, rejecting themselves as well as others. They become lonely.
Tom is a nervous target. He can't sit still and he constantly interrupts other kids by saying stupid things in class. He is terrified of being bullied again.
• The target moves into survival mode when bullied or threatened. His body is regulated by its 'fight or flight' instinct to protect itself. Thus, other bodily functions close down: he can't breathe deeply, his shallow breathing reduces his oxygen intake, so he has insufficient breath to neutralise stress hormones.
• His painfully high level of fear and anxiety sabotages a state of calm. He can't be relaxed or easy-going, which is essential for socialising.
• He can become very frustrated or angry at being manipulated by the bully and others (e.g. their school).
• Some react and retaliate, exacerbating the situation by becoming aggressive or provocative.
• Others bottle their tension up at school, then release it at home by being rude, hostile and angry.
• He feels confused, stuck, powerless and doesn't know what to do, so he does nothing.
• He cannot express or release his pain and discomfort. He speaks very quietly, quickly and muffles his words. No-one can validate his feelings.
• His emotional burnout leads to denial and disassociation.
• Some internalise their anger and become sad, miserable, mildly depressed and teary.
The body responds to extreme stress by 'releasing a cascade of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that can damage brain cells, impair memory and set in motion a long-lasting and worsening disregulation of the body's complex biochemistry'. Many targets pollute their bodies with surplus stress hormones when they deny their anger, fear and sadness. This is reflected in their behaviours. They develop defence mechanisms and psychological symptoms to cope, such as panic attacks, butterflies in their stomach, perspiration, blushing, obsessive thoughts and behaviours. These symptoms can lead to severe anxiety disorders and other psychological or pathological damage. The following problems are often seen in bullying targets:
• School refusal and school phobia. Many children who have been bullied stay away from school occasionally or regularly, using excuses like, 'I'm not feeling well', 'I haven't done my homework', 'We aren't doing much work today' and 'I don't want to go to that school'.
• Shyness and social phobia. Targets who are terrified of again being bullied restrict or avoid social interactions with peers. They carry their shyness or social anxiety into adulthood, and some develop a fear of relating to strangers.
• Post-traumatic stress disorder. Some targets experience a life-threatening situation, where they feel exposed to an actual or possible threat, abuse or serious injury. They may re-experience unpleasant memories of the event in bad dreams and flashbacks. They avoid situations that bring back memories of the bullying. They may become hypersensitive, hypervigilant, emotional, angry and disconnected from others. Their concentration and memory can be affected. Targets require therapy to deal with this level of trauma.
• Learned helplessness. In situations of prolonged abuse and trauma, the brain releases less cortisol, which causes permanent neurological damage and perhaps a state of'learned helplessness'. Some children will feel as though they have been tied up in a straitjacket or betrayed by adults who won't protect them. They become even more helpless every time the bullying occurs again (even at a new school) because they lack bully-blocking skills. Generally, children blame themselves, not their parents, teachers, peers or school.
• Depression, suicidal tendencies, suicide and murder. The bullied child can internalise his anger and sadness. He develops a mild or serious depression, and appears slow, tired, snappy or agitated. Bullying can lead to thoughts and acts of self-destruction, self-mutilation and suicide. There are also horrific examples of targets who retaliate by killing teachers and peers and then taking their own lives.
The damage can linger into adulthood
Bullying can harm targets for years after leaving school. It can lead to low self-esteem and social isolation in adulthood.
• Relationships. Shy, bullied survivors may find it difficult to establish healthy relationships. Men may lose the confidence to establish a sexual identity; some never marry or partner. Others attract partners who manipulate and bully them. Consequently, their self-esteem and respect for their partner deteriorates. The relationship suffers.
• Career. Targets don't always reach their academic potential due to stress, poor concentration, motivation and depression. Others lack the social skills to manage difficult people. This limits their choice of career.
• Workplace bullying. More people get bullied at work than at school. Workplace bullying is extremely traumatic for targets: they have more to lose and the damage is often greater, as the injuries can be worse than with school bullying. Resolution and treatment may take many years.
Bullying is like a bomb which splinters in all directions. It damages targets and their families, their teachers, the school, onlookers, the bully and the community.
• Families. Parents, siblings and grandparents can become very upset when a child is affected by school bullying. Besides, children may be teased about a sibling or parent, which will affect their relationship with that person.
• Teachers and the school. Bullying destroys respect, wastes money, and reflects bullying in other parts of the school system, e.g. teacher and parent bullying. Some teachers blame themselves for failing to protect the child. And no-one likes the legal repercussions when families sue or the media chases a story.
• Bystanders/peer group/onlookers. Most bystanders don't enjoy bullying as a spectator sport or as reality television. They may personally identify with the target. They may fear that if they report the bullying to the school, the bully will target them next or the school won't support them. Alternatively, they fear appearing weak to 'macho' friends and risk losing their status within the group. They can feel scared, powerless, guilty and shameful for doing nothing. When the peer group says that bullying is okay, then it's okay. If they disapprove, then bullying is not okay. Sadly, they don't realise that they create and maintain this social status system.
• Bullies lose too! Like their targets, many bullies have difficulties with health, schoolwork, school attendance and low self-esteem. They too can be emotionally neglected, bullied, abused or experience violence and family dysfunction. They have personal, social and interpersonal difficulties. They have difficulties expressing empathy, dealing with their emotions and conflict. Their friends become tired of being manipulated or bullied, and move on. They may experience depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and trauma at school and later.
■ Bullying injures children physically, emotionally, academically and socially, and erodes self-esteem.
■ Their injuries can become social, psychological and criminal, short- and long-term disorders.
■ Bullying affects many different people, e.g. family, teacher, peer group and community.
What to do
• Find out how your child is affected by the bullying.
• Obtain appropriate help for everyone affected.
• Bullies and their families also require help.
• Students need to develop bully-blocking skills wherever they are.
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