Parents, Teachers, and Children, and the Problem of Bullies.

Lady Gaga and Christina Hendricks

  • Image Credit: AP and Los Angeles Times
  • Lady Gaga and Christina Hendricks.

There’s nothing like a spot of celebrity to thrust an issue to the forefront. With American pop star Lady Gaga announcing recently that classmates at an elite New York all-girls school called her “fat and laughed at my appearance” and Emma “Hermione” Watson quitting Brown University in the US amid rumors that she was being bullied, bullying has been rearing its ugly head in the news.

A couple of weeks ago Christina Hendricks came out and said she was bullied in school for her wacky dress sense. The Mad Man star said the atmosphere at her “mean” school was so tribal it reminded her of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies.

“I went to a mean school and was bullied like crazy. I was a bit of a goth with purple hair and I was also part of the drama group, which was filled with actors and writers and wasn’t really accepted by the rest of the school,” Hendricks said. “There was a long corridor with lockers on either side and kids would sit on top of them and spit on you.”

Many a victim

Add to this revelations that the new Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton was targeted by bullies as a 13-year-old, forcing her to leave a private school, and it’s apparent that bullying has its victims high and low, near and far. It can happen anywhere, anytime and does occur even among adults — at home and even in the workplace.

Bullying is a particularly insidious form of abuse that, if unaddressed, can leave a person with severe emotional and psychological scars. As Lady Gaga said in an interview with Google, “Bullying stays with you your whole life: I was never the winner, I was always the loser, and that still stays with me.”

The aggression might be verbal, physical, emotional or psychological and can even have its victims online.

On a recent weekday, Roshni Mohammad took her seat among parents to listen to a discussion on cyber-bullying at her daughter’s school in Dubai. Receiving hate mail or picking on a child within circle of friends in cyberspace had apparently become an issue serious enough for the school to address in its weekly talks with parents.

The school’s initiative is reassuring for Mohammad, who knows what it’s like to be bullied. As a 9-year-old, she was pulled out of her Dubai school when her mother relocated to Kerala, India, to look after Mohammad’s grandmother who had an accident.

Joining a new school in the middle of the year meant almost instant isolation. “Maybe kids felt I was different. There was some teasing,” says the mother of two, who has worked as an assistant teacher at a Dubai primary school. “My classmates, who were boarders at the school, would demand money from us day students. And invariably, I wouldn’t have any.”

The situation worsened when the students began resorting to pinching and hitting. “The teachers began to notice and I finally told my mother,” Mohammad says.

A year later, she returned to Dubai. Older and wiser, she found she was better prepared when faced with bullies on the playground and in the school bus. “There would be a certain amount of name-calling. But I learnt to stand up for myself.”

Research and reason

Dr Jessica Lee, clinical psychologist at Dubai’s Infinity Clinic, says: “Research suggests that some of the children who go on to bully others don’t have a nurturing, loving environment that one would hope for, and experience low maternal, emotional support. But this is not always the case. The important thing to understand is it’s a learnt behaviour. You are not born with it.”

Seconding the view is Dr Poonam Singh, anthropologist and dean of general education at the American College of Dubai (ACD). Citing studies that show bullies and victims have been exposed to a social environment — at home, at school or in the neighbourhood — where they may have seen various levels of aggression, she says: “Such children grow up thinking that this is appropriate behaviour, especially when they see that people get their way by using aggression; they mimic this behaviour. Very few individuals are only bullies or only victims. Most bullies have been bullied and they, in turn, bully others.”

Singh says research has shown that bullies tend to have low self-esteem, have a rather negative view of the world and find it difficult to deal with stress. “They are unable to control their outcomes and hence tend to adopt a harsh style of dealing with others,” she says.

Lee points to the negative life consequences associated with bullying. “According to studies, girls who bully and who get bullied tend to be at a higher risk of suicide. Both male and female bullies are more prone to injuries, delinquency and physical and psychological problems than their peers in later life.”

Being an acquired behaviour, it’s probably fair to conclude that a bully is, in all certainty, likely to continue using bullying tactics to get ahead at the workplace. While managers might be the most common perpetrators, bullying also takes place among colleagues. “The environment is key,” Lee says. “It’s most likely to happen where there is a high level of competition, job insecurity in the form of redundancies, a hierarchical structure and high levels of stress.”

Houssam Hadba, 29, is a sales supervisor working towards a bachelor of business administration degree through evening classes. The Palestinian, who grew up in Syria and now calls Dubai his home, says he sees quite a bit of harassment in some offices. “Here, it more often takes the form of discrimination and stereotyping based on nationality and ethnic background. It also depends on an individual’s personality.”

Stand up to a bully

Hadba believes a victim of bullying should never resort to desperate measures. “Share it with your teacher, your manager and the authorities. It’s not the end of your life,” he says. “If I had a son, I would never interfere directly with his problem or tell him to sort it out physically. Instead, I would try to find out why he is being bullied and try to make him stronger so he can face the problem on his own.”

Concerted action by parents, teachers, children and the community at large is necessary to put an end to bullying, Dr Singh says.

“Children should be encouraged to intervene rather than pass by if they see any form of bullying,” she adds.

This is not usually the case. Joe (full name withheld), 12, is a grade 7 student in a Dubai school. He is unfazed by bullies, whose bark is worse than their bite. “I always stand up to this boy in my class who thinks he’s strong, but he’s not. He calls grade 9 guys to help him, and always says he’ll beat me up after class. But he forgets.”

However, it’s a different scene when seniors from other classes band together to bully the juniors. “They like annoying people. For instance, they might come and disturb us while we’re playing cricket. And if we don’t let them play, they’ll disrupt the game.”

Has he ever thought of complaining? “If I do and they get suspended, they’ll come after me.”

But why would the school reveal who complained? “Maybe not, but what if I get rewarded with 20 house points or something?” he asks, looking rather aghast.

The challenge, Singh rightly points out, remains how authorities handle a complaint discreetly and yet effectively.

Mohammad believes the key to handling bullies is to raise self-confident children respectful of others. She also feels parents must be more attuned to their children’s feelings and guide them with their problems, however insignificant. “As an assistant teacher, I have seen parents telling their children to solve their own problems.”

Telling your child to learn to be tough and face problems is well and good, Mohammad says, but you need to point them in the right direction so that they can arrive at the right solution.

The Bolt Down on Bullying campaign is here to help

The Human Relations Institute (HRI) in Dubai is leading a campaign to stamp out bullying from our communities. Piloted by Samineh Shaheem, cross-cultural psychologist at HRI, The Bolt Down on Bullying campaign is being conducted through seminars, lectures and workshops in schools throughout the UAE. Write to boltdownonbullying@gmail.com to take part in the campaign. The HRI hosts workshops on the issue every second Wednesday of the month. Visit www.hridubai.com for details.

The bystander can make a difference

There’s the bully and the victim. It could, however, be argued that those looking on, unwilling to intervene, are also equally responsible for allowing the harassment to continue.

Anthropologist and dean of general education at the American College of Dubai, Dr Poonam Singh, highlights an instance. “Often in the evenings I observe children between 7 and 17 playing cricket. Despite the varied age categories, everyone gets a turn to bat, bowl and field. A rather win-win situation for all.”

Singh goes on to recount how a 30-year-old joined the players, changing the group dynamics. “He began to impose his way,” Singh says. “Amazingly, the children came together and dealt with the bully.”

This reinforces how important it is for peers to join forces to stand up against bullying. They must be encouraged to speak up and report cases they see or experience. Singh says: “If they are united like a shoal of fish, it is likely that the predator shark won’t dare come their way.”

Cyber-bullying — the new face of bullying?

Sending any offensive, humiliating or threatening texts and images through mobiles, computers and other electronic devices constitutes cyber-bullying. It can happen 24/7.

“All you need is the internet. The anonymity it gives emboldens the person and also deludes him into thinking that not much harm is being done,” says clinical psychologist Dr Jessica Lee.

Although studies indicate that cases of verbal and physical bullying still outnumber those perpetrated online, the latter is on the rise. “Research shows that it peaks during middle school but also that it’s starting as early as the later years of primary school,” Lee says.

She believes schools and universities must have policies in place about the use of computers and mobiles, indicating what is acceptable and what is not. Teachers and parents need to be made aware of the issue. Experts including the police could be brought in to discuss with students how e-mails can be traced.

“Parents should consider keeping the computer in a common area,” Lee says. “They should educate their children about internet etiquette and tell them what they should and should not share online.”

Bullied celebs

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