Preparing for Back-to-School with a Heads-Up on Bullying

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This come-back line is often given to children to use as a shield when they are the victim of verbal bullying.  Unfortunately, cruel words do have the power to inflict deep emotional and even physical pain.  And both the bully and the victim know it! Verbal abuse is the most prevalent and surreptitious form of bullying; in fact, seventy percent of bullying takes this form.   As our children prepare to return to school and to the larger social circles of that system, we know that at least one in seven children will be involved in bullying exchanges as either the bully or the victim.  The remainder of our children will be witnesses to the abuse.

We can better support and protect our children against verbal bullying if we are able to identify instances when language is being used as a weapon. Bullying stands out from teasing or rivalry in three ways.  There is one-sidedness to the exchange as the bully gives and the victim receives.  The bully intends to harm and then takes pleasure in witnessing the hurt.  Both the bully and the victim know that the experience will happen again and this creates fear in the victim and a sense of power in the bully.

Verbal bullying is easiest to recognize in its most blatant forms.  These include name-calling, taunting, gossiping, and the use of insulting or threatening remarks.  Bullying may also appear silently in body language in the form of eye-rolls, sighs, aggressive postures, or sneers. Other types of verbal bullying are frequently tolerated both at home and at school, perhaps because they are not widely recognized as being abusive.  For example, discounting statements that deliver a message that the target is less important or capable than the speaker can be viewed as verbal bullying.  Examples of discounts might include, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “You think you know it all,” “You take everything too seriously” or “You always have something to complain about”.  Verbal bullying may also be delivered subtly as a joke when the joke is intended to expose sensitive or embarrassing information about the target.  A child subjected to this form of verbal bullying has the experience of being “laughed at” rather than having a chance to enjoy “laughing with” others who are present.

How can we help our children manage themselves when confronted with these types of bullying?  The most important first step needs to begin at home where children learn their fundamental life-lessons.  We know that children who have a solid sense of self-worth are less likely to be targeted by would-be bullies because they do not appear vulnerable.  Parents who use a respectful and encouraging manner with their children will enable their children to develop a healthy self-evaluation and self-confidence.  Teach children to use assertive rather than aggressive or passive behaviors in all of their relationships.  Since children will “do what you do”, show them how to be respectful and assertive individuals by modeling these behaviours in your exchanges with your partner or spouse, their siblings, and most importantly, with them.

Check these links for more information about bullying: