Bullying in perspective

The older I get, and the more years I spend helping kids and teens struggling in the school system, the more enlightened I have become about many aspects of student life. 

In particular, the widespread and deep damage that can be caused by bullying at school is more important than I ever realized as a teacher, or even a student. The school bully is hardly a new feature of the playgrounds or hallways, but what we are discovering is the extent to which this can cause difficulties in life. There are a few misconceptions about the nature of bullying long accepted as true. Whether in person or online, mistreatment by others is something all parents and teachers need to know about.

A study I found earlier this week provides some new information (new to me, at least). It is one of many studies that clearly points toward victimization by one's peers at school as being a strong predictor of social and emotional difficulties in adulthood. In essence, this finding pours cold water on the old idea that being harassed by the school bully is a sort of rite of passage that is expected and even healthy. 

Did anyone tell you, back in the day, that getting picked on and pushed around by someone at school ‘toughens you up’? That it somehow prepares you for the real world? It certainly was not uncommon thinking at one time, but it turns out the opposite is true. Being bullied can do serious damage to one's emotional health later on in life, not just in the present. We are wise to be aware, through conversation and openness, of what is happening in our kids' school experiences.

Take a moment to think about this. If someone faces harassment while in school, especially if it is not stopped, it is possible that the emotional problems that can follow may last for decades. The behaviour pattern was created when that person was young, and that pattern, along with beliefs that can go with it (e.g. ‘they won't want to be my friend’, or ‘there must be something wrong with me’) can stubbornly remain in place. Nobody wants to see this occur, and yet it can easily happen if the harmful events taking place are not recognized.

What can you, as a parent, teacher, or caregiver, do to minimize the chance of emotional difficulties? There are many answers to this question, but for now, let me suggest two measures, often overlooked, that can break the cycle of victimization by others. 

First, have regular agenda-free conversations with your kids regardless of what stage of schooling they are at. Make a point of asking how school is going, and get beyond the simple answers of ‘ok, I guess’ or similar. Listen for stories of ‘mean kids in class’, or ‘the guy in chemistry class won't leave me alone’. Before we can deal with emotional trauma, we need to have a sense that something unhealthy is actually occurring for a child or teen.

Second, be in communication with your child's teacher, even if that just means attending parent-teacher interviews. Try a practice that is overlooked in our society, focus not only on asking the teacher about academics, but also about your child's social connections and relationships with peers. Do they appear to have friends in class, and does the teacher notice anything unusual or troubling? Brief conversations with coaches and leaders outside school can be revealing as well. If your daughter plays on a soccer team, what is the coach noticing about her ability to bond well with her teammates? Most coaches will have already noticed any potential problems.

An understanding about the nature of lifelong emotional health can help you put the child or teen's experience of life in a different light. An awareness of when a child might be getting targeted by a peer, and keeping tabs on that child's progress in creating and developing healthy social connections, can help him or her to do better in school and have a more pleasant disposition at home. We can give children and teens a better chance at a future not burdened by overwhelming emotional difficulty and trauma. This can be a gift that lasts a lifetime.

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna who helps many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Continue to read Andrew's bi-weekly column at clarowellness.ca

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About the Author

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner.

Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life.

Find more about him and his practice:
Website: clarowellness.ca
Twitter: @AndrewPortwood

Contact him at The Core Centre of Health (250) 862-2673.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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