5 steps to protect those in your care from bullying
Written by Andi Smart - 24th November 2021
This article explores how bullying occurs, including how multiple people are usually involved, and identifies ways to protect people from bullying through: a holistic approach to bullying, communication with all, recognising the warning signs, instilling an anti-bullying perspective and understanding how others deal with bullying.
Understanding the complex bullying process
Before trying to protect those in our care from bullying, it’s important to firstly consider the way in which bullying occurs.
I recently completed a course on understanding why bullying occurs in schools. There was lots of talk on the ways in which the traditional roles of ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ are now seen as too simplistic – the bullying process is far more complex. This is because there are usually a lot more people involved. For example, there could be a ringleader (the main bully), but there is also likely to be ‘assistants’ (people who also bully but generally follow the ringleader’s lead). There are reinforcers (people who support the bullying, but do not get involved). There are defenders (people who may try to protect the victim by, for example, telling a teacher or supporting them emotionally). Finally there are outsiders (people who stay on the edge of the bullying interactions due to either being unaware, fear of repercussion and/or pretending not to notice). These roles can also shift about depending on who, for example, is in the class or on the playground.
So how can we help?
1. Start by recognising bullying as a set of interactions between several people, not just between bully and victim.
What could be useful, then, is a more holistic approach to this complex interaction. For example, when the ringleader (the bully) bullies the victim, the reinforcers may laugh. This, then, could spur the ringleader on. Some questions to consider are:
- What happens if we encourage those who laugh to simply not laugh and become outsiders?
- Can we also encourage assistants to stop joining in?
- Can we urge outsiders to take an active role in reporting the bullying?
All of these things remove power from the ringleader (the bully).
- What are your thoughts on this?
- Can you identify these roles in your work with children and young people?
- Could this holistic approach to bullying help you in removing the ringleader’s power?
2. Communication is key!
Sadly, research suggests that parents and carers are often the last to know when their child is being bullied – probably due to a lack of communication and also fear (Ditch The Label, 2021). As a way to mitigate this, start by exploring what bullying means with your child/young person. It would be useful to ensure a clear understanding as to what bullying means. This can include what bullying looks and feels like through, for example, mind maps, drawing or word dumps.
You could ask questions like:
- What does bullying mean to you?
- Why do you think people bully?
- Have you ever felt scared to go to school because you were afraid of bullying?
- What do you think I (parents/carers) can do to help stop bullying?
- What do you usually do when you see bullying going on?
- Have you ever tried to help someone who is being bullied? What happened? What would you do if it happens again?
Consider also what a healthy relationship is and what constitutes an unhealthy relationship. You could initiate this by asking open questions such as:
- What did you do at school/youth club/out with your friends today? Did anyone make you feel happy/sad? If so, how?
- How are you feeling after school today? Tell me about the good and bad things that happened?
- Do you ever see children at your school being bullied? How does it make you feel?
It should also be acknowledged that witnessing bullying can be very traumatic too.
Stop Bullying (2020) states that when a child or a young person witnesses bullying they can feel helpless, frightened and traumatised - overwhelmed by the situation. Bystanders can also feel guilty that they did not help the person being bullied. As a consequence, the trauma of witnessing bullying can make the child or young person vulnerable to negative coping strategies – especially when the trauma is unresolved. For example, they may display anger or anxiety because they felt the situation was out of their control. All these factors can in turn affect their mental health as well as their social, emotional and educational outcomes (Psychology Today, 2021). It would be useful, then, within any support provided, to consider those ‘outsiders’ within the support being offered.
3.The warning signs
Recognise warning signs of someone being bullied (see my article* “Warning signs someone you know is being bullied” for lots more information), but a summary of these would look like this:
- A change in personality – shows more anger, sadness, upset, frustration
- Not wanting to see people/go to school//engage
- Started drinking or drug taking as a way to navigate the internalised negative feelings associated with being bullied
- Changes in hygiene – less likely to wash, brush teeth, comb hair
- Eats more (or less) – may binge or eat in the middle of the night
- Grades impacted on – may be failing assignments or not doing revision/homework
(Ditch The Label, 2021).
4. Instil an anti-bullying mindset
This links to number 1: when a child understands what constitutes bullying i.e., it’s not just about not hitting people, it’s also about not spreading rumours or being unkind verbally, parents/carers have room to build on this knowledge further so that children develop an anti-bullying mindset. This should also include how to behave: i.e. be kind, empathise, take turns, but it is also important that children understand what to do when they see someone being bullied or get bullied: for example tell an adult, tell the bully to stop, walk away and/or ignore the bully are all strategies that you can practice with your child (Stop Bullying, 2020).
5. Understand how others deal with bullying
Having a solid understanding as to how others, such as schools, universities, youth clubs, deal with bullying is important. This is because your awareness of who is, for example, the bullying lead at the school could mean that you can reach out for their support sooner rather than later. Having knowledge in this area will also allow you to monitor how things are being dealt with and whether this is, for example, consistent to their Anti Bullying Policy or Equality and Diversity Guidelines. You could arrange for a face-to-face meeting with the relevant person at the school, for example to show that you are serious in wanting this issue resolved, but also to make clear that they should be dealing with this as per their policies and guidelines and if this is not the case, you should be – as Stop Bullying (2020) notes “holding them to account”.
In conclusion, bullying is a complex process which often involves several people and not just the bully and the victim, thus, a holistic tailored approach to the bullying is needed for the intervention to be successful. Honest and open communication with all involved is also key to any intervention success but also important for checking in with children and young people as a way to spot any warning signs. These warning signs could include, but are not exclusive to, changes in personality and emotions: more anger, sadness, upset, frustration. In addition to not wanting to see people/go to school//engage with others as well as excessive drinking, drug taking, changes in hygiene, eating less/more and grades impacted on. When children and young people have a good awareness of what bullying is, and parents/carers can also spot the warning signs, it is useful to also instil how to behave: compassionately, empathetically, show kindness and share/take turns, as this will help to further instil an anti-bullying mindset. Nonetheless, practicing with children as to how to respond to a bully (saying NO firmly) or what to do when they witness bullying (report to an adult) is a useful way to build confidence in this area. Finally, being aware of how others deal with bullying (i.e., schools’ anti-bullying policies) and, consequently, challenging the relevant people when this is not ‘up to scratch’ will also be beneficial to those you are supporting now and those who will need support in the future.
Ditch The Label (2021). TOP 10 TIPS FOR OVERCOMING BULLYING – cited on https://www.ditchthelabel.org/top-10-tips-for-overcoming-bullying/
Stop Bullying (2020). Warning Signs for Bullying – cited on https://www.stopbullying.gov/bullying/warning-signs
Psychology Today (2021). Bullying – cited on https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/bullying
Andi Smart - An experienced Mental Health Practitioner , Andi’s specialisms are Autism and Dementia Care, coupled with a strong interest in disability, advocacy, sociology and equality. Andi currently works within NHS Mental Health services as an LGBT specialist and within Education as a subject specialist, helping to develop qualifications and assess quality. Andi is a person-centered counselor and a keen advocate for lifelong learning and gained an MSc in Health and Wellbeing in October 2019.