Beat bullying - refuse to suffer in silence
CHILDHOOD and adolescence can be terribly marred by bullying. Bullying has been around as long as there have been people, but it has been rendered more complex and insidious by the arrival of the digital sphere, where young people spend so much of their time.
Almost everyone has some experience of this mongrel behaviour - some as perpetrators, some as victims, some as worried friends or relatives of victims, many as immediate witnesses. It is a scourge that may never be fully eradicated, but there is much that can be done to minimise it and to offset the damage when it does occur.
A fight or an argument is not bullying. Bullying is about relationships and an imbalance of power. It involves deliberate, repeated behaviour designed to cause distress and harm. It is widespread, and it is not acceptable.
- Sharlene Chadwick will answers questions and comments online this morning. Leave yours here
Sharlene Chadwick, an expert on dealing with bullying, believes victims should report incidents rather than 'punch a bully in the nose'. Photo: Angela Wylie
Neither can it be dismissed as something that just happens as a matter of course in the classroom, the playground or online. The mental health of victims can be harmed, particularly if the bullying goes unchecked. In the most acute cases it can lead to tragedy. Indeed, young people have been driven to suicide by it.
There is a clear link between bullying and mental health. Most bullies have underlying problems and many have low self-esteem.
Bullying is learnt behaviour; it does not just happen spontaneously. Today's guest in The Zone has spent almost two decades helping school communities mitigate, minimise and combat bullying.
Sharlene Chadwick, a former teacher, is the Sydney-based education manager with Peer Support Australia, which provides school communities with services and programs to promote the mental, social and emotional wellbeing of young people.
In our interview, the full transcript of which, as well as a short video, is at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone, she gives extensive advice for victims, onlookers, peers, parents and teachers.
Chadwick stresses most bullying reflects an underlying problem on the part of the perpetrator, and that bullies need help to deal with the causes of their behaviour. Her core messages are that bullying is utterly unacceptable and victims and witnesses ought to report it to a trusted adult.
''Keep telling until somebody actually starts listening. Bullying flourishes because it does happen in secrecy, and so it is important for young people to tell people they trust.''
She also emphasises that schools must be told, otherwise there is little hope of fixing the specific case and preventing further incidents.
''To just simply say to the child engaging in bullying to 'stop that' is not enough. Sometimes the person engaging in bullying is trying to feel better about who they are, because they have issues going on for them and they don't know how to cope with that and they don't know who to turn to.
''The key advice to young people who are being bullied is don't suffer in silence; talk to someone, tell someone that it is happening … someone that they know can actually make a difference for them.''
That someone can be a parent or a teacher or a sporting coach, particularly for younger victims. For adolescents, often the most effective initial source of support is peers. Chadwick and Peer Support Australia spend a lot of time arming young people with the skills to support each other. Primary among those skills are empathy and resilience.
Empathy is an important tool, too, in helping bullies stop their cruelty. ''If I can actually have empathy for somebody else and try to put myself in their position, then I am less likely to engage in that behaviour …
''Sometimes bullying is a symptom of something else going on for them, and they are not always aware and can recognise that. For some young people, the act of engaging in bullying behaviours is really a mechanism for them to just get rid of some of that frustration and anger they might feel. They haven't really thought through the consequences and the impact on other people.''
Not all bullies have underlying problems. Some are just bored, so Chadwick helps schools examine whether they are providing enough stimulation and activities for students.
Young people have grown up in a digital environment, and there are some powerful online resources, as well as apps for smartphones and tablet computers. One helpful site is headspace. A good app is Take a Stand, which is available through iTunes.
What is Chadwick's advice to parents? ''Parents can be the first port of call, because families are smaller than classrooms and schools so it's important for kids to actually talk to their parents about what's happening and for parents to really listen, rather than projecting 'oh well, that shouldn't be happening' and getting all emotional about it.''
If bullying is happening online, parents should not block their child's access to the internet - that would be punishing the victim, as well as removing a potential source of support from online relationships and interactions. .
Instead, parents ought to talk to their child, provide loving comfort, and inform the school. They should not confront the perpetrator or the perpetrator's parents, at least in the first instance.
But sometimes victims of bullying can't go to their parents.
''There are some parents that are in family situations where bullying is happening across the board in that family and it's difficult for the kids to then be able to say well I will talk to Mum or Dad about this when I actually see it happening at home. And that's where we say it is learnt behaviour. The family is a significant contributor to where students are learning inappropriate ways of behaving.''
In such cases, the support of peers is vital. Chadwick says peers should not directly confront a bully. The traditional ''punch a bully in the nose and they will stop'' approach is wrong, she says.
''Our advice is don't do that, because sometimes that escalates the situation and what we don't want to do is put young people in harm's way.
''It really is about putting the safety of young people first and foremost. And that does not just mean physical safety; it's their emotional safety, as well.'' Instead, peers should offer immediate support to the victim and then inform the school.
Peer Support Australia works with government and private primary and secondary schools across the nation.
''It's not just anti-bullying that we focus on; that's just one module that schools can actually nominate to do. We focus on resilience, optimism, values; bullying is a relationship issue and if you are teaching kids the skills of empathy, resilience, respect, diversity, acceptance of differences, then you are actually dealing indirectly with bullying without saying 'we're running an anti-bullying program'.''
Progress is being made on reducing bullying. More and more young people are aware of just how unacceptable it is and what to do about it. This is an important shift in the culture of the playground.
Nevertheless, many victims of bullying fear the problem will escalate if they report it. Chadwick says this is eminently understandable, and things sometimes do get worse before improving. But, she says, the only certainty is that unless bullying is reported, it will not be stopped.