Bullying. The mere mention fills us with fear for our children. As parents, we dread that our children may experience it in some form, at some age, or even become the bully.
These days, the word itself has become somewhat innocuous and overused. It doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as terms like ‘assault’, ‘discrimination’ or ‘mental abuse’.
But make no mistake, childhood bullying in most of its forms is causally related to these serious crimes which often carry hefty penalties, including substantial fines and prison time, as adults.
Bullying comes in many varieties and is experienced across all age groups. One may not think that bullying occurs during early childhood, but it does in a few different forms. Before we look at those details, we need to define the action.
Bullying has three elements. Firstly, it is an act that is aggressive and intended to do harm. Secondly, these acts are repeated over time. Finally, they occur within the context of a power imbalance.
Summarised, bullying is a series of acts committed by one person that is intended to hurt another, in order to assert greater power over that person.
This definition is important because it plainly distinguishes bullying from rough-and-tumble play and other aspects of young children’s developing social skills.
Bullying can be physically aggressive but can also be verbal (e.g. name calling), or social (e.g. exclusion) in nature. It can occur everywhere, in different locations, indoors, outdoors, playgrounds and local neighbourhoods.
The consensus among researchers is that bullying is partly driven by development of social, behaviour and emotion regulation skills.
These skills are very fluid among young children and the result is a range of challenging behaviours, which may include bullying. As children build social and regulatory skills, challenging behaviours and bullying tend to decline.
Educators, carers and families need to plan for programs that focus on building children’s social skills. These are often considered to be one of the broad bullying prevention measures.
Experiences and exposure to bullying for some children, youth, adults can have lifelong and impacting consequences. Prevention here is always better than a cure.
Along with introducing programs for building social skills, adults in a child’s life need to be consistent in their approaches. They also must be aware of what bullying may look like, either when witnessing an incident or noticing when the child in their care becomes a perpetrator.
Adults need to be constant positive role models for children. In some cases, name calling that occurs in younger children can be traced back to an adult – no matter whether that adult, either consciously or unaware, uses negative language.
A study completed in the US called ‘Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying’, by Lynn Hawkins and her team, found that more than 50 per cent of the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds when a peer intervenes.
Bullying becomes more prevalent with age and as they get older, children are less likely to tell an adult about incidents. This is why it’s crucial to arm our young ones with the skills they need to stop bullying by intervening or dealing with it themselves.
Both educators and parents have a responsibility to arm children with these skills in the early years. If we teach our children work together and stand up against bullying, maybe we can make a dent in incidents for good.
One of the most effective things we can teach our kids to do is to stand up to bullies. If they see someone else being bullied, we can encourage our children to intervene. Many times, children may be scared to intervene for fear that the bully will turn their attention to them, but often it is enough to unbalance the power which the bully holds in order to put a stop to it.
We can also teach our children to stop the spread of negative words, rumours and inuendo in by not repeating them and encouraging others to do the same. We can implore them not to join in group bullying. We can encourage them to alert an adult whenever they see someone being bullied, and to offer their own help.
We must also promote conversations with children at an early age and all the way through adolescence. We can provide a safe space for our children to talk about instances that made them feel uncomfortable, emotional or upset, remembering that words have the power to hurt and to heal.
By sharing experiences and what that felt like, ultimately, we can help support the learning, growth and wellbeing of the next generation.
Remember, bullying is never OK, and kind is cool!
By Nicole Hicks, Early Years Specialist