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Beating back bullying

May 7, 2022   Return


Words by Hannah May-Lee Wong

Farah Putrinegara A. Bahrom
Clinical Psychologist


Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming or humiliating someone who is perceived as weaker, smaller or more vulnerable. It is often an imbalance of power coupled with aggression, where the weaker person is deliberately attacked on more than one occasion.

According to clinical psychologist Farah Putrinegara, there are two modes of bullying: direct and indirect. Direct bullying is when a person is targeted, and the bullying happens only between the bully and the victim. Indirect bullying involves other people; for example, the bully might harm his victim’s reputation, spread rumours or say something to damage relationships.

There are also different types of bullying:

  • Physical bullying consists of harmful actions such as hitting, pushing or damaging property.
  • Verbal bullying includes cursing, throwing insults or saying something hurtful (for example, calling someone ugly or fat).
  • Relational bullying involves ruining someone’s reputation or spreading rumours that cause others to distance themselves. This type of bullying is often indirect.
  • Cyberbullying is bullying using technology. It could be a form of damage to property, like when a bully has information that he uses against the victim. There could be verbal aggression and relational aggression; for example, spreading rumours online. It could also be when the bully contacts the victim online and makes threats.

Victims of bullying are often people who are different from the rest. This could be in the form of having disabilities, looking different or even just being socially awkward. “Children who are timid, have a quiet personality, who do not typically fight back, or those who rarely speak up in class also tend to be the target of bullying,” said Farah.

How do I know if my child is being bullied?

As a parent, you’ll need to be more aware and observant to pick up subtle changes in your child. Here are some signs you should look out for:

  • Your child has suspicious and unexplained injuries such as bruises, or their clothes are torn or ragged.
  • Losing belongings such as books, stationery, electronics or other valuables.
  • Avoiding school, sometimes making up excuses like having a stomach ache or headache.
  • Change in eating habits – eating more than usual or having decreased appetite.
  • Having nightmares, even becoming too afraid to sleep alone.
  • Not wanting to mix with friends or other children they were once close to.
  • Make passing remarks like “that girl said she does not like me” or “I don’t like that person” could be a clue that bullying is occurring.
  • More seriously, a child might self-harm.

If you spot these signs, don’t ignore them. Investigate the cause and consider seeking help to solve the problem, such as speaking with your child’s teachers or someone from the school.

What are the long-term effects on the victims of bullies?

Constant fear, depression, anxiety, loneliness and low self-esteem are some of the psychological issues that, if not resolved, can carry on into adulthood. In some cases, bullying changes how the victims react to situations and how they interact with other people. If a person accepts being bullied instead of standing up for himself, he may always choose to keep problems to himself and this in turn may become the way he deals with other kinds of conflicts in the future.

Some children may be affected academically; even the brightest students can experience academic decline if they are distressed by bullying. If a child falls behind academically, it will take much effort to play catch up and this may affect his or her future academic opportunities.

What can I do if my child is being bullied?

Firstly, show you care by asking if the child is alright. Use gentle words like “are you OK” or “what’s going on”. Avoid being too forceful and avoid accusing him or her of doing something wrong.

It may not be wise to immediately schedule a meeting with the bully’s parents to confront them. “It’s not a good idea to have a meeting with teachers, parents and the bully together with your child in the same room,” said Farah. “When the bully is present, your child might get scared or be too afraid to tell the truth. Ask the teacher for help but it’s also important to ask your child his or her opinion. Instead of coming up with your own extensive list of solutions as a parent, you need to include your child in a trouble-shooting phase so that the child feels empowered. Meanwhile, you can still give suggestions and come up with ways to solve the problem together.”


When bullying goes online

Cyberbullying is a relatively new development and can be difficult to detect. How can we know if our child is being cyberbullied and what can we do about it?

Parents can look out for changes in a child’s use of electronic devices, such as:

  • A child who likes to go online often suddenly avoids the internet and prefers doing other things like watching television instead.
  • Hiding what he/she is doing online by covering the screen, minimizing the window or closing the browser when someone walks into the room.
  • Getting jumpy or nervous when he/she gets a message, email or social media notification.
  • Deactivating or recreating social media accounts.
  • Saying things like “a lot of people don’t like me in school”.

Here are a few things you can do to tackle cyberbullying:

  • Investigate the cause of your child’s change in behaviour; don’t ignore signs, subtle though they may seem.
  • Ask your child if anything is bothering him/her. Give him or her a chance to express their thoughts before taking matters into your own hands by checking their phones or computers.
  • Suggest to your child to tell the bully that “my parents are the administrators of my laptop and they can see what you are sending me” or “my parents check my phone sometimes and they know what you are doing”. If the bully is a child of similar age, chances are he would be scared that Aunty and Uncle might find out, and eventually he may stop bullying.
  • If things do not improve, document the cyberbullying and keep records in case you decide to talk to teachers or school authorities.
  • Call or meet with teachers to tell them what is going on. If your child’s school fails to stop the bullying or it escalates, you might need to involve law enforcement. In the meantime, remove your child from the situation by switching classes or even switching schools.
  • With regards to your child’s emotional wellbeing or mental state, you may want to consider seeking professional help. Sometimes, it’s easier for a child to talk to a third party instead of to you. Look for qualified counsellors or clinical psychologists who have experience in handling children and issues such as bullying.


Why are some children bullies?

“Bullying is not something you are born with, it is something you learn,” stated Farah. “It is more common among neglected children, children of divorced parents or children who lack attention from their family.” Some children whose parents are involved with drugs or alcohol cope by bullying other children. In other cases, children may be bullied at home by their siblings and they try to regain power by bullying their friends to feel better about themselves.

“Sometimes, children may be young and simply can’t tell right from wrong. They just follow what their friends are doing,” Farah explained. “Some kids might say things like “if you don’t join me in doing so-and-so to that kid, then you’re not in our group”. So peer pressure might be a factor.” Another reason could be that some kids are just more assertive or impulsive and do not realize that their behaviour constitutes bullying.

My child is a bully! What should I do?

Bring up the subject by asking your child, “Someone told me you bullied so-and-so. Is that right?” Give him a chance to explain his side of the story before you proceed further. The next step would be to figure out why he did it. For example, a child could have low self-esteem and feel better about himself when he bullies others.

Then, give your child meaningful consequences. For example, if it is cyberbullying, take away his computer. It is important to explain to him why his actions were wrong. Try to get him to understand how the other person feels. After he realizes his wrongdoings, you can teach him ways to make things right again. Farah suggested getting your child to apologize, writing a letter or doing something nice to make it up to the other person. Monitor your child to see if the bullying happens again. It may be good to obtain a third person’s perspective, especially since emotions such as shame or embarrassment may cloud your judgment. If you think you need help, speak with a counsellor or psychologist. Seeking professional help is highly advisable if a child’s aggression becomes unmanageable, for example, if he lashes out physically or gets out of control. The child may have other underlying issues that have yet to be discovered.


What can we do to reduce incidences of bullying?

As with most issues, awareness and education are important. All of us ought to know what constitutes bullying and how to handle it. As parents, we need to be good role models for our children because they will follow closely what we do. “When times are tough and we’ve had a tiring day, we need to remember not to let it out on our kids because they will pick it up and start behaving as such to someone else,” Farah reminded. “Model good behaviour, teach them what it means to be a good person and that our actions have consequences.”

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