By Susan Hughes
Sarah Tse*, now 15, recalls her first few days at summer camp last year. Her cabin mates seemed to like her, but there was one girl nobody liked. “Everyone thought she was strange,” recalls the Toronto teen. After a few days, Sarah’s cabin mates “became comfortable joking with me about the girl, in front of her. I think they were trying to make the other girls laugh.” Nevertheless, the “joking” was never done in front of the counsellor, and it made the girl cry. Eventually, she transferred to a different cabin. “I felt bad for her, but I didn’t stand up for her. I guess I didn’t realize it was bullying at the time.”
Tse’s experience is a common one. Dr. Shelley Hymel, professor of education at the University of British Columbia, says in her research, an alarming 85″“95 percent of students report witnessing bullying in their schools. The effects of witnessing bullying on children may well be similar to the effects of being exposed to other types of violence, she adds. “In my research with Dr. Rina Bonanno, we find that the more frequently children witness bullying, the greater their risk for internalizing problems, such as experiencing depression and social hopelessness.” Here’s what you can do to help your child if she witnesses bullying.
Kids may justify bullying or verbal harassment, much as Tse did, by saying it was “just a joke” or that they were “just kidding.” Brenda Newcombe, principal of Brooklyn District Elementary School in Newport, N.S., believes parents can help their kids by pinpointing just what bullying is. “They need to learn early that it isn’t just physical,” and that it includes teasing, exclusion and threats. Even name-calling can hurt, says Harrison Matthews*, 11, of Toronto, who came to the aid of a friend being teased. “They were using his last name and turning it into something else. When I tried to get them to stop, they kinda did.”
“Many children, whether they are witnessing the bullying or being bullied, do not want to tell an adult or a teacher because they do not want to be labelled a “snitch,” says Sharon Girgis, a counsellor with Kids Help Phone. “Most believe that telling will only make things worse either for the person telling or the person being bullied.” So what can your child do? “If there is a group of two or more witnesses watching the bullying take place, we often encourage the witnesses to unite together and to tell the bully to back off. We also encourage them to tell a teacher, but to do so anonymously if he or she thinks that telling will get him or her in trouble,” says Girgis.
Bill Reid, principal of Pine Ridge Middle School in Kingston, N.S., says parents can also help their children by deconstructing any bullying situations they observe. Reid says, “Kids develop empathy when they are invited to reflect on the inequity and unfairness of a particular incident.” He suggests that parents explain why people in the situation did certain things, and whether it was fair. “Have kids discuss the options, such as what should have been done and when.”
“Speaking up is a risky business for kids,” says Dr. Hymel. “It is not only difficult for children to do, but may lead to feeling some sadness about how the world works,” she says. “If children do speak up, parents need to be there to assure them that the world is not always a terrible place.” She urges parents to encourage their children to support the victim or include them in play. “If kids do say something, one Canadian study shows that bullying stops within 10 seconds, 57 percent of the time.”
Susan Hughes is a freelance writer and an author of children’s books. Her kids will admit that it isn’t always easy to do the right thing.
* Names have been changed