Bullying, Misunderstanding and Humbling

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

It is common in my practice when talking with a young person to hear that they have been bullied.  The experience of being bullied produces doubts about whether they are safe enough, good enough or whether they will get enough.  And the emotions produced include fear, anger and emptiness responses (reptile brain) as well as insecurity and demoralisation (stuck with overwhelming helpless, hopeless, and worthless thoughts and feelings).  Helping them understand what happened and why is an important part of them becoming a survivor of the experience.  Part of that understanding (once they feel safe and connected for) is to help them and their parents discover whether they were actually bullied or not, as not everything labelled as bullying is.

Bullying as defined by the Victorian education department is: “repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear”

It can be damaging if it is not stopped and repaired, leaving the child feeling powerless, anxious, frustrated and demoralised. Though the child needs to learn how to manage it, if the bullying overwhelms their ability to cope then the adults may need to step in and support them until the bullying ceases. Every school has a bullying response plan, and it should be instituted until the bullying stops.

But it is worth considering that your child may not be being bullied.

Sometimes a student gets hurt feelings from experiences with a particular schoolyard culture or subculture that they don’t understand or fall foul of. What distinguishes this from bullying is that the person being hurt is not targeted specifically and there is no specific intent to harm. There may be a misunderstanding or mismatch between the involved students. It can still be experienced as hurtful, and may need to be addressed, but to call it bullying is unhelpful as there is no intentional and repeated wish to hurt. Invoking a victim-aggressor approach won’t clear up the misunderstanding.  The response is to try and understand where the mismatch occurred and change it, or accept that there is a mismatch and give each other freedom to be different; one of the key tasks of growing up.

Humbling is a different to bullying in that it is actually helpful. The child may get hurt feelings when their peers criticise them, but those hurt feelings are a valuable learning experience. Being humbled is an important social learning experience that a group provides for its members who are not acting appropriately. If your child steals from a peer, he should be shamed when it is discovered. If your child doesn’t wait their turn for a game, the group will appropriately be angry and tell them to go away. If your child is valuing the approval of the teacher over their peers (dobbing), the group will call them a teacher’s pet. If your child is unknowingly irritating other students through their actions, it is important that the group share this information with your child.  Hurt feelings are a good thing if your child is being obnoxious or irritating, and to try to protect children from having hurt feelings means they miss out on this valuable learning.

It is tricky when your distressed child comes to you and says they have bullied, as all you really know is that their feelings have been hurt. In that moment, whether they have been bullied, run up against misunderstanding, or have been humbled for not adequately considering the group does not matter. Your job is to listen, validate their experience, and offer yourself. When emotions are high, this is the time to help soothe their distress, and give them the experience you have seen and heard them: that you are on their side. It is not the time to correct them.  They won’t care what you think until they think that you care and are on their side. Once calm and connected enough, your next role is to offer to clarify with your child what happened and what the next step is. That will usually involve a discussion where you and they make sense of the overall story to clarify in some detail both what happened, be curious as to the why, and think about what they could do differently next time.  If your child can’t work it out, and with your assistance together you can’t work it out, it is then time to engage with the school to work it out.

Calm the reptile, Connect with the mammal, and then Curiously Converse with the human.  For you, with your child, when working with the school.