Helen O’Callaghan speaks to psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley on how best to tackle bullying at school and the misery it can bring
IT’S a devastating picture: children eating their lunch in toilet cubicles or spending entire mornings in class silently agonising about who’ll hang out with them at lunchtime or panicking when they hear their mobile phone ping, announcing another ‘friend’ has posted spiteful words about them on social media.
Psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley opens her new book – Bully-Proof Kids — with this portrait of child misery caused by bullying, which she says is “a huge social dynamic that has erupted”. And it requires a thoughtful, organised holistic approach to be solved. “A parent charging into a school, shouting ‘my child’s being bullied — sort it’, won’t work.”
Faced with a bullying situation, parents need to take a deep breath (‘now we’re going into the long game’). “The person being bullied can emerge from it very able but it needs parent, child, school and bystanders to get involved,” says O’Malley, who felt compelled to write the book because of the “sheer numbers” of people who came to her whose lives had been blighted by bullying.
“So often, when asked the question ‘when did things first start to go wrong for you?’ they trace it back to when they were bullied/excluded as a child. Initially, I was astonished — now I’ve come to expect it.”
Bully-Proof Kids defines bullying. “Conflict isn’t bullying. A child saying random mean things isn’t bullying. Nor is teasing,” says O’Malley, who defines it as sustained aggression from a person with more power to a person with less power. The definition is necessary, she says, because the word ‘bullying’ has been hijacked, its meaning “abused and diluted through flippant over use” — which means everyone loses out in the fight against bullying.
O’Malley explores why people bully, why some personalities try to gain power over their peers, why some are targeted more than others and why bystanders don’t intervene. She identifies different types of bully and different types of target because — for resolution — it’s essential to understand the dynamic that’s at play. A ‘pure bully’, for example, is seeking power. “They dehumanise the target. They have low arousal — they don’t have any level of empathy.”
A ‘victim bully’ has often been bullied themselves. “It’s the idea of ‘shoot first before I get shot’. It’s Machiavellian — they know what they’re doing.”
Targets can be:
When parents/schools understand the motivations and situations underlying the bullying, they’re better placed to properly advise the targeted child. “If the child can understand ‘oh, I’m being bullied because I’m quiet and obedient’, that any child with that personality might well be a target too, they realise it’s not just them,” says O’Malley, adding that ‘passive’ and ‘provocative’ targets will often need to learn social skills.
“Being socially able is very important in school,” she says.
Her book is full of practical advice on how to equip kids with the social skills they need to be prepared if and when bullying arises. “With the right approach, you can empower children to tap into their inner strength. They can learn enough social and emotional skills to say ‘I see it. I can head it off’. Kids feel really strong if they can see off the bully.”
O’Malley’s big on the power of the bystander. In a chapter titled ‘The Untapped Strength of the Upstander’ – someone who goes from being bystander to saying ‘hang on, this isn’t OK’ — she describes bystanders as “people who see everything but do nothing”. She wants them “hauled from the edges of the drama and placed slap bang in the centre of it all” and points to research findings that bystanders are present in 90% of bullying cases — and they can often stop the bullying within 10 seconds if they intervene.
“Bystanders have all the power — they can take the fizz out of bullying.”
While resolving bullying can’t all be left to the school, schools must take responsibility for the kind of culture they create. “Bullying often gets underplayed by the school. When parents come in [about bullying], they’re told it was ‘horseplay’ or the offending child ‘didn’t know what they were doing’ when in fact they did. Underplaying bullying doesn’t solve anything.”
Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, says bullying in various guises takes place in all schools and there’s no point in the school being defensive. “It certainly isn’t in the school’s interest to minimise or downplay any incidence of bullying. A positive school climate where children look out for one another is the ideal and school leaders and teachers must do all in their power to encourage a ‘telling’ culture.”Adding that no child should feel unsafe, he says communication between parent and school must be open and encouraged.
O’Malley, also the author of Cotton Wool Kids, says we can’t take the hits for our children. “But we can do something far more powerful and far more helpful — we can show them how to take the hits so they can emerge a wiser and stronger person, better equipped to deal with the world.”
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