Let’s rename bullying for what it is: abuse

It’s Anti-Bullying Week 2021 and here we are with a new theme to try to stamp out bullying. 

The chosen theme this year is ‘One Kind Word’ 

One Kind Word was chosen because the Anti-Bullying Alliance wanted a focus on hope and positivity and perhaps that focusing on kindness can stop hurtful and unkind behaviour in its tracks.

“Sometimes it takes only one act of kindness and caring to change a person’s life”
Jackie Chan

The sad truth about bullying is how often it seems to be an accepted part of growing up. Something to have to ‘get over’, ‘learn to live with’, or accept that it was just ‘banter’ or ‘a joke’.  Or, even worse, that, ‘It’ll increase resilience’...

In recent times, online abuse, cancel culture and 'calling people out' has become so prevalent and almost constant. It is everywhere in the media, in the way celebrities are treated and the way politicians treat each other. This slide into 'normality' has to stop now, because accepting it as 'par for the course' only fuels the power a bully has; it gives them a feeling that they can say anything and that their behaviour is harmless.

Let’s look at how bullying is defined – The Anti-Bullying Alliance has a clear definition:

“Bullying is the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online."

Anti-Bullying Alliance 

I think this explains it well, but doesn’t, and can’t, expand on the long-term impact of bullying, which is why I feel it needs calling out exactly for what it is. By continuing to call it 'bullying' minimises the impact. In short, it is abuse, nothing less than and the impact it has can, and does, expand a lifetime.

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Life-long impacts of abuse by bullying

Peer-on-peer abuse is horrendous and, as previously stated, often causes life-long problems. These include poor self-confidence, poor self-esteem, self-doubt and self-belief. It can also often impact the life choices a person makes. These consequences are even worse for abuse that is sustained and unsupported. And let’s be honest, a LOT of bullying goes unreported, so victims are left managing it by themselves. 

And remember that some children don’t know they are being bullied – so-called 'frenemys' need looking out for, particularly for children who have learning disabilities or social or emotional difficulties and may accept a ‘friend’ at any cost.

An encouraging start is that it also now features in the current ‘Keeping children safe in education’ publication, under the heading ‘peer on peer abuse’ (KCSIE,2021).

So how can we ensure that the message of this year’s anti-bullying theme is heard and acted upon? 

I’ve put a few ideas together here and would very much welcome any ideas that other people have too. The more we have the more likely we can eventually stamp out abuse by bullying.

How can we fuel kindness and extinguish bullying?

So, how do we work together to increase kindness and eradicate bullying? 

  • Explain why kindness is important – don’t assume children already know
  • Highlight the long-term impact of bullying
  • Demonstrate and teach humility and empathy
  • Lead by example. To get children to show kindness, you need to demonstrate it
  • Let children know that you are there to listen to them 
  • Be aware of behaviours being exhibited by those being abused and by those abusing
  • Explore your own beliefs about bullying and abuse and challenge them!
  • Ensure that children have access to visual information at strategic venues and points around schools, clubs and youth places telling them what abuse is and where to seek help and support.  The current safeguarding signposting is nowhere adequate and does not explain what abuse is
  • Have conversations with your children about bullying - they may be bullied or even the bully without you realising
  • Where possible, use restorative justice
  • Children need to know adults are safe. If they know that adults know the remarks and sayings that bullies and abusers use and address it, it reduces their power. In other words, if children know that adults are aware of the threats such as ‘snitches get stitches’, it has the potential to reduce its impact and potency. 
  • Educate about bullying every week as whole school assemblies (just five minutes will do), give feedback about the positive progress being made to give children a positive target to aim for

To demonstrate and offer kindness to another person can be life-changing. For people experiencing, or who have experienced abuse or bullying it can be a beacon of light and hope in a hostile world. I believe that most of us know that kindness can have this impact, as most of us will have experienced kindness at some point in their lives. 

So, if kindness is this effective, and seemingly simple – why has peer on peer abuse not been stamped out? Why do we need a week to raise awareness to be kind to each other? 

What is going wrong?

Bullying or abuse can often be a defence mechanism; a sense that the bully feels powerless or threatened, although this is of course no excuse for it. However, to understand how to eradicate it means knowing the origins and the signs.

Much of it goes back to our history, way, way back and what we needed to survive. Back then, our brains needed the rush of adrenaline to keep us responsive and alive and anyone/thing that was a potential threat had to be eradicated. The trouble is, that feeling of being threatened can still be present, even though the risk has gone.

So, do we need to understand our neurology more? Almost certainly! Telling someone to be kind deals with the conscious online brain but is unlikely to prevent ‘in the moment’ bullying and abuse, especially if the bully doesn't recognise their behaviour. That will come from education and information and will need to be a permanent aspect of our growth and development.

It also in part explains why punishment can often be ineffective, especially if the bully/abuser has difficulties of their own. If you are in a position of authority, don’t alienate a bully, but provide them with the tools and support to tackle their bullying behaviour. Help them learn that they’ll get better internal and external feedback by showing kindness.

Kindness will be a feature of this because teaching kindness will help the unconscious brain feel safe, but it will need to be a regular feature.

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What does kindness mean?

It’s also worth remembering that kindness will mean different things to different people. It can be empathy, thoughtfulness, keeping someone in mind, acceptance, a gesture, unconditionality, integrity. The possibilities are entirely up to you.  Doing something for someone because you want to, because you will feel good about it and not because you anticipate something back in return.

My final take on this is educating children about bullying and abuse. All schools have a safeguarding board, detailing who to go to when a child feels unsafe, but what if a child has never felt safe and doesn't know they can seek help? What if their home environment is violent or controlled – then peer bullying won’t be obvious to them. What if they don’t know what consent means?  

What schools need are information boards that contain all this information. We need children to know, as soon as they can, what to look for and how to report it. Because often a child’s default position is to blame themselves because they know no different. If I had had this information available to me it is possible the peer abuse I experienced in school would have been stopped. That when I had my head shoved down the toilet, my first thought may not have been, ‘I must have deserved that’, because I had no idea that what was happening to me wasn’t my fault.

We must equip children with as much age-appropriate information as possible. If we expect children to grasp concepts like 'fronted adverbials' and long division, I have no doubt they have the ability to understand how to manage and understand their own experiences and feelings, empowering them to act in a focused and helpful way.

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Angela Kelly
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