How to deal with bullying at school
Psychologist Jennifer Ryan has launched an anti-bullying toolkit for parents and children
Eye contact is a crucial skill a child must conquer to tackle bullies, says forensic psychologist Jennifer Ryan
The return of the school year brings with it much excitement but for some children it brings anxiety and fear as schoolyard bullying raises its head.
Forensic psychologist Jennifer Ryan, an expert in youth aggression and moral development, says received wisdom about how to deal with bullying can do more harm than good.
Ryan has launched MyLife Solutions Anti-Bullying Workshop and Toolkit for children and their parents which is based on the Zap programme. The workshop also focuses on building self-confidence, assertiveness skills and body language.
She has created a special toolbox of skills that can help children to deal with bullying behaviour and prevent it from recurring.
Ryan says there are two types of children who get bullied, the provocative target and the passive target and bullying is all about power and asserting status in the playground.
“Bullying happens when a lack of empathy is met with a lack of assertiveness,” says Ryan.
She says she tells parents bullying is akin to a see-saw of power with children constantly seeking raised social status.
“If a child is hurting them; they’re doing it to build themselves up. Once a child understands that, they have a different view on how they’re going to respond to it,” she says.
For Ryan, eye contact is a crucial skill a child must conquer to tackle bullies.
“Eye contact is imperative and I use the game of a staring match that kids play – if someone approaches you and says something hurtful to you and you break eye contact or look away, you have handed over power to the person.
“Eye contact is particularly important for girls as they may experience other girls looking them up and down.”
If you look away or pretend you don’t see them doing it, it gives them a sense of ownership over the situation. Once you give them the eye contact, they get really embarrassed and don’t know what to do. It balances that see-saw of power,” she says.
Ryan says the old cliche of ignore them and they will go away can make the situation for the child worse.
“Giving a good response is more valuable but it has to be a neutral response,” she says.
“You never hurt back. If your child has been given a nasty comment in school, never be nasty back, never make it personal to the other child and don’t just walk away from it. Give a neutral, non-harmful comment like ‘whatever’, ‘if you think so’, or ‘if that’s your opinion’.”
For Ryan, physical bullying is something that needs to be dealt with immediately and in a different way.
“It’s about safety and making yourself safe. If you are being bullied physically don’t be on your own at the side of the football pitch where that child might be or go into a room where the teacher may not be. It’s more preventative – don’t get yourself into position where that child might be.”
Ryan says children should try and use all the skills taught to them before they report.
“I’m reluctant to tell children or parents to report at the first slight. Use some of the skills first, then report.”
While once bullying was confined to the playground, cyber bullying has become the new battleground. Ryan says parents need to equip themselves with online skills and know what their child is doing online.
“I know it’s a cliche but it’s very important to know what your child is doing online. You need to show your child that bad stuff can happen online and why they need to be careful.”
Ryan believes children should not have devices taken away from them as it will make them more reluctant to come to you.
“Never take computers or phones off your child because that will stop them communicating but it will not tackle the issue.”
The new anti-bullying guidelines published by the Department of Education in September 2013 for all primary and post-primary schools make it clear that when something happens outside school but has an impact on the classroom environment, the school should be involved in seeking a solution.
“Be relaxed, be informal – ask your child what sites they visit and if they know the people they are speaking to online. Ask informative questions but don’t bombard them so that they end up retracting from you and close off. Prepare your child – make them aware of the nasty things that happen online.”
Ryan says one advantage of online bullying is a trail of evidence that can be used if it goes too far.
“If bad things do happen, keep evidence. With cyber bullying you can keep all the evidence, report it to the schools. The guards should act,” she says.
If you discover your child is the bully, then Ryan advises that while most parents jump to punish their child, they should respond differently.
“Punishment actually doesn’t help – if your child is bullying another child it is an opportunity to teach them about empathy and causing harm to others. It is a chance to use a restorative approach so they take ownership of their behaviour and see how their behaviour impacts on another person and why they should stop.”