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11 April 2023

From Bystander to Upstander - A parent’s guide to bullying

— My Story

Our Occupational Therapist Chantel Griesel, spoke to Marelé Venter from Bully Busters about the effects of bullying on our Tween’s mental health.

Every new year, when the fireworks go off and the clock strikes twelve I, as a therapist, secretly hope that this year will be different. Lighter, maybe. Better, easier, stronger. I long for that reset, not only for my therapy kids, but also for my own. And yet, bullying remains the one constant issue on my table. Bullying has become a major concern for parents and is showing up in so many shapes and forms that it is hard to keep up.  

When I come across any form of bullying, even if it is not directed at my own children, I feel lonely, sometimes agonizingly helpless and often infuriated.  The sheer confusion and aggravation of how to deal and support our children often makes me feel like I am back in Primary School myself.  I want to stomp my feet and say: "This is not supposed to happen!” We get angry, and whether we react or don’t react, we tend to feel immensely triggered and at times even ashamed.

A few years ago when we launched our #youcansitwithus campaign to focus on inclusivity in schools, we stumbled upon a group of Occupational Therapists that had an immense impact on our lives here at The My Story Tribe.

i2WE specializes in individual as well as group therapy in order to serve communities.

The company’s name: i2we stands for the following core beliefs:

When “I” in the word “illness” is replaced with “we”, we get “wellness". Why do youth need to be ill before they get help? We need to intervene and foster mental well-being in our communities.

“I” also represents the individual, and “we” is the collective. We can make a much bigger impact when we focus on working with groups of youth instead of only including individuals.

We, at The My Story Tribe have come to rely heavily on the insight i2WE offer regarding bullying in schools as their popular educational program Bully Busters address not only bullying behaviour, but also the role of the bystander. 

We asked them a few burning questions about bullying:

  • What is bullying?
  • When discussing bullying, it is important to first clarify and define some bullying basics. Knowledge is power, and therefore adults and children must learn the facts. Bullying is viewed as a situational stressor that may result in mental health challenges for all parties involved. To meet society’s needs, therapists need to respond to how society is changing and evolving. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association researchers identified bullying as one of five emerging niches in Children and Youth (Yamkovenko, AOTA, 2011).

    A Bully is an individual (or group of individuals) who is consistently cruel, overbearing, and often abusive, especially to those persons who are perceived to be weaker. Bullying is thus intentional, aggressive behaviour that causes one to feel hurt, fearful, unhappy or uncomfortable.

    The three main characteristics of bullying include the fact that the behaviour is repeated, intentional and in a relationship where a power imbalance exists. Thus, bullying is not just a once-off event, it happens on purpose and a sense of power or superiority is desired by the Bully. Normal conflict where both parties have an equal chance of resolving the issue, and rough play and teasing, where both parties are enjoying themselves, should not be confused with bullying.

    Historically bullying ceased when the victim and the perpetrator parted ways. This has drastically changed with the sporadic advancement of cyber technology, resulting in bullying happening anywhere and at any time through “cyberbullying”. Cyberbullying is deemed to have exponentially escalated the incidence and intensity of bullying as the perpetrators now have endless opportunities to continue to harass their victims.

  • How will I notice if my child is being bullied?
  • Bullying is rarely an isolated incident. The suffering it causes can result in the ending of a life, or a life-long struggle to overcome the psychological scars it leaves. The impact of bullying on the Victim may include the following signs:

    Psychological: Victims of bullying may have lower self-worth, lower self-esteem, lower self-confidence, higher rates of depression, increased anxiety, feelings of loneliness, confusion, anger, frustrations, sadness, self-blame, feelings of insecurity and helplessness. Victims tend to feel more and more helpless, hopeless and incompetent.

    Academic: Many Victims of bullying experience learning difficulties, because they become anxious and stressed out in an attempt to avoid the Bully. Lower grades, loss of interest in school, lower school commitment, disliking school, absenteeism, decreased ability to concentrate and dropping out of school are common effects of bullying.

    Social: Children who have been bullied often display poor social skills, decreased or lost friendships and increased social anxiety, because they withdraw or isolate themselves.

    Physical: Somatic complaints such as an increase in headaches, stomachaches, loss of appetite and sleeping problems are common among Victims of bullying. Some children may turn their anger and frustration outward and fight back, with devastating consequences.

    Bullycide: More and more children commit suicide due to exposure to intense ongoing bullying. In 2001 Marr & Field coined the term “Bullycide” referring to these bully-related suicides.

  • What steps can I follow as a parent?
  • Bullying is not something that just goes away on its own, it is not something that children can just “work out” without mediation, and it is not something kids will just naturally outgrow. If you know (or think) that your child is being bullied, your participation is critical to a successful outcome. Some suggested actions include:

  •  Make it safe for your child to talk to you:
  • When your child comes to you to talk about a bullying experience, try to avoid having an emotional reaction. It can be scary for a child to hear that a parent is planning to lash out at a peer or parent. Calmly ask questions until you feel you completely understand the situation.

    Focus on making sure your child feels taken care of and supported. Without blaming the bully, remind your child that everyone has a right to feel safe and happy at school, and applaud the courage it took to take a stand and talk to you. Commit to working with both your child and the school administration to resolve the issue.

  •  Teach your child to say “No” or to go and find a trusted adult.
  • Research shows that most bullies stop aggressive behaviour within 10 seconds when someone (either a victim or a bystander) tells the perpetrator to stop in a strong voice. You, as the parent, can role-play an assertive response. Demonstrate the differences between aggressive and assertive and passive voices, as well as body language, tone of voice, and words used. If staying “stop” with an assertive voice does not work, teach your child to find an adult right away.

  • Talk to your child’s teacher or school about the situation
  • Make it clear that you are committed to partnering with the school in being part of the solution. Also, emphasise that your expected outcome is that your child’s ability to feel safe and happy at school is fully restored. Ask the principal to share the school’s bullying policy, and make sure any action plan begins with notifying other teachers, recess aids, hallway monitors, and cafeteria staff so that everyone who comes in contact with your child can be on the lookout and poised to intervene should the bullying be repeated.

  • Arrange opportunities for your child to socialize with friends outside of school to help build and maintain a strong support system
  • Try reaching out to neighbourhood parents, local community centres with after-school activities, and your spiritual community. The more time your child can practice social skills in a safe environment, the better. Children who have friends are less likely to be bullying victims—and, if your child is bullied, friends can help ease the negative effects.

  •  Don’t go it alone
  • When supporting a child through a bullying situation, parents often discover previously unnoticed issues that may contribute to the child’s vulnerability. In addition to working with the school to help resolve the immediate issue, parents should also consider reaching out to physical and mental healthcare providers to discuss concerns about diagnosed or undiagnosed learning issues, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.

  •  Encourage your child to stick with a friend (or find someone that can act as a buddy) at recess, lunch, in the hallways, on the bus, or while walking home.
  • Kids are more likely to be targeted when they are alone. If your child doesn’t have a friend to connect with, work with the school to find a safety partner.

  •  If cyberbullying is an issue, teach your child to bring it to the attention of an adult, rather than responding to the message.
  • Many children fail to realize that saying mean things about someone on the Internet or through text messaging is a form of bullying. Make sure your child knows that you take cyberbullying seriously and that you’ll be supportive through the process of handling the situation.

  • Help your child become more resilient to bullying.
  • There’s a lot parents can do to help “bully-proof” their kids. Here are two biggies: first provide a safe and loving home where compassionate and respectful behaviour is modelled consistently. Second acknowledge and help your child to develop strengths, skills and other positive characteristics. This will boost their confidence among peers at school.

  • Provide daily and ongoing support to your child by listening and maintaining ongoing lines of communication.
  • When your child expresses negative emotions about peers, it is helpful for you to acknowledge these feelings and emphasize that is normal to feel this way. After actively listening to the recounted bullying incident, ask your child how they wish you to help or support them.

  • Follow Up.
  • Even after the incident has been addressed, be sure to stay in touch with the school to avoid a relapse of the issue. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, and learn the signs of bullying so that if another issue arises you are prepared to handle it early and effectively. Moving your child to a different school is often the last resort.

  • What do I do when my child is The Bully?
  • Every parent worries that their child might fall prey to a Bully. But what if one receives a call from another parent or the school principal informing one’s child is a Bully? As parents, we take pride in our children’s accomplishments, and when they fail or get into trouble, the inverse is true. Discovering that one’s child is bullying others, might leave one feeling that it is your fault or that it reflects badly on you, which is disappointing and disheartening.

    Marelé Venter (one of the co-founders of BullyBusters) gives the following tips to parents upon discovering that their child might be a bully.

    As a parent, you might realize that you have been the parent of the Victim, the Bystander, and yes – even the Bully, at some stage during your parenting journey. The first thing to remember is that there is no shame in this and to have grace with yourself and your child. There are some traits that researchers have identified that can result in higher levels of bullying behaviour.

    As a parent one can keep an eye out for these types of traits/behaviours:

    Additional signs that your child may be a cyberbully include:

    Many other traits may reveal your child’s potential for bullying behaviour. Remember that each child is different and your child might fit just a few or all of the above traits. The best thing to do is to keep a close eye on your child’s interactions with other children. Speak to your child’s teachers and the principal to get an idea of your child’s behaviour at school.

    Speak to the parents of your child’s friends to determine if they have observed any bullying behaviour from your child. Read articles like this one, or access other sources of information w.r.t. bullying: the more empowered you are, the better you will be able to support and help your child.

    Upon learning that your child has been bullying others, try not to panic. You should be glad that you know and that you can now do something about it. Immediate intervention is crucial to protect the Victim and your child. Being labelled as a Bully has some detrimental effects, which can harm your child’s ability to have authentic and positive peer relationships.

    Bullying is learned behaviour and learned behaviour can be unlearned. Your child, with your help, can learn why bullying behaviour is detrimental to both himself and his Victim. He can learn new, more appropriate behaviours and he can learn to make amends for his past behaviour.

    Try to respond with an open mind, and know that although your initial instinct might be to stick up for your child, find fault elsewhere, or minimize the behaviour, you’re not doing your child any favours in the long run by enabling this behaviour. On the other hand, the worst thing you can do, upon finding out that your child has been bullying another, is to condemn him. You can however condemn his behaviour, whilst also showing your child that you love him enough to help him find more appropriate ways of handling peer pressure, his feelings, and conflict with peers. You will need to love him more - not less - to guide your child towards successful and healthy peer interaction.

    What could possibly lie behind the behaviour?

    It might be uncomfortable, but helpful and necessary, to consider the following underlying factors which might have led to your child’s behaviour:

    • Your approach to discipline: Do you verbally berate or physically punish your child? If so, your child might be imitating the behaviour they witness and learn at home.
    • Your parenting style: If you are overly strict, your child might have learned that they can get their way through a show of force. If you are too permissive, your child might have lacked the guidance and corrective consequences for prior negative behaviour and may believe they can do as they please without fear of the consequences or punishment.
    • Your relational style: Be aware of the fact that your actions and attitudes have an enormous impact on your child. If you conduct yourself with respect and kindness towards others, your child will most probably do the same.
    • Your child’s psychological health: How your child feels about himself (positive or negative) can impact how he interacts with those around him. Psychological factors like underlying depression or anxiety, anger, low self-esteem or a learning disability might influence your child’s behaviour.
    • Your child’s social circle of friends: Try to determine whether your child’s friends are a good influence or not. Do you know your child’s friends? Are they nice and friendly, or do they seem quiet and aloof?
    • Your child’s school climate: The school climate can have an extraordinary impact on the level of bullying that occurs in a school. School staff who tolerate bullying contribute to an underlying acceptance of the behaviour. If your child sees other children engaging in bullying with no discernible consequence, your child won’t fear repercussions. On the other hand, a school with zero tolerance for bullying will have lower levels of bullying behaviour.
    • Your child’s interpersonal and social skills: If your child is bullying others it might be due to a lack of knowledge and skill in asserting himself in a non-aggressive manner. He might be uncomfortable socializing with peers and may act out to get attention or gain approval. Your child may have difficulty handling confrontations and resolving conflicts.
    • Your child’s exposure to violent media: Some children who are regularly exposed to high levels of media violence are apt to become desensitized to what they see on television or other technological devices. This means that violence no longer shocks them and is viewed as normal. They might also start to imitate the violent behaviour they are exposed to.

    How do I intervene? 

    We raise our children to the best of our knowledge and ability. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better; then when you know better, do better.” View your child as an individual who needs your guidance and support to do better; and once your child knows better, he will do better.


    What is an Upstander?

    When thinking about bullying one often tends to think of the parties involved being the Victim and the Bully. There are always three parties involved and they are commonly referred to as the bullying triad (or the triangle of torment). The triad includes the Victim, the Bully, and also the Bystanders.

    Bystanders can be either active or passive. Passive Bystanders are the children most affected by the bullying they witness. They stand aside or look/walk away and avoid getting involved and are often left with a feeling of guilt for not having intervened. Active Bystanders assist and support the Bully by actively joining in the bullying or sometimes capturing the bullying on photos or videos to later distribute via social media. They reinforce and encourage the bullying by offering positive feedback such as laughing or encouraging gestures.

    What is the impact of bullying on the Bystander?

    Witnessing an incident of bullying cannot leave Bystanders unaffected. In the aftermath, youngsters are invariably distressed and, in cases of violent bullying, may even be traumatized.

    The following is often experienced by the Bystanders:

    There is however a third type of Bystander: the UPSTANDER or the “hero”. They are the ones who step in to confront the Bully, find the help of an adult if needed, or offer comfort or support to the victims after the bullying has taken place. The Bystanders are by far the most in numbers and are said to be the ones who have the power to make the biggest difference in putting a stop to bullying.

    Marelé Venter can be reached at marele@i2we.co.za or www.i2we.co.za