Beware of the bully

The harsh reality often is that bullying can become a part of your child's school experience and you need to prepare yourself and your child to deal with it.

What makes people bullies?

Why do some children bully others? Is it just a developmental phase or does it point to something deeper? André Gaum, member of the executive council (MEC) for education in the Western Cape, says bullying is a form of abuse that is totally unacceptable.

Bullying may seem like a small problem to some people. However, it represents a seed that can grow into an even greater destructive force if not dealt with seriously as soon as it appears, 'he says.

Almero Greybe, headmaster of Lochnerhof Primary School in the Strand, says intolerance is the root of the problem. 'Some children can't bear others to think or be different. They want others to submit to them and they'll do anything to make this happen.'

Psychologist Cornel Pretorius of the Tranquillity Healthcare Centre in Somerset West says the culture in a child 's home is an exceptionally strong influence. 'Children learn to socialise at home. If they see a parent using force to get his way, it can have serious consequences. On the other hand, if children learn values such as support and respect, they come to realise that you must live and let live.'

Take action against bullying

Unfortunately, some children are more vulnerable to bullies than others, says Dr Mariëtte van der Merwe, a social worker and expert on traumatised children. This includes children with parents in unhappy marriages, divorced or jobless parents. 'These children tend to be more vulnerable than kids who are "cushioned" by a healthy family.'

What should you do if your child is being bullied?

Gaum says that the Department of Education encourages respect for others through life-skills training for all learners. In addition, the Safe Schools Programme tries to modify the behaviour of aggressive learners – one of their prime strategies is to identify potential bullies and train them as peer counsellors, to turn their negative energy into a positive force. 'Learners who are being bullied can phone our Safe Schools call centre (see contact number below) if they find they can't talk to anybody at their school.

In addition, our school psychologists based at our Education Management and Development Centres in each district can also provide counselling and support,' Gaum says. Mariëtte recommends that parents should try their best to get objective information.

'Every issue has two sides. I've worked with kids who were being bullied – and eventually they were identified as the ones who were doing the bullying! But I believe that it's vital for parents to keep moulding their children's values and teaching them to be empathic. If a child can imagine how it must feel to be bullied, he'll be much less inclined to bully.'

Johan Oosthuizen, headmaster of Jan van Riebeeck Primary School in Cape Town, says their playground is structured in a way that allows children of different ages to play separately. 'This minimises the chance of older children bullying the younger ones. I have an open-door policy to encourage children who are bullied to speak to me. I'll also speak to the bully. If the problem persists, I'll send a letter to the bully's parents informing them of their child's behaviour. This has very good results.'

Another way might be to have a meeting between the victim's and bully's parents, with the school headmaster acting as mediator. Andrew Lochner, headmaster of Vorentoe Primary School in Ravensmead, is a keen supporter of this.

'I'll first try to sort out the problem involving only the children. But if it persists, I call in both sides' parents. I often find that it's actually a problem between the parents, which then spills over to the children.'

Different bully types

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. The most obvious form of bullying is physical abuse. However, an equally vicious form of bullying is verbal – threats, teasing and taunting can make life a misery. Bullying can also take the form of deliberately leaving someone out of a group or ignoring them – a technique often used by girls.

Action plans for your child

1. Think your way out of it

The University of Glasgow's Scottish Centre for Research in Education reckons that support and understanding at home are vital. You must teach your child to value herself. The key messages to get across to the victim are: 'It's not my fault that I'm being bullied 'and' I don't have to face this on my own'.

Mariëtte van der Merwe says that it is very valuable to help your child realise that the bully is the one with the insecurity and jealousies. 'Find some books on the subject of bullying – they are more likely to absorb the "moral" if it 's in story form. Also, the "empty chair "technique, where the victim imagines the bully is sitting across from them in the chair and they can tell him exactly how they feel, can be very helpful. Reverse role-playing, where the victim plays the role of the bully, can lead to insight on the side of the victim.'

2. Talk your way out of it

In the case of girls and their groups, Cornel Pretorius suggests cornering the 'kingpin 'alone, without the support of her group. 'When the leader doesn't have to put on the act for the benefit of her followers, you might be able to talk some sense into her head.' Mariëtte says that it could help to teach your child positive self-talk to counter the negative messages they get through verbal bullying. It could help to keep repeating to themselves that it 's actually the bully who has the problem.

3. Be strong about it

Some experts recommend fighting back. However, this can be dangerous when your child doesn't know what the bully might be up to next. And to top it all, the child could end up in trouble at school for throwing punches.

Self-defence expert Kamal Handulay of Kenwyn Martial Arts Centre in Cape Town says that returning violence should be used only as a last resort. In this case, martial arts or boxing or a form of self-defence could be a useful skill. 'Children who know how to defend themselves gain confidence, self- esteem, focus and concentration. They are secure in their ability – and this helps if you think that bullies are essentially insecure.'

Mariëtte also thinks that self-defence classes could build a child's self-esteem. 'But returning fire with fire should be the very last resort. However, there are cases of playschool bullies who used to bite other children, stopping only when they got a few bites in return!'

4. Report it

Teach your child to tell you or a trusted adult when they're being bullied or if they know of a bully. Mariëtte recommends that schools have 'bully patrols' of groups of children who are emotionally strong and have healthy values who help to end bullying behaviour where they find it. 'Many a bully has been stopped in his tracks when a bigger child has intervened,' she says.

Who to call

If you are bullied or want to report bullying, call the Safe Schools call centre on 0800 45 46 47.

Have you, or your child been bullied? Or does your child pick on other children? What have you done to resolve the issue? Send your stories to and we may publish them. Let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

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