unlearning Bullying

This week is Bullying Awareness week, so there is no better time to reflect on the many aspects of bullying, from causes, to impacts, to prevention, and so on. We’ve all learned about bullying in school, yet the issue persists, with too many young people falling victim to bullying each year. Perhaps there is an opportunity to rethink our approach to bullying, unlearning our collective tendency of labelling, and understanding the complexities of the issues at hand. 

First and foremost, bullying is a real issue, and should be treated with seriousness. When a child is bullied, it can be extraordinarily difficult for them to deal with. These experiences can be traumatic, isolating, and unbearable. The harsh reality is that some kids are even driven to the point of suicide when their suffering seems relentless. No parent should ever have to lose their child due to an issue that can be prevented. 

When it comes to dealing with bullying, the issue should be treated with urgency, to prevent the situation from escalating. It’s important that everyone has a safe space and level of comfort with caring adults whom they can reach out to for help. In addition, it’s crucial that those who are bullied prioritize their own health and safety. This is obviously easier said than done, which is why early detection and intervention is important. Once an adult is aware, they can work to help resolve the issue(s). As we reflect on bullying, an issue that has persisted for decades, perhaps we should reflect on the effectiveness of our approach, and consider altering our view to become more constructive and better deal with the problem.

For one thing, bullying is not an issue that we are removed from, rather it is something that many of us may have been guilty of participating in to some degree. We once had someone approach our booth at a conference and say, pointing at one of our designs, “that should read “unlearn bullying behaviour”.  Curious, our founder replied, “Tell us more about what you mean.”  Referring to our “unlearn Bullying” design which was on display, she said that it should read, “unlearn Bullying Behaviour.”  She went on to say, “We as a society are often too quick to label someone a bully.  The label of a bully is a stigma that can stay with you into your adult years. We all exhibit bullying behaviour at times but that does not mean we are all bullies.” There’s a lot of substance to this idea. If we conceptualize our perception of a bully as a big kid threatening a smaller kid for their lunch money, we have removed ourselves from the issue, and dismiss ourselves from any involvement in bullying behaviour. Be honest with yourself - have you ever contributed to an uncomfortable environment? Abused your power? Put someone else down to fit in? Taken your frustrations out on someone else? There’s a chance that even the best of us have exhibited this behaviour in the past, whether we are aware or not. This does not necessarily mean we are bullies, but working towards eliminating and preventing bullying behaviour is far more important and powerful than “getting rid of bullies”, because it goes so much further. Focusing on behaviour rather than labels can create a safe environment, without disrespect, put-downs, discomfort or violence. We can shift our thinking to focus on individual actions rather than the individuals committing these actions, with the goal of reducing and challenging bullying behaviours.

Another issue with the labelling of bullies is it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (a prediction that causes itself to become true). If one were to label a child who exhibits some problematic behaviour or struggles with personal issues and lashes out toward others as a bully, this term may become central to their identity. Abhi, our Founder, experienced this with one of his children (pictured left). He has two children who are 21 months apart in age. When his youngest was three years old, Abhi noticed members of his extended family comparing his two children. His first born is calm and doesn’t like to get into trouble and he follows directions without much guidance. Abhi’s youngest is more spirited, inquisitive and stubborn. Family members would compare the two and react to his youngest sons behaviour by saying, “You’re a bad boy. Why can't you be more like your brother.” On one occasion his youngest son was having a melt down and in response to why he was acting out he said to his dad, “I’m a bad boy.”  Abhi responded by saying “you are not a bad boy you’re just having some bad behaviour.  We all have bad behaviour. Your brother, Mama and even I have bad behaviour.” In that moment, Abhi’s son stopped what he was doing and looked at him in surprise, asking “Even you have bad behaviour?” 

As is the case with this example, labelling can in turn perpetuate the undesired behaviour. Rather than assigning labels (bullies, victims, bystanders), wouldn’t it be more effective to see the humanity in each individual? To not view others as good or bad, but complicated and troubled? As the saying goes, “hurt people, hurt people”. This should not be an excuse, or a cop-out that enables bullying to occur, however it can serve as a framework of understanding the causes of the issue. Perhaps an alternative to suspensions and detentions would be communication and understanding. Mere punishment is insufficient; preventing further bullying requires empathy and understanding to get to the root of the issue. 

We do not have all the answers when it comes to this topic, but it is apparent that critical reflection is necessary. We have the opportunity to reflect on the subtle ways we may have engaged in bullying behaviour, and recognize that those who repeatedly engage in this type of behaviour may be lashing out on the world due to their own issues. That does not absolve them of the harm they may cause, but it sets the basis of how we can address the problem of bullying. The priority is the safety and well-being of those who are bullied, and beyond this acknowledging and condemning all bullying behaviour (including our own) may be the way to go. 

What do you think is the most effective approach to preventing bullying?

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