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The 4-1-1 on bullying

Sea to Sky parents, researchers weigh in onthe lasting impacts of bullying—and how to mitigate them
The 4-1-1 on bullying Sea to Sky parents, researchers weigh in onthe lasting impacts of bullying—and how to mitigate them. Brigitte Mah

It happened when I wasn't even at school. I went home for lunch and returned to whispers, jeering, and laughter. "Scab." Several of the boys pointed at me. "Brigitte's got a scab." Confused, I checked to make sure I hadn't fallen and scraped a leg on my way back to school. I hadn't.

My best friend grabbed my arm and pulled me into the bathroom. In the privacy of a locked stall, she whispered that while I was eating my ham and cheese sandwich at home and agonizing over the fact that my mother had mentioned we needed to go bra shopping (which seemed utterly ridiculous given that I was as flat as a pancake), one of the boys had started a rumour that I had had sex with Dennis, a round-faced, loud, big-talker type of guy that nobody liked, and now I had a scab from it.

I was in Grade 6, and was about as attracted to Dennis as I would be to a nest of wasps.

But that didn't matter. The boys were relentless. If I took my paintbrush in art class over to the sink to get it washed, one of them would say to the others, "Make sure you don't use that brush. You might get a scab from it." Or they would confront me directly and ask if my scab hurt when it fell off. For the rest of Grade 6, and all of Grade 7, I had to endure chants of "scab" at any given moment, and it crippled my ability to interact with boys. At the end of elementary school my friends convinced me to go to the Grade 7 graduation dance, but I sat on a bench and wished I were anywhere but there. Even when the hot guy at school asked me to dance, I refused, convinced it was a set-up by the rest of the boys who had started the rumour. The name Scab followed me into high school, to my English 9 class when my teacher announced I had the highest mark in the school. As I walked out of the room, one of the boys called, "Congratulations, Scab."

For years, I couldn't even say the word without a rush of shame washing over me. I referred to scabs as scars, or dried blood blobs, or anything else that wasn't The Word.

Even now, as I type this, decades later, I'm affected. My heart rate has accelerated, and when I sat down to write this, my stomach clenched. It took me about 10 minutes to type the first "scab."

But my story isn't unique. Bullying still exists, and in the Sea to Sky, it is starting as young as Kindergarten, according to parents Pique spoke with.

So many of us as adults, parents, teachers, and grown-up kids have experienced bullying at some point in our lives. If we want it to stop, if we want to make change for our kids out there in the schools and as members of our community, then we need to hear their stories and understand what bullying is about—and how to mitigate its lasting impacts.

Bullying defined

But what is bullying? Kids (and adults, too) often misuse this word to describe situations that involve conflict.

Dr. Jessica Trach, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia (UBC), has been researching and studying bullying for over 10 years. "Bullying is really complicated," she says. "The definition of bullying that is most widely accepted is a three-part definition. It is an aggressive behaviour with an intent to harm, so it's not accidental, it's intentional; there is a power imbalance involved between the perpetrator and the person who is hurt, so there is a power dynamic that is being exploited; and then it is repeated over time, so it happens more than once."

It's important for kids and adults to understand what bullying is. According to Trach, bullying comprises more than just the children directly involved.

"Bullying is a group process," says Trach. "It happens in the peer group. It's not just between two kids. It actually involves everyone in the community."

Research shows that in 90 per cent of bullying incidents, peers are present and watching, according to Prevnet, a leading resource for bullying in Canada.

And because the place where children are grouped together the longest is at school, that's where most bullying occurs.

"It's a perfect situation where bullying would happen, which is why we see it happen there instead of other places," says Trach.

Schoolyard bullying

Two of Justine's* children have experienced bullying at their Sea to Sky school, and now she's sharing this story in the hopes of preventing a similar situation in the future. A single mother of four children, she was devastated to discover her daughter was being bullied a few years ago.

[*Editor's Note: Pique has agreed to change the names of students (and their parents) who have experienced bullying in order to protect their privacy.]

As a result of a medical condition, Justine's daughter Amber is a little heavy set and struggles to lose weight.

One girl who allegedly targeted Amber sent her messages caling her fat, ugly, and using aggressive language.

Amber was in Grade 5 at the time.

The bullying reportedly continued for two years until the school got both girls to agree to a contract, which Pique has reviewed, in an attempt to resolve the situation.

"It says this child needs to stay away from this child, and I promise not to say bad things to her," says Justine.

Although both students signed the contract, Justine says the bullying continued for two more years until it reached a culminating point in Grade 9.

"The bullying got so bad that my daughter was afraid to go to school and she started to feel suicidal," says Justine. "She was talking bad about herself."

Justine decided to take action into her own hands. She says she contacted the RCMP and immediately withdrew her daughter from classes, homeschooling her for an entire year, getting As and Bs.

Before contacting the RCMP, Justine did her research. She made sure what was happening to her daughter was indeed bullying, and ensured she had the necessary documentation.

This past year, Justine says her son, Trevor, experienced bullying at school.

He is 14, the same age Amber was when Justine withdrew her from school.

Trevor is special needs and was ridiculed for it, being called a "retard," Justine says.

The school put Trevor and the other student on a contract, which Pique has also reviewed.

"But then they don't do anything further with it, so if anything else comes about then there are no repercussions," says Justine. "Nothing happens."

Although Amber is doing better and is looking forward to the upcoming school year, the bullying has left its mark on her.

"She doesn't like to hear [the bully's] name, she doesn't want to see her, she doesn't want to have anything to do with her," says Justine.

The Sea to Sky School District was unavailable for an interview, and declined to confirm the instances of bullying mentioned in this story as part of Pique's fact-checking process, citing privacy concerns, but issued the following statement from Phil Clarke, director of learning services:

"The safety and care of each individual student is of paramount importance in our school district. At the core of our education plan are proactive, preventative approaches which enhance student protective factors and reduce risk factors. The creation of pro-social learning environments combat status differences, focus on social emotional wellness, and provide explicit teaching about personal wellness, mental health literacy, healthy relationships, and social responsibility to ensure safe and healthy schools and classrooms.

"It is important for families to know that each school also co-creates and reviews annually a Code of Conduct. These codes outline the expectations for student conduct and the approaches used in responding to misconduct."

A word spoken is a word not forgotten

It's the long-lasting effects of bullying that make it so horrific to experience.

"Ninety per cent of adults can recall an incident where they were bullied at some point in their life. It comes back in an instant," says Trach. "Neuroscience research shows that our memories are constructed such that when we first recall an instance of social harm or social pain like bullying, when we feel rejected or ridiculed or embarrassed, when we remember those instances, it's as if we are reliving them again in real time. Our whole physiology becomes escalated in the exact patterns that we would have felt the first time it happened."

No matter how much time has passed, our bodies can still relive the experience as if it's happening to us right now—something I experienced when beginning to write this piece.

When a child is first ridiculed, he or she feels shock and embarrassment. Left unchecked, it turns to shame, which is then internalized as the child or teen begins to believe that they deserve what is happening to them. Their sense of self-esteem and self-worth erodes because they feel like they are alone in dealing with the situation.

"You believe that if no one is helping you, then you must be the problem," says Trach.

This is exactly what happened to Amber; her sense of self-worth fell and led to feelings of suicide.

In other cases within the district, shared with Pique by parents, both with children as young as Kindergarten and as old as middle school, the unpredictability of their school life, the not-knowing when and where the bullying could happen next, created a sense of fear.

In two other separate cases over the past two years, described to Pique, parents permanently withdrew their children from school after being allegedly bullied. They say they were frustrated with what they felt was a lack of support and action from the school, and were forced to find their own solutions.


Anti-social media

It's easy to point a finger to video game violence and say that it's the cause of bullying, or curse the emergence of social media and its ability to publicly ridicule or shame a person behind the relative anonymity of a screen. Cyberbullying is on the rise in Canada, with one in five teens reporting that they have been victimized electronically, and over a third of Canadian teens saying they have witnessed cyberbullying take place.

And while the knee-jerk reaction is to remove all technology or access to it for your child, experts advise parents not to do so.

Dr. Jenna Shapka, an associate professor in the area of Human Development, Learning and Culture within the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education, at UBC and a researcher for Prevnet, warns that taking away your teen's phone or removing the video game console will likely only result in damaging the parent-child relationship. Because devices are so intertwined with young adults' social worlds, kids can feel deeply protective of the technology in their lives. Between the ages of 11 to 13, friendships aren't about quality, they're about quantity, Shapka says, as tweens and teens strive to collect as many friends—and followers—as possible. Just like the problem kid down the street parents forbid their child from spending time with, if devices are taken away, kids will still find a way to connect.

"They'll go to a friend's house, or they'll figure out how to get around [the parental controls]," says Shapka. "Kids will go to extremes to continue their social life."

Shapka's work has also looked into an increasingly common target for cyberbullying: boys between the ages of eight to 11 who play video games online.

"Parents don't realize how many people [these boys] are being exposed to. Often they're exposed to sexism and racism and all sorts of things that are inappropriate age-wise, and they can become the target by often older people and adults and be bullied," she says. "That's something we're trying to educate parents about, that the boys who are playing these online games are being exposed to older kids or adults who are targeting them."

It's not just taunts or cynical memes the boys could be exposed to, but also sets of ideologies you may not be comfortable with your kids embracing.

So what should parents do to help protect their children from cyberbullying?

With very young children, have a conversation about the dangers of what can be seen online as early as possible.

"You could say, 'Sometimes there are things on here that will scare you or make you feel uncomfortable,'" says Shapka.

Make sure you have an exit strategy or a plan in place for what to do when the child witnesses something uncomfortable online. Talk about what that looks like.

For literate children, you'll need to negotiate, and do so in a way that makes them feel like part of the conversation and not someone being subjected to orders or new rules. Let the tween or teen know that you're not saying no to them, but you're just doing what you can to keep them safe.

You'll also need to reassure them that they won't get their technology taken away, and that they haven't done anything wrong by witnessing cyberbulling.

"That's what they fear, that if I go and tell someone that something scary is happening online, they're going to say, 'Don't go online,'" says Shapka.

For the boys who are going online to play games, try to ensure they only talk to people they know, although she cautions that even familiar "friends" can say a lot of harmful things online that they wouldn't say face to face. Fortunately, many of the home gaming consoles come with parent control options—although as the child gets older, the controls will be resisted and, if forced, could damage a parent-child relationship. She encourages parents to monitor the other players in kids' games—even if they know who they are—and one of the healthiest ways is to sit down, pick up the remote, and play with your kid.

Ultimately, you want to create a relationship that allows your child to feel comfortable sharing what they've experienced.

It's all about the relationships

Helping your child through a bullying experience can be especially challenging if you are a parent who was bullied.

Ann Douglas, a bestselling author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids and parenting columnist for CBC Radio, knows this situation all too well. As a sensitive and overweight child, she was often on the receiving end of a lot of bullying, which reached a fevered pitch in Grade 6.

"At one point, I was being bullied by a group of girls and a group of boys at the same time," she writes in an email. "I remember feeling really lonely and isolated and horribly depressed. It was a really traumatic and scarring experience."

So when Douglas' daughter was bullied at about the same age, it launched her back into her traumatic past. "It dredged up a lot of my own memories about being bullied. I was feeling a lot of anguish and concern about her and dealing with my own emotional baggage at the same time," she says.

Douglas echoes what Trach's research has revealed: that parents are deeply affected by their own childhoood experiences.

"Parents shouldn't be surprised if they find themselves working through all kinds of complex emotions around bullying," she writes. "The good news is that it's possible to use those emotions in positive ways—to become a strong advocate on behalf of your child and to work with your child's teacher and school administrators to try to make things better for every child in the school community. You can make something positive come from all that earlier pain by working to build a better and kinder world for the next generation."

What to do if you're the adult that a child comes to for help

As parents, we don't come hardwired with the right script of what to say to our kids in every situation. A lot of times, we just go with our gut, but it might not always be the right approach, especially if we are triggered by what we're hearing.

"It's a simple approach to a really complicated problem," says Trach. "You're just going to connect."

You want to remind the child that what's happening is not OK, that it shouldn't be normalized, she says. Trach offers the example of a kid sharing a situation that is happening to their friend, but then brushes it off by saying "They don't really mean it." Her advice, to help the child recognize and identify what is happening to the peer group, is to say, 'What I'm hearing sounds kind of like it might be bullying. Do you know what bullying is? It's not OK.'"

Because the child or teen chose you to share this with, realize that it took a lot for them to come forward. Reassure them that what's happening is not their fault and that it's a good thing that they told you.

"There is so much shame and stigma around this type of aggression that people want to keep it a secret," says Trach. "What I tell kids is that if you tell someone and they don't react the way you want them to, then you find someone else until you find that person you can trust who can help you figure out what to do next."

Shapka's work echoes the findings of Trach's research. "It's really important not to shame or ... say to the child, 'How come you couldn't put the phone down? What's wrong with you?'" she says, adding that part of the solution is to create relationships and foster social responsibility.

Because bullying is a relationship problem, it requires a relationship solution. And it doesn't take just one person, but an entire community, including teachers, administrators, parents and other adults. When children are encouraged to report bullying and are involved in creating the multiple strategies on how to do so, they will take action.

It starts with you. It starts with me.

And it ends with all of us creating a positive, peaceful community.