I have been talking to young people about bullying for a very long time – I have them to thank for changing my thinking and the subsequent definition used in Scotland, and elsewhere, that bullying affects a person’s Agency. It was children who illustrated the impact of bullying as something that was invasive and ‘took something’ from them, a feeling, an ability to respond effectively. It stopped them feeling like themselves.
They could recall and many hundreds have done this this year again, the fear and anticipation they experience when someone who has been horrible to them is in ‘one of those moods’ today.
They recognise the relief when that person is either happy or indifferent towards them today – today ‘I get to be me’ they say. Then there are the other days, were this person is angry towards them or looks at them in ‘that way’ and smiles or giggles.
That is going to be a different day. They don’t get to ‘be me’ on those days – they worry, they change their behaviour and mood, doubt themselves and do all manner of things to avoid that person. When they normally put their hand up in class, today they might not because of what might happen if they do. They night not go out at break and avoid doing what they normally do.
Children are more than capable of learning about this thing called Agency, I have spoken to children and young people about this many times – it is how they reflect back their understanding that fascinates me. They tell me things like ‘I can’t make the choices I normally do’ or ‘I spend too much time doubting what I am going to do that I don’t really do anything’ and ‘Agency is about me doing what I want and making my own choices’.
Recently though, we had a new way to look at this, one P7 said to me ‘it’s like, when you let people’s opinions get inside your head’. I was fascinated by this – I asked them to explain further then asked the class what they thought – the conversation lit up.
You don’t feel like yourself anymore
You can’t relax at all
You’re not really concentrating – just thinking about what might happen
You might even change how you dress or speak to fit in
You don’t act like yourself
You kind of freeze
You think ‘what if they are right about me?’
You’re too scared to say anything in case it gets worse
These all describe the impact of bullying very clearly – the reason this matters is because this is supposed to focus our response – stopping unkind and bullying behaviour is essential but recognising the nature of the impact it has is as important.
Children and young people need help and support to regain this sense of loss and influence over themselves. To do that they need to be asked what they would like to happen, who should we share this with and what do we actually want them to do. When I talk to parents and carers about how to respond in the moment – and suggest that asking ‘what would you like me to do?’ ‘what can we do?’ is the most important step to helping a child feel back in control. That simple act of compassion invites you to work together and find a way forward. If adults’ step in and fix things, our children never get the chance to learn how to figure this out and what steps work for them.
This is emotionally challenging for parents; I now form personal experience too. I have felt my anger build while my daughter is telling me what happened at school today and how vile and awful what people said and did was. I could see her see me get angry and her face sank. I realised then – it’s not about me, it’s not about how this makes me feel – what does she need? What does she want me to do?
Did she need me to dump all my feelings of anger onto her already troubled shoulders? No. Did I nearly do that? Yes, I did.
When bullying gets inside your head, like the children describe, this should change the way we respond. Children want us to help them figure stuff out and take small steps – they and I could not hear this any more in schools – they do not want an overreaction from grown-ups. It is a barrier to telling. ‘Opinions’ can stick in our children’s heads and we need to role model and demonstrate how to unpick these and help them learn ways to hear things and feel more in control of the impact they have. It is not easy, I know, but it is a vital skill.
When we deal with bullying well, we always deal with behaviour AND impact – it is not one or the other but both – always.