The various shades of bullying

March 1, 2020

A viral video of a sobbing child hits close to home: bullying is a subject many Pakistani parents aren’t yet comfortable discussing

"This is what bullying does,” pronounces Yarraka Bayles, while her nine-year-old son sobs uncontrollably in a video that went viral last week.

Quaden Bayles is an Australian boy who was bullied at school for dwarfism. He received overwhelming support from all over the world when a video of him crying after the incident entered the global spotlight.

The video itself is heart-wrenching and hard to watch, with the most difficult thing, perhaps, being the general sense of hopelessness to it.

It also hits close to home, as bullying is a subject most Pakistani parents are not yet comfortable discussing – some not even ready to accept that it exists. “Try talking to a parent whose child is a bully, then see for yourself the ridicule and humiliation that you will be subjected to,” says Muneera [name changed upon request], a middle school teacher at one of the most prestigious all-girls schools in Lahore.

But bullying exists and according to worldwide research, it is a common problem in schools, often resulting in long-term mental issues and in severe cases, depression, even suicide.

“Bullying is more common among younger children,” says Muneera. “But it is when they’re in middle school that they start showing the signs.” She says that teachers can often spot children with issues easily, as to know “what’s going on around the school” is a part of their job description.

“Most common signs that I have observed are that the victim goes quiet and does not want to socialise with other children.” However, she adds that teachers need to be careful as similar signs are also observed in cases of abuse. “It is important to get to the root of the problem in order to understand it better.”

To get to the root of this problem, it is important for schools to not only devise stringent policies but to implement them as well.

“Our school’s go-to strategy is to try and talk to the children who we think are being bullied,” says Muneera. “More often than not, they do open up.” She says that once they identify the bully, “they impart a general lecture in class about the consequences of bullying, without pinpointing either the victim or the bully.”

She says that the main purpose of these lectures is to try and “make it clear to the children that there will be dire consequences if they are caught doing anything that comes under the definition of bullying.”

“In my experience, this is enough for most bullies to mend their ways,” she says, adding that in the rare cases “where the bully resumes the problematic behaviour, we take the case to the administration”.

She says that all good schools have stringent policies to tackle bullying. “In our school, we suspended a couple of children lately as their behaviour was getting out of hand.”

Saira Aziz Khan, a licensed psychotherapist from California, agrees. “A lot is dependent upon how schools train their staff to tackle bullying,” says Khan, who has been working as a psychologist in Pakistan for a few years now.

She says that the main emphasis should be upon “creating safety in schools and homes so children can share their problems without fear and shame. Immediate intervention is needed in these situations, succeeded by following up with kids.”

Khan says that schools and families need to work together to solve this issue. “The emphasis should be upon providing psychological and professional help to bullies and victims, and really understanding the bully as well as his circumstances.”

Muneera says that in large measure understanding a bully depends upon understanding the family the bully comes from. “What values you have been raised with will manifest in and how kind [or not] you are towards people in general”.

Muneera is of the view that bullying runs in families. “Children observe what you do. When they see their parents bullying their domestic help, they will automatically think that it is okay to bully anyone whom they perceive as being ‘beneath them’. That person can very well be an unassuming class fellow at school.”

Khan explains that there could be multiple reasons behind the behaviour of a bully. “It is possible that they were bullied themselves when they were young, had a neglectful home life, dealt with sibling aggression, or suffered regular beatings and verbal abuse at home.” The last part is extremely significant as “kids often lash out to get attention or project their anger on others,” she says, adding that all kids want is to feel powerful.

“I feel that kids who bully others are deeply hurting from within. And they don’t know any better. It’s often a cry for help. By bullying, they might feel relief from pain and feeling helpless.”

Khan says that if we look at the bullying problem from our cultural perspective, ongoing “issues/aggression in joint family systems” can also cause or add to its severity. “I am wondering if economic factors, values and beliefs add to it too.”

Many children who are bullied develop behavioural issues, which in many cases, may stay with them for a lifetime. Some of the issues that parents can look out for are “low self-esteem, low confidence, self-harm, fear, psycho-somatic symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, social and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, trauma, suicidal ideation, sleeping issues, shame, substance abuse,” says Khan.

Khan points out that these children, however, can get better. “Professional help and counselling can help them heal. A support system and the reactions of people around them play a huge role in developing long-lasting effects.”

Bullying, says Muneera, is not a problem only limited to childhood. “It takes on various shapes as you grow old, but you encounter it all your life, in one form or the other.” She says that in many cases it gradually turns into bullying. “You see, bullying is about having power over someone and then using that power to get your way.”

She says that parents should try to arm their children with ways to tackle bullies that they will undoubtedly come across all their lives. “But I know it’s much easier said than done.”

Perhaps the problem of bullying is more complex than it seems on the surface, as “two people, raised in the same environment might turn out very differently [from each other]. One might become a bully and the other, a saviour,” says Khan.

Maybe, that is exactly where we need to begin to find a solution.

Quaden Bayles and the various shades of bullying in Pakistan