DUBAI // When a child is being bullied at school, adults are often the last to know. But if parents believe another pupil is hurting, threatening or taunting their child, they should step in swiftly, experts said yesterday.
"A lot of parents, they're very concerned about hygiene in the school and curriculum, but they rarely ask about school violence," said Samineh Shaheem, assistant professor of psychology at Middlesex University in Dubai. "Why? Because there should be no violence in schools. But unfortunately that's not the case."
The family of Lujain Hussein, 11, did not realise she was being bullied until she was admitted to hospital after a school fight in Abu Dhabi on April 19.
Lujain suffered a brain haemorrhage and is in a medically induced coma at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, and last night was still in a medically-induced coma, according to her family.
Bullying can be physical or verbal. It can affect children profoundly, even driving them to suicide, said Suzanne McLean, a child psychologist in Dubai.
"To make them feel different, not acceptable, a nerd, a geek - whatever it may be - is extremely powerful at that age," Ms McLean said.
Parents should educate themselves about bullying, and be pro-active, Ms Shaheem said.
"Not everybody has the word 'bullying' in their vocabulary, the language in their country of origin, so they may not even understand that this is something that they have to deal with," she said.
When Ashraf Farouk's six-year-old son began having problems with another boy at school, Mr Farouk was not sure what to do.
"His mother is always trying to tell him, no, you have to be polite, don't attack anyone. If anyone attacks you, you have to raise this issue with your teacher," said Mr Farouk, 39, an Abu Dhabi resident from Egypt.
"I didn't accept this that way. I told him, Omar, you have to distinguish offence without reason, and if you face something like that, you have to deal with it."
Psychologists recommend a combination of the two approaches. First, parents should talk to children about bullying before they enter school, and ask them to speak up about it.
"There's a huge difference between snitching and reporting," Ms Shaheem tells children. "Snitching is telling on someone to get them in trouble. Reporting is telling someone because you are in trouble, and you need help."
Parents can also watch for signs that might indicate bullying: withdrawal from social activities, a drop in grades, reluctance to go to school, uncontrollable crying, after-school anger, missing belongings or unexplained scratches and bruises.
If they suspect something is wrong, they should have a conversation with their child.
"Just sit down, make time and find out what's going on," Ms McLean said.
If a child is being bullied, parents should approach the school, said Rafia Zafar Ali, principal of Leaders Private School in Sharjah.
"Parents can complain directly, immediately," she said. "They should not hide it, otherwise the child will be suffering at home."
Experts suggest parents avoid telling children to fight bullies; instead, they should be told to laugh it off, walk away or approach a trusted adult.
"It sometimes helps to look at this from the bully's point of view: why is the bully doing this, and what are they getting out of it?" said Kimberley Parr, a school counsellor at the British Institute for Learning Development in Dubai.
"Ignoring them is often the first step, because bullies are often looking for a reaction or looking for attention from other students."
Parents should not expect children to fix the problem alone. "We grew up in a generation where maybe we were told sticks and stones won't break your bones, go out there, you need to learn to fight your own battles," Ms Shaheem said. "Many people have been scarred as a result of this passive, non-directive advice."
Mr Farouk asked his son's teacher to help him to monitor the situation. Then he pushed his son to learn karate. The boy became more self-confident, he said. Now, Mr Farouk is focusing on communication.
"I am trying to be his friend, to speak with him more," he said. "To let him tell me about his day."
If parents believe their child is bullying others, they should also seek help.
"The bully himself or herself, there's something going on, there's something broken with them," Ms Shaheem said. "So we can't just punish the bully. The bully needs just as much help as the victim."