x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cruel intentions

Bullying can have a devastating effect on its victims, but there are effective strategies to help children cope.

Jake is nine years old, a bright, sensitive child, who has always been popular and done well at school. Not an obvious target for bullies, you may think. However, in many cases socially successful children can become victims. Liz Carnell, the director www.bullying.co.uk explains: "Jealousy is often the cause. The victims are often attractive, hard-working and popular. Bullies see that as a threat. Sometimes they experience this behaviour at home, so they don't see anything wrong with it."

"It started in year one," says Jake. "Me and Paul were on the same bus going home from school and we would sometimes sit together. I thought we were friends. I'd even asked him home for tea. But that day, he became angry with me, over something really stupid and slapped me in the face. I cried all the way home." Two years on, and Paul was picking on several children in Jake's class: calling them names, spitting on them, stealing their personal items and sometimes lashing out physically. "I got really confused," Jake explains. "One minute he would act like he was my friend and the next minute he would grab my school lunch and throw it out of the bus window."

Carnell says that in many cases, these situations get worse because the bully is not identified. "They do it a couple of times and because they get away with it, they just continue." Often the reasons for the uninterrupted intimidation is that the victims are simply too scared to tell anyone. "One day Jake came home without his lunch box," recalls Anna, Jake's mother. "When I asked him about it, he fobbed me off with elaborate stories. It was only during parents' evening, when a teacher mentioned the lunchbox incident to us, that it all came out. When we got home that evening we questioned Jake. Finally he burst into tears and admitted what had been going on. That he was really scared of this boy and that he been bullied for months."

Despite this, Jake admits that he still feels responsible for the bullying. "I thought I would get into trouble. Paul said he would beat me up if I told anyone." Fortunately for Jake, the school took the incident seriously enough to remove Paul from the school bus. However, there was no other formal reprimand. While the two boys still share a class, the bullying has stopped. "I'm not scared of him anymore," declares Jake. "I was watching a programme on television where this kid is being bullied, but he stands up for himself. So I tried it on Paul. I told him, 'Back off, OK? If you do this anymore, I will tell someone and I don't care if you beat me up. It's for your own good.'"

When asked if he understands why Paul had been bullying him, Jake responds with a child's inherent clarity. "I think he is really unhappy. His brother bullies him a lot at home, so I think he just takes it out on us." "There's a coordinator in every class who's responsibility it is to manage these issues," explains Anna. "Jake said he wanted to deal with the issue himself. We kept an eye on him and supported him, but allowed him to take ownership of it. Ultimately, I think that made him more confident."

Karen has been a teacher at Jake's school for two years. "I guess I've seen some instances of this at my school. There's not much physical bullying, but a lot of verbal abuse, usually directed at a weaker kid, a child that might be different or one that stands out more. These kids can get singled out." While the school doesn't have a written policy on bullying, there are standard lines of response that a teacher would follow. "If you notice something happening, you try to get the child to talk about it - find out how they feel. If you hear a malicious name being called, you address it there and then. If it's really unacceptable, you get the parents involved and you let your superiors know what's happening.

"We keep a record of each incident in a log book. Sometimes it's the case that a child lacks some social skills, which makes them vulnerable, so we talk to the parents about how to encourage them to open up and try new things, like having play dates at home." According to Karen, dealing with the bully can often be harder. "We need to find out why they're doing it," she explains. "It's a delicate situation because often there is something going on at home. For example, a child can have everything materially, which is often the case here, but doesn't see enough of their parents and are being brought up by the maid. When the parents come in they can be angry and looking for someone to blame. We have to try and desensitise the situation, provide support for the parents and find a way to help the bully deal with their feelings of frustration and anger. We're teachers, not social workers, so it can be real challenge."

Karen attributes some of the problems to bigger class sizes and school grounds that are often too large to police effectively. "Most of the bullying occurs in the playground, but because it's so big, you don't always see it happening. We cover bullying as part of our curriculum on personal, social and health education, which aims to build the children's knowledge, awareness and self-esteem. But it's not a topic in the spotlight here, so I suppose there's not the same level of commitment to the issue as perhaps there is in the UK, for example."

Sharon James runs a group called the TKD Tigers (Total Kids Defence), which she is launching in schools as part of the curriculum. The two-year programme focuses on children between the ages of three and eight and includes strategies on how to deal with bullying. "If there is nothing already set up in the school that is effective at combating this issue, then the teachers and parents think it's a really good idea. Some schools have asked us because they have an ongoing issue. Others, like one we are working with in Abu Dhabi, have a really bad problem and need urgent help."

Some parents approach Sharon directly for practical advice. "If their child is overweight for example, they can become subject to bullying. So the parents ask me to help train their child, get them fit. More importantly it gives them the confidence to verbally approach and reprimand their tormentor." Many of the worst cases she has encountered have been with children in their early teens. "It's bad at that age because they're more sensitive to the way they look and are perceived by others. They take criticism on board and it damages their emotional stability. They're more aware of what's going on around them and try to deal with problems on their own."

Rebecca is nearly 13 and transferred from a school in the UK to one in her new home of Abu Dhabi over a year ago. Entering midway through the school year, she found it hard to make friends. "It's like everyone else has known each other for ages, they've got their own groups and I didn't fit in anywhere," she says. Instead, Rebecca retreated into herself and spent much of her time alone in the playground, reading and watching others.

"There was this girl. I had seen her before, shouting at another girl, calling her nasty names, so I tried to stay away from her. But she would come over to me and tease me, tell me that I smelt bad, that I was fat and ugly." Too scared to retaliate, Rebecca sunk further into herself as the bullying intensified. "It was like the more Rebecca tried to avoid her, the worse this girl was to her," recants her mother tearfully. "The worst thing is that all that time, I didn't even know it was happening. I didn't do anything to help her."

Rebecca's mother, Janet, was also a victim of bullying as a child. She recalls her own experience growing up in the UK. "I was naturally an overweight child. I didn't eat a lot, but it's in my genes. That didn't matter to the group of girls who bullied me. Every lunchtime they would make fun of me, telling me I was eating too much, that I was disgusting. I was too ashamed to tell my parents. And even when I approached my teacher, she told me it was just kids being kids. To think that Rebecca went through the same thing is just too painful to think about."

Usually a good student, Rebecca's grades started to suffer and her character began to change. "She was always so sweet and helpful at home. She's a normal child, a little shy perhaps. But suddenly she would be rude to me for no reason, and lock herself in her room. She wasn't eating her dinner and when I would ask her what the matter was, she'd shout at me and tell me to leave her alone." It wasn't until Rebecca broke down and confessed to her mother that she was being bullied, that the truth finally surfaced. "I blame myself," Janet says. "Maybe if I had dealt with this as a child, and not carried these feelings into my adulthood, then Rebecca wouldn't have inherited these traits from me."

Information is key to understanding how to respond to threatening or abusive behaviour from your peers. Dr Rajashree Singhania is a Neurodevelopmental Paediatrician who has been running a children's clinic in Dubai for over a decade and has dealt with many cases arising from long-term bullying. She warns of the classic signals that parents need to watch out for. "Refusing to go to school, sudden academic failure, loss of books and other property, unexplained bruises and difficulty eating or sleeping, are some of the signs that a child is being bullied at school."

For the parents of a bullied child, she encourages them to question their child in the most gentle and sympathetic way, and to discuss their concerns with the school. "The investigation must be persistent and firm, until the parent is satisfied that the bullying has stopped." She suggests some simple but effective strategies that may remove a child from a vulnerable situation. "Try pairing a lonely or quiet child with a more robust or older child in the school environment. Equipping shy children with social-skills training also helps. Classroom training of students on their personal rights, on recognising bullies and how to cope with them can make all the difference."

Singhania also believes that it is imperative for schools to integrate a strong policy against bullying as part of their overall ideology. "There is no easy solution," she says. "But neither is there an excuse for believing that bullying need continue." Some names have been changed to protect the subjects' identities.