School bullying

School bullying can present itself in many different ways. It may include physical violence, such as kicking, hitting or hair ripping. It may just as well involve name-calling, isolation from the group or illegal uploading of (modified) pictures of the person to the Internet. Girls especially are said to bully in ways that someone on the outside may not immediately see but that deeply hurt their target.

Anyone can become the target of bullying. It's useless to look for reasons in yourself. Bullying does not necessarily end even if the target tried to change themselves according to what the bullies say they want – for example when someone who is called fat loses weight. Bullies may find a new reason for bullying or start bullying another student. There are never any actual reasons for bullying.

In the past, it was thought that bullies bully because they have a low self-esteem. Nowadays the need to assert and emphasise oneself is considered the most usual reason. Bullying may also be a way of dealing with one's own bad feeling and a bully may be previous victim of bullying themselves. Victims of bullying, however, usually show more empathy and are friendlier than others. These characteristics will be very useful in adulthood if not sooner. Victims of bullying are probably very good friends already in childhood.

Bullying should be stopped, not only because of the victim but also because of the bully. Studies show that bullies are likely to be more unsuccessful later in life. For example they are more likely to commit crimes at a young age than others. Victims of bullying may experience trauma that will affect them into adulthood.

Being bullied is not easy. To illustrate this, many children are subjected to daily abuse at school that would automatically be considered a crime if it happened between adults. Nowadays, physical bullying is probably more likely to be dealt with appropriately than before. Violence is also a police matter. Verbal abuse, manipulation and exclusion from the group are, however, also very common forms of bullying that teachers, parents and other students must be able to react to.

Roles in school bullying

Victim – A student who is repeatedly being bullied. Bullying can include hitting, tearing of clothes, name calling, destroying their belongings or commenting on them negatively on the Internet.

Bully – A bully initiates the bullying and may encourage others to bully as well.

Bully supporter - A bully supporter does not initiate bullying themselves, but will join in on it. They may act as an audience for the bully and laugh with the bully. A supporter may encourage a bully just by appearing on the scene to watch bullying and doing nothing to stop it.

Defender – A defender is on the victim's side, tells adults about bullying and tries to make it stop.

Onlooker – An outsider who goes away when bullying starts but does not report it to adults or try to support the victim. By their actions, a disengaged onlooker unintentionally supports bullying.

I suspect that my child is being bullied

It may come as a surprise to many adults that their child has been bullied already for a longer period of time. Even when the relationship with the child is good and the child usually talks about their bad feelings, school bullying is not something that is easy to talk about.

Children may conceal bullying for the following reasons, amongst others:

  • They are afraid that telling does not help and that intervening with bullying will only increase it.
  • They are afraid that they are not taken seriously.
  • They are afraid that people start looking for reasons for bullying in themselves.
  • They feel shame and inferiority as a result of being bullied.

Bullying may be suspected in the following cases, amongst others:

  • The child has repeated unexplained stomach aches, headaches and other so-called psychosomatic symptoms or physical ailments that can not be explained.
  • The child goes to school earlier than normal or comes home later than normal. The child may avoid the bullies and therefore use a different route to school.
  • The child has bruises that they can not explain, their clothes are torn or school materials broken.
  • The child's grades have gone down and they do not want to go to school.
  • The child seems unhappy and depressed or has trouble sleeping.

If, when asked, the child admits that they are being bullied or starts talking about it in other ways, tell them that you believe them and that it is not their fault that they are being bullied. Listen to the child and calmly ask them questions, such as: “Who participated in the bullying?”, “What did they say and do?”, “Did anyone come to help you?”, “Does the teacher know about this?”, “How are you feeling now?” Tell the child what you plan to do and how you think the bullying is going to stop.

Some possibilities for intervention:

  • Contact the child's teacher or headmaster of the school and ask to arrange a meeting with the teacher/headteacher, the bullies and their parents. Discuss the matter in advance with teacher/headteacher and possibly also with the parents of the children who are bullying your child. In the meeting, make it clear to the bullies how bad the bullying makes your child feel. Try to keep in touch with the bullies' parents also in the future. If the parents don't seem to take the situation seriously, look for support amongst teachers, the school welfare officer and headteacher.
  • If bullying involves physical violence or threats of violence, you can contact the police. Also derogatory materials posted in the Internet may result in defamation of character charges against the bully or, in the case of bullies under 15 years of age, intervention of social welfare authorities.
  • In extreme cases, such as when the school does not take the bullying seriously or when bullying can not be stopped because of other reasons, the victim of bullying usually changes schools. A change of school has helped children in many cases, although sometimes bullying may continue also in the new school. It seems, however, that schools are different in this respect and it is very likely that bullying is dealt with more quickly in another school.
  • Before the bullying has stopped and also afterwards it is important to find environments for the child where they feel accepted and happy. Such environments can be found in hobbies or even in their own home garden with children of a similar age. Also a pet may give a bullied child the much needed experiences of caring and acceptance.

For more information, see MLL's Vanhempainnetti (in Finnish).

My child is bullied by the teacher

If your child tells you that the teacher is bullying them, it may be very difficult to sort out the situation. Sometimes the child may have misinterpreted the teacher and, for example, feels that repeated questions concerning homework are bullying. It may also be difficult for parents to imagine how different the behaviour of their child may be at school. A child may also try to get more time and attention from their parents in unexpected ways.

It is, however, possible that the child is bullied by the teacher. If you, after careful discussions with the child, their teacher and possibly classmates and their parents, still think that the teacher is bullying your child, try to talk about it with the headteacher. If this does not help, you can contact the municipal school authorities and then provincial government.

Situations where it's all about the teacher's word against the child's have, however, been quite difficult to handle. If you suspect that the teacher is bullying children, it's a good idea to talk to other students in the class and their parents and ask how they feel about the situation. If parents of children in the class intervene together in something they feel is not right, it is more likely that something can be done about it.

I am or a friend of mine is being bullied at school

  • You may have heard this: “They will stop if you just don't care about it”, and you know it's rarely true. And is it possible not to care about bullying? Of course not. If you are hurt, you do show it and usually that is all you can do. Hitting back or calling someone names is not a good solution. Go to adults and ask for help.
  • It's the job of teachers, the headteacher, other employees at the school and your parents and the parents of the bullies to care about bullying and make it stop as soon as possible. Not caring about bullying is only right as far it concerns not believing the hurtful things the bully says. Nobody should become depressed because they have become victims of bullying.
  • You may think that there's no use telling anyone about the bullying as they will not be able to stop it in any case. The teachers at your school are, however, required to try and stop the bullying. Bullying should always be dealt with. Your teachers, parents, school psychologist or school welfare officer, for example, or all of them together can talk to the students who are bullying you. The parents of bullies are usually unaware of how badly their children are behaving before someone tells them about it.
  • If you feel bad about being bullied at school, it's important to talk to someone about it. Your parents, grandparents, friends or school nurse, for example, usually want to know if you're feeling bad.
  • Remember that you can also find friends outside school. Many have found their best friend in a hobby or near home.
  • If you feel that the bullying can't be stopped in any way, you can consider whether you want to go to a different school. After upper secondary at the latest, you can easily go to a high school, vocational school or another school where you don't have to meet your bullies. You can, however, change schools during primary or upper secondary school. It is of course stupid that you would have to change schools instead of the bullies. This is, however, usually how it's done as it is very difficult to force a bully to another school against their will.
  • Never blame yourself for being bullied or start thinking about what's wrong with you. There are no reasons for bullying and no one should be bullied. Everyone has the right to feel happy every school day. If you don't feel happy during school hours, hopefully you will find an important hobby or a dear friend who will make you happy after school.

I see that my friend is being bullied, what should I do?

  • Tell your friend that you're on their side and preferably so that also the bullies hear you say it. You may be afraid that you will become a victim yourself if you stand up for your friend. If enough people stand up against the bullies and help their friend, the bully will be left alone and has to stop bullying. Lots of bullying could have been prevented if friends of the victim had reacted instead of just looking on.
  • It is very important to tell an adult about the bullying. It's a good idea to tell your classmate that they have to tell a teacher or the headteacher about the bullying. You could, for example, tell someone together. If you see that someone is being bullied in the schoolyard, it is your responsibility to go and get the supervisor.
  • Never leave your friend because they are bullied.

My child bullies others.What should I do?

  • A teacher or a parent of another student has probably told you that your child is bullying another child. This may feel confusing and you may find it difficult to believe. Ask your child what this information sounds like and whether they recognise being a bully. Try to convince your child that bullying is really wrong and has to stop immediately.

If the bullied child and their parents want a meeting with you and your child, it may be a good idea. In the meeting, your child can promise the bullied child that they will not continue to bully them.

If your child does not admit to bullying and if you are not sure what is true, meeting with the teacher and the child who is being bullied and their teacher is a good idea. The truth about bullying must be conclusively established. If your child is really bullying another child and you don't believe this, you may end up turning every school day of another child into something very sad and hard. It is your job to make your child understand that bullying is wrong.

  • When the bullying has been stopped, stay in touch with the children's teacher, the child who was bullied and their parents and make sure that the bullying does not continue or transform in style into, for example, exclusion from the group.
  • Be very careful not to accidentally encourage bullying, for example by criticising the way other people look or talk, what kinds of skills they have etc. or otherwise let your child have the idea that some people are better than others. Based on your behaviour, your child may think that they have the right to express their opinion about how someone looks, for example, to that person directly.

If memories of childhood school bullying return in adulthood

Many adults feel that bullying at school influenced their life well into adulthood. Bullying may come back to mind even when one's retired. It is common that difficult memories return when someone's own child starts school or, in the worst case, the child also becomes a victim of bullying.

Understanding what it means to be bullied and processing it may explain a lot of things. When the child is being bullied, the adult may start processing the bullying they have experienced, perhaps for the first time in their life. Before that, the effects of bullying may have presented themselves as, for example, exaggerated shyness, fearfulness, nervousness or even depression. Being faced with the bullying of their own child, an adult may also find possibilities for their own recovery after the initial shock.

A parent that was a victim of bullying themselves probably understands a child who is a victim of bullying better than most people and is able to listen to the child and support them. The fact that their child is being bullied may cause strong emotional reactions in a parent. It may be difficult to stay calm as they should in this situation. However the parent will certainly not downplay the child's experience or have any difficulty understanding it as they fully appreciate what the child is talking about.

When an adult returns to the bullying experienced in childhood, they may understand a lot more about it. As a child, they may have blamed themselves for the bullying and felt that they were not as good as others. In the worst case, this feeling has stayed with them. As an adult, they understand that no one deserves to be treated badly and that anyone can become the victim of bullying.

Supporting one's child also affords an opportunity to process one's own feelings. In the best case, bullying of the child is stopped and the parent is also able to consider their own background in a new light. Getting over being bullied is empowering and creates self-confidence just like surviving any other crisis.

When a person has had the ability to process bullying sufficiently either alone or with professional help or help from loved ones, it may be possible to be relieved of the difficult emotions caused by bullying. Bullying may be a scar in a person's life, but it does not determine what the future will be like. A parent may also be able to see all the things they were already able to do in their life regardless of the trauma caused by bullying.