Maintaining Family Relationships  |  Supporting Children

Childhood Bullying

BY KWOK YAN QI AND LIAO YIHAN

11 October 2021  |   7 min read

The first sign of trouble was a clenched fist. Then an outburst of cutting words. The bully lashes out at his victim, expelling his pent-up frustration and turmoil.

He goes home to what is supposed to be his safe haven, only to face an empty house and busy parents. He retreats to his room, emotions broiling inside.

There are no winners in this battle, only two children – the bully and the bullied, each hurting in their own capacity.

It is easy to deem the bully a villain. The bully is often portrayed as the ‘bad guy’, scoffed and looked down upon by society. Society often shines the spotlight on the pain suffered by the bullied, while there is a lacking representation of the bully’s perspective. However, could these bullies be victims of circumstances themselves?

While we cannot rationalise all bullies’ behaviours, it is important to realise that those who inflict pain, may require help themselves.

The Bully

It starts with self-esteem. Research shows that lower levels of self-esteem increase bullying behaviour. When youths perceive themselves negatively, especially in their critical growth phase, not dealing with it has negative consequences. Some try to resolve it by bullying those who are weaker in order to make themselves feel better.

To gain a sense of control and power, bullies may choose to deflect their energy onto others, according to a study done by Ditch the Label, a global youth charity. In an effort to conceal their own weaknesses, bullies may end up focusing on others’ flaws and exposing their weaknesses, so that they can regain some sense of control in their lives.

High levels of stress could be a factor in why bullies bully. Studies show that stressful environments contribute to bullying behaviour. In stressful situations, interpersonal friction between peers arises, resulting in conflict. This conflict materialises in the form of bullying.

The Bully-victim

The bully-victim is one who has been a victim of bullying and subsequently becomes a bully themselves. Research has shown that those who have been victims of bullying are twice as likely to perpetuate the bullying themselves.

This happens on the warped concept that perpetuating the harm on others would protect them against the harm on themselves. However, they could not be more wrong.

Additionally, a study of Australian adolescents reveals that bully-victims have the highest rate of suicide intention, followed by victims, then bullies. This is especially worrying.

This shows that a key component to reducing bullying would be to equip youths with the skills to understand, use, and manage emotions in positive ways, instead of self-destructive ones. This ability, called emotional intelligence, is critical in guiding social interactions and preventing bullying, research shows.

However, with a complex issue like bullying, there are many other factors to be considered, such as the environment in which bullies are nurtured.

The Parents

In the children’s critical stage of understanding themselves and adjusting to their environment, the parental role becomes imperative as it serves as the first significant relation and role model to the child.

A research paper by Harvard University reveals that one’s relationship with their parents has a significant influence on one’s emotional, psychological and social well-being into mid-life. As such, children’s behaviour in their growing ages can be said to be a reflection of how his or her parents raised them.

When defining a negative childhood experience, people often relate it to incidents such as abuse and parental pressure on the children. However, it is also important to note that the absence of positive experiences, such as parental attention and a support system for the child to confide in, can also result in a negative childhood experience and contribute to the negative behaviours of a child.

Instead of judging the bullies, we could try to see the struggles behind their actions and understand that these ‘villains’ may require help themselves.

In a study conducted in the UK, results show that neglectful and abusive parenting behaviour brings about a higher risk of a child being a bully. The lack of care and attention from parents can cause children to feel neglected, and thus, they might feel the need to seek attention from elsewhere.

Identifying Signs of Bullying

When understanding bullying in the current context, it is important to note that more bullying acts are happening online and undisclosed as social media becomes integrated into youths’ lives. The online environment provides young bullies with more freedom and avenues to carry out bullying acts without the surveillance of adults.

Additionally, youths are moving on to a greater variety of channels such as TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram which are not widely adopted by parents. Thus, it is increasingly difficult for parents to monitor their children’s online behaviour to look out for signs of bullying.

However, perhaps it is not so much about monitoring the child’s behaviour, but rather cultivating open communication and trust between parent and child.

A Safe Home And School Environment

Engaging in daily conversations about each other’s lives is a good way to start. By sharing what is happening in each other’s lives, it opens up conversations and allows parents to be more vulnerable to their child.

This builds mutual trust between parent and child. Children begin to understand their parents’ struggles, and feel trusted. In the long run, this creates an open environment for the child to confide in and share about their social circle and happenings in school.

Having an understanding of their children’s social interactions can help parents identify if their children have any signs of dislike or prejudice towards others, and subsequently, explain to them the detriments of their actions.

Apart from parents, the school also has a role to play in creating a safe environment for youths to trust and confide in.

Upon identifying signs of bullying behaviour, parents and teachers should not immediately put the blame on children. From the child’s perspective, if the child expects that they will likely be reprimanded for their action, it is only natural that they would rather not confess to their actions so as to not suffer the consequences.

Furthermore, labelling the child as ‘the bully’ may further entrench them in that role and reinforce negative self-perception, reinforcing the cycle of negative behaviours. Instead, communicate with them and understand why they have done so. Demonstrate to them that you are trying to see from their perspective and not just blaming them for their actions.

Understanding from the point-of-view of the child can help to better comprehend the motivations behind the bullying behaviours and address them accordingly. Identifying these motivations with a soft approach will reduce fear and build trust, allowing the child to feel safe enough to confide in adults if such situations arise.

Hopefully, with open communication and attention from their family, youths will be less likely to engage in bullying and realise that there are better ways to build on their self-esteem.

Perhaps the next time we come across a bullying case, instead of judging the bullies, we could try to see the struggles behind their actions and understand that these ‘villains’ may require help themselves.

Resources for youths in need of support:

  • Fei Yue Community Services’ eCounselling Centre: https://www.ec2.sg/
  • Tinkle Friend national toll-free helpline/chatline for primary-school-aged children: 1800-274-4788
  • TOUCHline youth counselling hotline for cyber wellness: 1800-3772252
  • Care Corner Youth Services Instagram Account (@youthxcarecorner)
  • INSIGHT Care Corner Singapore Instagram Account (@insightccs)
  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour suicide prevention hotline: 1-767
  • Acceset Anonymous Peer Support Platform: https://acceset.com/
  • Youthopia mental well-being resources: https://youthopia.sg/resources/mental-well-being/

Kwok Yan Qi is an undergraduate in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, doing a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies.

Liao Yihan is an undergraduate in National University of Singapore, doing a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration.