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How to survive the crucible of school bullying

Barry Gittins |  23 February 2017


Squarely back into the school year, dinner table conversations with our kids have included strategies for dealing with bullies. We are by no means alone; a 2016 survey of 20,000 Australians students found one in four respondents (27 per cent) reported being bullied.

Sad school studentApparently, bullying 'was more common for year 5 students (32 per cent) and year 8 (29 per cent)' — the grade levels of our boy and girl respectively — and, while 'bullying by females tended to be more covert, males were more "in your face" about it'.

While I'd dearly love to be the 'parent nonpareil', with the right words and apt advice, it's not that simple. The variables of personality and situation mean there is no easy, perfect answer.

The old 'fight, flight or re-write' principle comes into play, as parental advice is dispensed. Stand up for yourself. Make yourself scarce. Change the situation with some unexpected empathy, or engagement. Carry yourself well, eyes up; work on your poker face (not responding or buying into teasing, so as not to reward the bully).

My perennial advice to refrain from focusing on petty stuff, letting minor irritants be 'water off a duck's back', also comes in handy.

Competition is a given in life. Genuine instances of bullying, however, as opposed to honest disagreements or competitive scenarios, are characterised by an imbalance of power. The Bully Zero Australia Foundation defines bullying as 'an abuse of power by someone who is stronger physically, verbally, mentally, socially, electronically, politically or financially'.

An imbalance of power and nous makes for testing times. Whereas humour, attempts at compromise, or enforced empathy may work in some cases, communication often fails in others. This leaves your progeny trying to work out what 'confrontation' looks like in their world.

In the bad old days, physical violence was more prevalent and accepted among peers. I had a collarbone snapped in defence of my lunch in grade eight (a hungry classmate was trying to pinch my sangers when we tripped and he squished me — and the sandwiches). These days it would be a huge mess; back then, it meant proudly eating my lunch at the local surgery and revelling in an unexpected holiday from school.


"I have faith that my kids will survive the crucible of school bullying better equipped to resolve conflicts. A core message is both altruistic and practical: your strength does not come at the expense or whim of another."


A few years before, as an 11-year-old picking on my younger sister in the back seat of the Kingswood, my mum taught me a lifelong lesson with a flurry of well-timed, semi-powered jabs and a beautiful right cross (leaning over the front seat).

Here's another, favoured example; an ex of mine, when a grumpy teenager, was grudgingly washing the dishes. Her little brother was wiping them up, even more reluctantly. She was throwing her weight around, physically slapping down the sibling as brothers and sisters tend to do, when in desperation the boy took the tongs he was drying and affixed them to his sister. Parental intervention saved the day, although the lady is still, to this day, leery of tongs.

Violence is not the answer, although my son's karate lessons do provide me with some reassurance. We are more enlightened these days, thankfully, and anti-bullying policies in schools rightly frown on violence; even in self-defence.

Finding, maintaining or elevating your place in the pecking order in your family, at school, work or your sporting club doesn't just happen. Choosing how to deal with a social situation is hard-won knowledge that serves us throughout our lives; it's often gained through painful and humiliating experiences.

Ultimately, they do have to work it out for themselves. I have faith that, like most of us, my kids will survive the crucible of school bullying better equipped to resolve conflicts. A core message around our table is both altruistic and practical: your strength does not come at the expense or whim of another.

The bullying survey I cited about schoolkids also found that 'peers are present in 87 per cent of bullying interactions, mostly as onlookers who do nothing to help the victim'. As much as they can safely do so, we entreat them not to be that cowed onlooker — stick up for yourself, for your mates and for others. It's a policy we can all try to model.

What sage advice can you proffer to back up my efforts; how have you dealt with bullies?


Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for The Salvation Army.



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Submitted comments

Kids can learn tolerance and kindness from the song, “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully,” which can help combat bullying. I was a teacher for 20 years. Site has received almost 8600 hits so far. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Or7WPUtUnRo Also, you can hear part of a unique new story about a non-violent superhero who wants to work with Aladdin’s son to help make the world better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haqhGl1crak

Gloria Rinderman 24 February 2017

Barry, when I was teaching in UK some 35 years back I had a small Pakistani kid who was bullied every night after school by the same English student. His mates would jeer. He always pleaded to go early to avoid this guy and his group. One night after the usual plea, I suggested he wait till that person (named Kenny B) came really close, the punch him hard in the nose. He did so, and after the punch, Kenny B never bullied him again.

francis Armstrong 27 February 2017

Experiential learning Francis? Yes, I was on the giving and receiving end of that methodology myself; it's rather akin to mothers biting their infants to teach them not to bite, I expect. It is effective in many cases. These days, however, the use of force - even in self-defence, or pro-actively against known bullies - gets children into big trouble with their teachers and principals, etc.

Barry Gittins 28 February 2017

Being on the smaller scale of height as a schoolkid my strategy against the class bully was to make myself scarce. Also, I tried never to make a joke when she was within earshot. Instinct can be a guide. Having said that, bullying seems more prevalent these days and technology is in the mix. Schools have anti-bullying programs but the bully thrives on subterfuge. You are a caring and involved parent, Barry. That will count for a lot.

Pam 01 March 2017

Thank you for raising this issue. It is a big factor in school and working life. As a boy, I was confronted with 2 gangs who from time to time gave me a beating when they encountered me. My father taught me some self defence tactics which sometimes proved useful. My mother, a very wise nurse taught me about the power of words and persuasion. Often, the use of words got me out of trouble more often than physical defence. I was a teacher for a number of years and then became an OH&S officer. In both occupations, I had to resolve a lot of bullying issues. We know that bullying can make life a nightmare for children, but this is also true for adults and can have very serious results - nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and drug taking and even suicide. All institutions need policies and procedures for preventing and dealing with this evil and bullies need to know that there are consequences for their behaviour. It is also important for students and working people to have training in this. In my training of workers in OH&S and negotiations, I would introduce them to the concept of " a gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger".(Proverbs 15:1). Even many atheists could see the wisdom if this.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 01 March 2017

Nice article Barry, I recall when in Primary school, I was about 11 years old, a boy used to taunt me with the jibe; "ant muscles"- I was tall and lanky at the time. In the end he got the better of me . I told him to come close up! - he did! I hit him in the mouth with a well aimed punch which floored him! We became best friends after that and no one dared torment me. Even my brother was shocked, as I was not known for violent outbursts. By the way the Sister on playground duty gave both of us 'the cuts' (strap) for fighting! .At the end of my time there , she later confided to me that she was proud of me for standing up for myself.

Gavin 02 March 2017

There's enough stories of a punch in time works here to challenge the wisdom of "turn the other cheek". Our Parish Priest a very big tall man who was a very big tall boy, tells the story of being picked on by a very small boy at school. The boy dared him to face him after school for a fight. Mates were invited to watch. Our PP told him "i dont want to fight you' but the boy urged him to take a swing. Reluctantly the PP did. A knockout. And that was the end of a long term saga of bullying!!!

jenny 02 March 2017

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