Psychologists Andrew Fuller and Evelyn Field have noticed a big change in bullying in the past year or two. Basic schoolyard disputes have become more intense and cyber bullying more merciless, they say.
And, through their work with children, parents and schools, they have noted more intervention by parents and teachers, which they say is helping children negotiate one of the most frightening aspects of school life.
“Bullying is most common in grades 3 and 4 when children are about 10,” says Fuller, a clinical psychologist who works with many schools around Australia.
“This is when the demands of the curriculum go up a notch and the social awareness of each other increases. Plus, as their bodies change at different rates, differences and similarities become more obvious.
In primary school, boys bully boys and girls bully girls, Fuller says. Later on, both sexes bully each other.
“There has been a change in bullying from mild schoolyard disputes to cyber bullying that has caused some teens to take their lives or try to take their lives,” he says. “It is a very serious issue and, fortunately, most schools take it very seriously.”
Field, a psychologist and author of Bully Blocking, Six Secrets To Help Children Deal with Teasing and Bullying (Finch Publishing) agrees that schools have started to act more quickly on incidents of bullying.
Yet she urges parents to teach their children to take on bullies who use verbal taunts by deflecting their insults.
“Children need to look the bully in the eye, stand straight and maintain a neutral look,” she says. “Bullies can smell fear and that can make children more vulnerable and more likely to be a target.”
Fuller agrees, saying: “Bullies smell fear so practising responses to bullies can give your child confidence to deal with the problem, even if they don't use the responses.”
He points out that bullying is a massive problem “not just culturally but academically”.
“Kids can't learn when they are being bullied as they are scared to ask questions in case they are humiliated,” he says.
If bullying becomes physical, both experts urge parents to report it to the school and police if serious enough.
“Those who get bullied often do a bit [of bullying] in response to their own treatment, which makes it a more complex issue,” Fuller says.
“If it appears to be a one-off, encourage your child to deal with it by deflecting it with humour and/or moving to a different group.
“It's better to empower kids to deal with it but, if it's a repeated problem, call the school. Don't ask your child for permission.”
Fuller says cyber bullying is a huge problem, especially for high school girls and points out that Facebook should be used only by teens over 13.
“We know that 20 per cent of teens do things online they later regret,” he says.
“Boys can engage in cyber bullying but it lacks the direct, merciless attack that can come when girls bully online.”
He recommends against banning Facebook and encourages parents to help their teens become “good cyber citizens”.
He also points to anecdotal evidence from teens who have been bullied so badly on the internet that they have attempted suicide.
Many of these teens have said the main reason they hadn't told their parents of the problem was that they feared they would be banned from using the internet.
“We have to contend with the internet in real life so it's important to help children contend with the issue of dealing with some dignity online,” Fuller says.
“The key to success is to agree on a plan for when and how long children use the internet as well as what they put on there.”
Field recommends parents run spot checks on their children's usage every few days.
She admits teens won't like it but says the consequences of doing nothing can be far worse.
ANDREW FULLER'S TIPS TO HELP CHILDREN WITH BULLIES
1. Make sure your child knows that no matter what happens they can talk to you.
2. Insist on the “nana rule” for online communication – remind them that anything they put online should be what they would be happy to show or say to their nana.
3. Don't ban the internet but agree on a plan to manage it. The plan should include when and how long they can use it, and what they can put online.
4. Encourage your child to have a diverse range of friends, including friends out of school.
For more information visit www.bullyingnoway.com.au, a website set up by state, territory and Commonwealth government education departments and Catholic and independent schools.