Is your Child Being Excluded by Other Children at School? Recognize the Signs of Subtle Bullying
Does your child come home from school in a strange mood? Does he throw tantrums at the slightest offense or bully younger siblings? Does she purposely conspire to exclude specific playmates and siblings and encourage others to throw insults? Does he throw insults himself? If you have noticed this sort of behavior in your child, a very likely cause is that he or she is the victim of subtle bullying and mistreatment at school. We have all heard how cruel children can be. When you send your children to school, you are sending them into a far more complex and insidious social environment than you may suspect. The schoolyard is a place where an intense but necessary degree of social development takes place. Children learn to play, make friends, work together, invent games with each other and just plain enjoy being children. However, there is a dark side to this as well. Children also learn and/or exercise the ability to lie, cheat, insult, exclude and just plain hurt one another in a variety of ways. Of course, I’m talking about bullying. More specifically, I would like to go into detail about a subtle form of bullying that involves the group exclusion of an individual child.
It is common knowledge that bullying has everything to do with self esteem. In the context of the schoolyard, the basic formula can be broken down so: Children with low self esteem attempt to raise it by purposely diminishing the self esteem of other children. Sometimes, the child being bullied will combat the bully’s impact not by confronting his or her own bully, but by becoming a bully him- or herself. Here is a real-life example I have personally observed working as an au-pair in Berlin (for those unfamiliar with the term, an au-pair is a young person (typically a student, student to be, or recent graduate who lives with a host family to, above all, spend time with his or her host family’s children). Names have been changed to protect the identity of the parties involved:
Helga is six years old and just started going to school one month ago. She has attention difficulties and is scrawny for her age. Recently, Helga has been behaving strangely. She used to play very nicely with her younger sister, two year old Greta, but has recently begun to verbally and physically abuse her. She has also fallen into the habit of telling her younger sister to tell me, the 23 year old au-pair, that he is dumb and a variety of other offensive words, and that we don’t like him.
It was very clear to me what was going on with Helga. She was exhibiting a form of exclusion that two or more children will enact upon another in order to increase the status and solidarity of their own social group, at the expense of the other child. I had correctly guessed that Helga was being bullied at school in precisely this manner. Rather than taking on the crushingly difficult task of facing the children who treat her this way, Helga finds an outlet for this negative energy by passing it on to the people she lives with.
The first thing to do in this situation is to immediately take the child’s attention and simply ask directly if that is how she is being treated by other children. After he says yes, tell him that that was very terrible of the other children and that he did not deserve to be treated like that. The importance of telling her this is not only to stress that is this not an appropriate way for her to behave, but also to reassure him that he is not the one who has done wrong, rather that the cruelty of the other children is to blame.
The second thing to do is self esteem damage control. Reassure her that she is a brilliant, intelligent, and lovely child. I told Helga that she is creative, fun, pretty and has a bright future and to never let the words and actions of other children upset her. Her immediate reaction was to deflect, but I noticed a significant impact in her behavior thereafter. It is important to consistently give your child this reassurance so that they will be better equipped to cope with the virtually unavoidable adversity they will continue to occasionally face not only as children, but likely throughout their entire lives as well.
The third thing to do, of course, is to contact teachers and perhaps other parents as well to discuss your concerns and confirm your suspicions. The importance of this step is to alert teachers who may not have noticed the bullying, thanks to its subtlety, and to possibly give the parents of the children involved the notice they need to take the appropriate action with their own children. The goal here is that all children involved, including your own, receive the attention they need and the necessary development of their self esteem.
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Bullying is an unfortunate part of life that causes many people to suffer, often from a very young age. It is pervasive and often insidiously subtle, such as the case with Helga. However, we are not entirely powerless against this darker side of human nature. If your child is suffering an experience similar to that of Helga’s, be sure to react promptly and to take my advice seriously. If your children are approaching school age, be proactive and keep aware of the harm other children can do to your own child’s self esteem and personal development. The appropriate adult intervention and preventative measures can make a world of difference in a child’s life.