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Beating bullying

30 November, 1999

In a special report, Face Up, a magazine for young people, looks at the devastating impact which bullying can have and at what can be done about it.

Forced to take his own life
The last diary entries of a 13-year-old show how devastating bullying can be.

“Monday: my money was taken,” “Tuesday: names called,” “Wednesday: my uniform torn,” “Thursday: my body pouring with blood,” “Friday: it’s ended,” “Saturday: freedom.”

These were the diary entries for the last week in the life of a 13-year-old boy found hanging from the stairs of his home in Ireland.

His life and death give the lie once and for all to any idea that bullying is just a bit of harmless fun, or something we all should have to go through to toughen us up for life.

What is bullying?
Bullying has been defined as “persistent and unjust exercise of power by various means to humiliate, frighten or denigrate.” The Department of Education defines bullying as “repeated aggression – verbal, psychological or physical – by an individual or group on others.”

Bullying at school includes physical aggression, name calling, isolating the victim, damaging the victim’s property, and stealing money and possessions. New forms of bullying include bullying by e-mail – e-bullying – and text-bullying.

Not having the right kind clothes can also lead to bullying. “Wearing the acceptable trainers or labels is now an important part of teenage life, and you can be stigmatized if you don’t seem to fit in,” says one student.

Geraldine Byrne is national coordinator of Victim Support’s Anti-Bullying Programme. “There can be a lot of misunderstanding about bullying behaviour, but experts agree it has three components. It is planned, it is repetitive, and it involves an imbalance of power.”

So messing may not be bullying. Once-off incidents may not be bullying, and the bully may not necessarily be physically bigger than the victim. Also, for bullying to thrive, the silent majority have to turn a blind eye to it.

How bullying affects victims
A counsellor describes the effects of bullying. “Stress, anxiety, fear are the main emotions, plus dread. People talk about the awful feeling that builds on Sunday afternoon as they begin to face going back to school.

“After a while they find their confidence goes. They may respond by keeping their head down, avoiding people or situations, trying harder, blaming themselves, feeling they should be able to handle it. Their mental and emotional health becomes affected.

“Bullying can lead to depression, insomnia, guilt, rejection, feeling marginalised, lonely, isolated, mental illness, and death through suicide.”

Geraldine Byrne of Victim Support agrees. “We find the physical and psychological symptoms very similar to those experienced by victims of crime or abuse, and some symptoms may be long-term. Also research has shown a direct link between unchecked bullying behaviour and juvenile crime. In a survey of 79 young offenders carried out by the British charity, Kidscape, all stated they were involved in bullying in some way,” she says.

Victims of bullying can feel very isolated and don’t know where to turn. They may feel unable to tell their parents and not want anyone to approach the home of the bully. “One girl told us she would hate her parents to go to the bully’s house as it would make things worse,” comments one teacher, after a discussion with Transition Year students.

Ruth’s story
Three years ago Ruth started going with Damien. He bullied her for a long time before she finally found the courage to ditch him.

When I met Damien [not his real name] I was 15 and very romantic. The heroines in the books I’d read all seemed to fall for men who needed taming. So when Damien was difficult and moody, I thought it was just something I had to put up with, and over time I’d be able to make him happy and change him.

But as time went on, he became aggressive, and would put me down a lot verbally as well as being very rude and not liking it when I didn’t agree with him. I should have ended the relationship right then, or stood up to him, but I did neither.

I was actually shocked the first time he told me to ‘F…. off’, because I thought that’s not the way boyfriends and girlfriends talk to each other. My parents are very loving, and that’s the way I thought people in love behave.

I wanted to tell my Mum, but I thought she’d want me to split with Damien, which I didn’t want to do.

Things went from bad to worse. I suppose he could see that he could bully me, and that made him lose respect for me. The bad thing was I also lost respect for myself, and I ended up being very confused and unhappy.

Finally, I told Damien I didn’t want to see him anymore. He went to bits and actually cried. He said he was sorry and would change. Of course, I forgave him, and we began again. But it didn’t work. My friends killed me for going back with him. They could see things much clearer than me. Anyway, he began to mess me around again, so I just ended it, and it wasn’t as hard the second time. He begged me to take him back, but I wouldn’t.

Being bullied by my boyfriend took a lot out of me, and it was months before I got my confidence back. I also blamed myself. I learnt a lot as well, though. I told my Mum when it was all over, and she was very helpful. I don’t think I’d let something like that happen to me again.”

What type of person is bullied?
Anyone – not just those who are “different” – can be a victim of bullying.

We often think that those who stand out as “different” are most likely to be bullied, but new research shows this is not necessarily so. “Anyone can be bullied,” says a spokesperson for the Trinity College Anti-Bullying Centre, in Dublin. “It’s often a conscientious, loyal, intelligent person, a high achiever who may at first not realise what’s happening. People typically say ‘It crept up on me.’”

Someone who doesn’t easily fit in can be targeted. The loner, the shy person, someone taller or smaller than the norm can be the butt of the bully’s jeers.

“Just because I was the only one with red hair in my class, I had a hard time in primary school,” remembers Jason. “It all died down in secondary where I made good friends.”

What makes a bully?
Whether young people become bullies or not has a lot to do with the values of society and what they learn from their parents. According to psychologist Marie Murray, co-author of The ABC of Bullying (Mercier Press), unless we understand what makes someone bully and what allows them to continue, we won’t be able to tackle the problem of bullying.

“Parents can help to steer their children away from being bullies by helping them to have good self-esteem and being positive role models. The child who hears a parent criticize, ridicule, denigrate or attack learns this pattern. Teaching children to be protective of vulnerable things, animals, pets, other children who are more needy or less able, is also important,” she says.

“Social values play a part. A society without empathy, that endorses violent images on television, that allows corruption, that does not challenge poverty or social disadvantage, or is selective who it punishes for lawlessness, enables bullying. Ageism, sexism, racism and dismissal of those less able feed into bullying,” she says.

Sean’s story
My family moved to Dublin from the midlands the summer holidays before I began First Year because they thought it would give me a better chance to start new with everyone else. But it didn’t work. A lot of the other kids knew each other from primary school or were neighbours. I was an outsider, and they jeered at my accent.

It began with little things – throwing my bag over the wall, taking my track suit and wetting it under the tap before gym, pinching me in class. When I yelled the first time it happened, I got into trouble, not them.

There was nobody I could tell. I didn’t know the other kids, they weren’t on my side, and while they didn’t join in, they didn’t try to stop it either.

The main guy doing it was someone who threw his weight around and had a group who followed him because they were afraid if they weren’t on his side, he’d pick on them too. I kept out of their way as much as I could, and put up with as much as I could, and tried not to get too depressed.

Finally, I told my Dad, and he had a very simple solution. He got me boxing lessons, and I learned to defend myself. It gave me a lot of confidence, and when I was ready, I took the main bully on and beat him in a fight. I didn’t hurt him much, but it was obvious I could handle myself, so he left me alone after that.

We were streamed differently in Third Year, so I didn’t see much of the bullies. Defeating them built up my confidence, though I’m not suggesting learning boxing is the answer. You could end up making things worse.”

A Bullying Society
Research from British, Irish and Swedish sources indicates that

  • one in five second-level students are afraid to go to school because of bullying
  • one in four women and almost one in seven men has experienced physical or sexual bullying
  • one in four teens has been a victim of bullying via a computer or mobile phone
  • 14% of suicides are associated with bullying
  • 86% of workplace sick leave is related to bullying
  • 10% of elderly people are frightened because of bullying

Bullying by txt
The text message on the 15-year-old Lancashire boy’s mobile was: “I know your school. I’m going to beat you. Hurt you. Disfigure you.” It was the start of a bullying campaign that didn’t stop until Tom’s mobile phone company changed his number.

Tom [not his real name] knew why he was being bullied but didn’t know who the bully was. Weeks before he had formed a friendship through an internet chat-room. He gave his mobile number but didn’t get one back in return.

When the on-line friendship turned sour, the “friend” started sending abusive emails. Tom changed his email address, and the abuse switched to the text messaging on his mobile phone. He then told his parents, and his mobile phone company gave him a new number.

The counsellor’s role
“Coming to me, and telling their story, unloads some of the intense emotion, and people find it very helpful to be valued, understood and cared for,” says one counsellor. “My role would include also helping them face reality, find their voice, and explore options, focusing on their strengths, skills and goals.

“Finding their voice could mean staying ‘Stop!’ which may be an option if the bullying hasn’t gone on too long and they’re not too stressed.”

If you’re being bullied
Speak up – Tell someone what’s happening – your parents, an older brother or sister, your grand- parents, teacher, school chaplain, a friend

Chin up – Don’t let the bullies see you’re upset. But be careful about taking them on, as you could be injured (or accused of being a bully yourself)

Join up – Don’t believe that everyone is against you. It’s not true. Persevere with making your own friends.

If you know someone who’s being bullied
Speak up – Don’t let someone suffer because you won’t do the right thing. If you can’t challenge the bully, tell a responsible adult

Link up – Talk to your friends about what’s going on. Agree that you won’t stand idly by. Unity is strength

Meet up – Show your support for the person being bullied. Include her/him in your activities. Give them a chance.

Helpful Contacts
Geraldine Byrne of Victim Support works with parents, teachers, and school chaplains, and gives talks in teacher training colleges. Contact her at: Victim Support, Haliday House, 32 Arran Quay, Dublin 7, tel. 01-8780870

The Anti-Bullying Centre, Trinity College, Dublin 2, tel. 01-6082573

The Health & Safety Authority’s Bullying Response Unit 01-61470000 for workplace bullying queries

‘Confronting the Bully’ is a five-week course, run by Father Tony Byrne and Sister Kathleen Maguire. Contact: Awareness Education Office, 3 Cabra Grove, Dublin 7, tel. 01-8380157

‘Stop That Bullying’ is a leaflet developed by parents, teachers and young people in North Dublin, in collaboration with Victim Support. Available from: Victim Support, Haliday House, 32 Arran Quay, Dublin 7, tel. 01-8780870

This article first appeared in

Face Up, a young people’s magazine produced by the Irish Redemptorists.