Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Grant Taylor: Bullying brings shame on us all

The death of 12 year-old Alex Teka must be taken as a sign of the seriousness of bullying and social relationship issues for New Zealand children.

What's Up, a national helpline that answers 500 calls a day from children and young people all over New Zealand, has received calls from children as young as 7 expressing the wish to die because of the bullying they are suffering.

It is perhaps easy for adults to see bullying as a relatively trivial thing that all kids have to go through as a normal part of growing up - not good, but nothing too much to worry about. Alex is a reminder that such complacency is ill-considered.

While a large proportion of children experience bullying and some particularly resilient children seem not to be bothered by it, our impression at What's Up is that most are significantly troubled and some feel overwhelmed.

What's Up statistics suggest that most bullying occurs in late primary school or intermediate school. This has major implications for parents and educators of children aged between 9 and 13 years. Bullying affects both girls and boys but a significantly larger proportion of the calls are made by males than females.

The children who call What's Up regarding bullying identify a variety of reasons for their mistreatment. These reasons include ethnicity, resistance to pressure to behave in a certain way, physical differences, high achievement, being new, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and religious beliefs. Individuals who have low self-esteem or personal power can also be targeted.

The nature and extent of bullying can vary from direct to indirect harassment, from minor irritants to assaults, and include illegal acts (sexual harassment, racial abuse, deprivation of human rights). It can include physical, verbal, written (text messages, emails, hand-written notes) and gesture bullying, extortion and exclusion. The most common form of bullying is verbal harassment.

Research on programmes to reduce bullying in schools shows that the consistency and commitment of the school staff to reducing bullying is one of the most important factors influencing success. Any suggestion implicit in the behaviour of the adults that bullying is tolerable seems to undermine the effectiveness of anti-bullying initiatives.

Perhaps it can be inferred from this that the attitudes of adults outside school also have an influence. If children observe bullying among the adults in their lives, are taught that intimidation of others is the path to success, or get the message that feeling hurt by bullies is a sign of personal weakness, a school's efforts to eliminate bullying are going to face a struggle.

While bullying is the second most common issue at What's Up, Peer Relationships - making, keeping and negotiating problems with friends - is the first. Although parents and family are crucial influences in children's lives, children live in a social environment that extends well beyond the home. Other children can have as big an influence as the family does and are the most common source of concern for children, as judged from the calls to What's Up.

A child's skills for dealing with other children - social skills - are an important part of resilience to bullying and are an important predictor of how well a child will do later in life.

Our experience at What's Up suggests that to prevent repetitions of the devastating experiences of Alex, her friends and family, we need to address the attitudes towards violence and aggression in New Zealand communities and take steps to build the social skills of our children, not just their academic and sporting skills.

Children (and their caregivers) must never be allowed to feel alone, inadequate or unsupported in the face of bullying and all adults in a position to prevent bullying must work consistently towards this end.

Bullying is not just a kids' problem, a school problem or a family problem but a shameful reflection on our communities' abilities to create safe and healthy environments for us all.

* Grant Taylor is executive director of The Kids Help Foundation Trust

* Anyone aged between 5 and 18 can speak free of charge to one of What's Up's professional counsellors between noon and midnight, seven days a week including holidays on 0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428787).

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