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Bullying at school: ‘Children can redirect insults to their advantage’

French therapist and author Emmanuelle Piquet sees some 2,000 children each year who are victims of bullying at school.

Ten years ago, she founded France's Chagrin Scolaire centers, which work to help children face up to bullies and deal with schoolyard confrontation. Kids learn defense strategies in a course of three sessions, based on role-play activities.

Q. Is bullying becoming more of a problem in schoolyards?

A. Yes, I have seen a "popularity syndrome" growing in recent years, beginning at primary school. Kids must certainly not be friendless or uncool or they risk being marginalised.

They must absolutely be in with the "right" crowd, be very popular or benefit from the aura of a popular friend.

A more recent phenomenon is parents becoming increasingly concerned about their children's social relations at school, sometimes even more than their grades.

Mothers, for example, closely count birthday invitations, fearing that their children might be left out.

These worries are passed on to children, who fear finding themselves alone on a bench in the playground.

Q. What types of violence are most frequently encountered by the children you see?

A. Isolation is what comes up most often.

Being the child who no one plays with, no one speaks to, no one wants to hold hands with.

Next, there is a kind of token bullying that involves giving mean nicknames, or giving labels like being "too good" at school or "not good enough" .

There is no typical profile of a bullied child.

Any child can be in a situation of vulnerability like, for example, when a parent loses their job or a grandparent dies. The bully is more likely to be a child who is quick-witted and has a sense of humuor, which usually makes them popular.

Q. How can a child stand up to a bully?

A. We first of all help children let go of the idea that they can't do anything to change the situation.

Next, they can learn to use the bully's insults and attacks to their advantage.

Humuor and self-deprecation are infallible arms when it comes to breaking the popularity and power of a bully.

For that, children must learn to accept an attack and to use it.

The aim is to ridicule the bully in the act of bullying and in public, without getting personal.

Sometimes looking the bully in the eye can be enough to diffuse a confrontation.

Q. Can you give an example?

A. Social networks can often be the source of attacks and mocking, but they can also be a powerful means of defense. We had one young girl that the other kids called Zlatan [Ed.: in reference to soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic], which isn't very nice when you're 16 years old.

This young girl therefore changed her profile picture to a photo of Zlatan. It was a way of saying "Go on, bring it on, I find that funny too." That soon calmed the bullies down. It's not fun anymore when the victim stops rising to their jibes.

Q. What advice can you give to parents?

A. You shouldn't take any action without the agreement of your child, so as not to reinforce their vulnerability.

Don't ask too many questions in the evening to avoid creating anxiety-inducing situations. If the child lacks the self-confidence to stand up to bullies or to talk back, you can try role-playing at home, with mom or brothers and sisters playing the bullies, so that the child gets the hang of replying.

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