People around the world face discrimination based on their gender, race, sexuality, weight or age, among other characteristics. Being a victim of discrimination is associated with a range of negative outcomes. For example, sexual minorities (e.g., lesbian, gay, and bisexual people) are at higher risk of suicidality, substance misuse and self-harm compared to heterosexual individuals (King et al., 2008). Likewise, experiencing discrimination on the basis of race is associated with a range of mental health outcomes including depression, psychological distress and anxiety (Paradies, 2006). Moving to appearance based discrimination, being stigmatised on the basis of weight can result in binge eating episodes (Ashmore, Friedman, Reichmann, & Musante, 2008) or avoidance of exercise (Vartanian & Shaprow, 2008).
When we think of discrimination we often think of extreme or obvious examples – hate crimes, for example, or unfair hiring decisions. But every day discrimination is typically more subtle, and insidious, taking the form of cruel jokes, social ostracism, and teasing. In short, much discriminatory behaviour could go by another name: bullying.
Being bullied is a heartbreaking experience, often with dire consequences. Understandably, then, we devote a lot of time ensuring that our loved ones are not facing bullying, and that they have the resources necessary to cope with bullying if or when they face it. But just like the victims of bullying are linked to us, so too are the bullies – they may be our colleagues, friends, spouses, or children.
So what do we do if we suspect that someone close to us is bullying others?
It is much harder to think about our loved one as perpetrators, than as victims. It is, however, crucial if we are going to make our society kinder, and fairer. So what do we do if we suspect that someone close to us is bullying others? First, it is important to recognise that you can reject someone’s behaviour without rejecting them. The goal here is to reduce the bullying, not the person.
As stated above, almost anyone can engage in bullying. One developmental stage where bullying is particularly evident, however, is in childhood. Below we provide some useful information about what to do if you suspect that your child (or niece or nephew or grandchild) is engaging in bullying.
It’s important to encourage discussion about school with your child, as research shows asking children about various aspects of their school life (e.g., friends or feelings) can lead to open up about any concerns regarding bullying (Lovegrove, Bellmore, Green, Jens, & Ostrov, 2013). A lack of communication often leads parents unaware of their child’s experiences with bullying (Harcourt, Jaspere, & Green, 2014), and as a result, majority of them underestimate the extent their child is involved with bullying (Mishna, Pepler, & Wiener, 2006).
If you believe your child may be a bully, report this to the school so teachers can be aware of this and prevent further bullying instances. Taking bullying seriously sends a message to your child that this behaviour is not OK, and that you take it seriously. Even if you are unsure if your child may be a bully, it can be useful to regularly communicate with your child’s school as it has been found parents are not always informed about bullying incidents that may be occurring (Harcourt et al., 2014).
Your child could be a bully-victim, meaning they are both a victim and bully (Haynie et al., 2001). Alternatively, bullying can be a sign of underlying behavioural problems. Bullies tend to score lower on behavioural conduct measures (Austin & Joseph, 1996) and cooperation (Rigby, Cox, & Black, 1997). The underlying cause of the bullying will guide the solution: do you need to increase your child’s empathy or work with them to deal with other issues? Ideally, confronting bullying in your child will not only be beneficial for their victim/s, but also your child and family.
Children learn from their parents so it is important for parents to model positive communication, and nonaggressive conflict resolution strategies (Lovegrove et al., 2013). The latter is especially important as a distinctive characteristic of bullies is their positive attitude towards aggression and violence (Olweus, 1994).
At this point we can scan back out, and return to the original issue. Just as children look to their parents to work out how to behave in the world, so too do we look to our peers, bosses, friends, and even leaders. The way that we treat people that are different to ourselves will not only impact them, but help to shape our broader group’s treatment of difference. We all have a decision to make about who we want to be in the world. In the case of bullying, it is about not turning a blind eye, speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, and working to unflinchingly ensure that we, our loved ones, and our wider communities are treating all people with compassion, kindness, and fairness.
Jemima Kang, Chris G. Sibley, Fiona Kate Barlow
Read more about: The Cambridge Handbook of Psychology and Prejudice
In honour of Anti Bullying Week 2018 we are offering free access to chapters from The Cambridge Handbook of Psychology and Prejudice for a limited time:
Visit www.cambridge.org/antibullyingweek2018 to find out more.
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