Social distress, school bullying or shunning, and social avoidance – these are all issues we tend to not engage with. Both as parents and as children – we try not to talk about what’s it like when our peers treat us badly (or not at all). But it’s imperative that we talk about it. If we don’t we may not see that something bad is happening for our child.
So, in this post, I want to talk with you about what it’s like for a child who’s being shunned or bullied in school. By understanding the internal experience of such a situttion you’ll have a better chance to notice it in your own children and help them through it.
What does shunning or bullying feel like?
A child who is suffering from school bullying or shunning is experiencing social isolation, first and foremost. Whether he or she is being actively bullied (verbally and/or physically), the act of shunning itself is creating an atmosphere of social isolation.
In simpler words, the child who is being bullied or shunned enters a harsh situation where it’s he or she VS “them” (when them are those children who actively bully or shun the child and also the other children who watch from the side and do nothing).
Naturally, this child feels lonely. He or she is rejected by their peers and are left totally (or almost totally) alone. Being lonely is a deeper and more harmful experience than being alone. Loneliness goes much deeper into your soul. That’s because we humans are social beings. We need and crave social contact and without we fizzle away. That’s twice as true for children who hadn’t yet develop internal structures to support themselves.
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So, imagine that child who suddenly finds himself alone, against the rest of the world. You may have felt like that yourself, growing up, or may not. But just take a moment to imagine that feeling of abandonment.
The lack of security, and the plethora of negative experiences that children who suffer school bullying accumulate may contribute to a feeling that is known as learned helplessness, the meaning of which is simply the feeling that there’s nothing to be done, so why bother? So these children succumb to a kind of passivity that may be new to you.
How School Bullying Ruin Self-Confidence
Children who are suffering from shunning or school bullying usually suffer from damage to their own self-confidence. Even children who developed a healthy, positive sense of self-worth and confidence may find themselves feeling bad about themselves like they worth nothing at all.
To understand why, we need to take into account the role of social feedback on our self-views. The psychologist Heinz Kohut developed a whole personality theory around this issue. He claimed that as we grow up, we develop our sense of self-worth through the feedback we get from the environment, mainly from our parents.
Kohut talked about three needs that parents fill for their children: mirroring, idealization, and twinship.
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When we mirror our children’s behaviors, thoughts and feelings, we are helping them build their own internal experience and learn about themselves. And when we act as a source of security and power, we fill their need for idealization. And when we join them in their games and interests, we fill a need for twinship that helps them feel like they belong to something worthy.
But, as every parent knows all too well, as our children grow up they need us less and less and rely more on their peers to fill those needs. So, when children are going through school bullying or shunning, those needs are not being filled.
When children are repeatedly told by their peers that they are fat, ugly, stupid, or any other mean thing children may tell each other, they can actually start to believe it. And even if nothing bad is being said, the mere experience of being shunned sends a cruel message of “we don’t want you with us”, that may make children feel like they are nothing and unworthy for love.
How to recognize distress in school bullying situations
As adults, when we are going thought something bad, we are usually able to explain what’s wrong – even in broad terms. Usually we can find someone to talk to and share our feelings with.
How easy would it be for our children and for us if they knew how to do that as well, right? Wouldn’t it be great if your kids could just come to you and say “It’s really going bad for me at school. I’m being shunned by my friends and I’m being bullied. I don’t want to go to that school anymore and I’m really sad about it”.
Unfortunately, most children aren’t as verbal or self-aware.
How can we notice and recognize when our children are being bullied or shunned? There are several signs that may raise a red flag. But first, it’s important to say that this is not exact sciences and not every child who shows any of those signs is under any danger. Those are simply red flags that you can notice and may help you be more aware of your child’s situation in school.
If your child went to school on a regular basis (even reluctantly), and suddenly refuses to go to school, you must ask yourself why.
Sometimes, your child may tell you straight away that he or she doesn’t want to go because of school bullying, like the example above. But more often than not, being bullied or shunned at school raises so much shame, guilt, or fear, that children try to hide the real reasons.
School refusal can be explicit, such as saying “I don’t want to go to school today/anymore” (with or without stating the real reason). But usually, it’s more implicit than that. Usually, school refusal manifests more through physical ailments and pains, such as abdominal pains or headaches that have no apparent physical reason.
However, not every child who complains about tummy aches and asks to stay at home is trying to avoid something (and there’s are many other reasons other than bullying why children may want to avoid school). But we should try and listen to what our kids are saying explicitly and implicitly and understand if there is something behind the physical pain, as those symptoms may signal stress or anxiety.
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Avoiding Social Interactions
Naturally, a child who is going through school bullying or shunning will feel uncomfortable being around those kids who are hurting him. It’s likely those kids will try to avoid activities and interactions involving those kids, whether in the school environment or outside it.
Again, there may be other reasons why your children avoid those situations, but it’s best to notice it and ask ourselves (and our kids) what’s going on.
Major Mood Shifts
Children who are in distress because of school bullying may not always know how to ask for help. In situations of social isolation, they may feel helpless, lonely and ashamed. This is why many children feel it’s impossible to share their experiences with adults.
But as you may know, keeping things in is not an efficient way to deal with our feelings, and at one point or another, our kids will show their distress in some way.
One such way is through major shifts in their mood. Sudden jumps from being in a positive, relaxed mood to outbursts of anger or fits of crying may signal that there’s some emotional storm rummaging through your child’s soul.
Those shifts may also be apparent through behavioral shifts such as lack of appetite, sleeping problems or sudden problems in school activity such as behavioral problems or a fall in grades.
How can I help my child with school bullying
If you suspect that something bad is going over your child, I bet you are very worried. This is natural and it’s actually good because worry makes you want to act.
If you don’t know yet what really is going on, you may have several scary scripts in your head. So first, take a good breath and try to take a step back from your imagination.
When to talk with my child
Find a comfortable time when you can have a conversation with your child. Don’t do anything “heavy” or official (such as “Come here son, we need to talk”). But on the other hand, don’t do it haphazardly while doing other things (for example, don’t try to engage in this conversation while your child is playing Fortnite). Another good tip is don’t try and have this conversation during a family dinner, because your child may already feel ashamed and wouldn’t want the attention.
How to start the conversation
If you still don’t know what’s going on, just share with your child that you notice that something is different lately.
Keep your tone of voice as curious, loving and empathic as possible. You are here to listen and not judge, and your child need’s to feel that.
For example, you can say something like “I’ve noticed that lately, you don’t want to go to school because you have these tummy aches. I also noticed that you stopped going for soccer practice. That’s actually ok, but I know that something this happens when something bad is happening in school. Could it be that something bad is happening for you?”.
Give them time
Remember that these situations usually involve a lot of shame for our children, so they may have a hard time sharing with us what’s happening. Give your children time, and just continue being curious. If your child is saying that everything’s cool, or if they won’t answer, don’t stress them into answering differently. Let go for that moment, but do tell them that you’ll be there if they want to tell you anything.
Share your own experiences
Try to connect to your own past experiences with school bullying, shunning or something of the sort. Even just instances when you didn’t want to go to school. Share them with your child. By doing so you can eliminate some of the loneliness they may feel, and show them that what they are going through is not something you are totally unfamiliar with. This is important modeling for them that can help them feel safer with you.
Remember that social isolation is one of the hardest things a human being can go through and what your child needs is a feeling of acceptance and belonging. If you can give your child the feeling that he or she is not alone, that’s a lot.
Listen and Validate before you solve
When your child does share with you what’s going on, you may feel a deep yearning to solve things for him. You may want to call the parents of the bully and give them a piece of your mind, or contact the teacher, etc.
But before you do anything, it’s crucial that you listen and validate your child’s feelings. Just listen to whatever they’re saying and try to notice what they are feeling, and validate everything – all the anger, hurt, sadness and worry. They all need to be validated and accepted.
Remember that everything is temporal
Try to remember that these situations, hard as they are, tend to be temporal. Remind it to your children as well. When kids are being bullied or shunned, they may feel that this is an endless, hopeless situation. This may enhance the learned helplessness exepreince So remind them that these things end.
Also, remind your children that they are not at fault for what’s going on. They are not guilty of going through this. Usually, bullying and shunning are happening because of childhood whims or issues of control in those who start it, and not because there’s something wrong with the victim.
Build a story
Try and examine the narrative with your child. What is the story that they have in their mind?
There’s a big difference between “all my classmates are shunning me because I’m ugly and suck at sports” and “Johnny is shunning me out because he’s jealous that I’m getting better grades, and the rest of the kids are acting like him because he’s such a bully”.
The second narrative puts the emphasis on the perpetrator and pulls the carpet from underneath the low self-esteem your child may feel.
It can also show your child that there’s usually a small nucleus of bullies and the rest are just kids who are afraid to act differently and thus stay silent or imitate the leader.
If you can, try and identify those kids who are more prone to not cooperate with the shunning and engage in after-school meetings with your child (but don’t try to enforce it).
Look for networks of support
Find more people who can be with the child and give him or her a sense of acceptance and belonging. More children, similar-age relatives, etc.
Don’t stay alone with it
If you – the parents – need help dealing with the situation, don’t hesitate to seek it. Talk with a mental health professional with experience in child therapy and schools, find support groups for kids and parents. Get emotional and practical help either in your area or online.
Contact the school
Engage the school faculty. Talk to the teacher and counselors. If there’s a school psychologist, they usually have tools and protocols for these issues.
Every child can be a victim of school bullying or shunning. By knowing what is going on in the bullied child's mind, you'd be in a better position to notice that something wrong may be happening.
In this post, we talked about the different markers that may make you suspect that something's not right, and how you can tackle it.
Featured Image by Tiomax80