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FAQs about bullying


Influence of the group of friends. Fear and violence: bullying at school

Interviewer: Monica Toscano, specialist in adolescence. Week after week, she gives us guidance to help us improve as parents and as educators. I'm sure that some teenagers must also be listening to us. That would be great. You don't know how many comments I get about your slot during the week, Monica. People tell me that it's very useful. Some people even record it at home and write down the advice that you give us here. The first day you were here with us, we talked about school bullying, bullies and victims, fear related to friends and schoolmates... We adults believe that it is normal for a child to be afraid, and we believe that this fear goes away with age. Is that the case?

Monica Toscano: That's right. But we adults have to work to make the fear go away. Otherwise, it can lead to some complications. As we all know, fear is normal in childhood; fear is normal in adolescence. Childhood is the first time that this fear is expressed. Children are afraid of loneliness, of the dark, of monsters; but above all, they're afraid of being alone in life, of losing the loved ones on whom they depend so much emotionally - their parents. If we understand those fears to a minimal extent... That's quite a difficult job for adults, as sometimes we're in a hurry to make our children's fears go away, because we often don't know how to deconstruct them. When you're able to listen and deconstruct those fears, it works and things run more smoothly. However, if this is doesn't happen, if they're not understood or deconstructed, they become more intense in adolescence, and they become fixed, as we often say.

Int.: Is there a relationship between bullying at school and fear?

MT: Bullying at school and fear are very closely related.

One of the things in our field work in the workshops that has helped us the most is the discovery that when we start working with students, with young people, especially the youngest, who are nine to ten years old, the leader who hurts others verbally and who says what the others are unable to say; that leader is idealised by the children and adolescents, and they appear to be unshakeable. They seem to be fearless, they could do what the others are afraid to do... When we begin to see and to show them that this leader very much needs everyone else to smoke if they smoke, or if they go somewhere they need everyone to go there, or if they insult a classmate everyone has to do it; when they begin to question this leader and see that this entire attitude is a mask to conceal their fear, then things begin to change.

Int.: Does this mean confronting them or not, standing up to them or not? Or knowing one's enemy?

MT: It means knowledge of the person who is hurting me.

Int.: Discovering that the person who is bullying us is as afraid as the victim is essential if we are to begin to solve the problem.

MT: Exactly, they're often more scared than the victim. We were talking about fixed fears. We can see a type of fixed fear in young people who isolate themselves. The young person isolates him or herself, and doesn't go out. We are often asked: "Is this typical behaviour in adolescence?" Yes, it is. But when it becomes entrenched, when fear inhibits action, that is the point where it begins to be the breeding ground for other situations. What other situations? Depressions, or sometimes addictions. A young person who is isolated is often a bullied victim. This young person isolates themselves because they can't go out and "stand up for themselves," as you said, against the negative leader who constantly tells them that they (the person who is in the position of the victim) are the one who is scared, they are the one who is insecure.

Int.: What about when the young person comes home and tells us that he has been bullied, and the father's advice is: "Well, do the same as they're doing to you."

MT: That's a mistake. Why? Because if we encourage this whole scenario of violence to engender more violence, then we are going to make increasingly serious mistakes. As parents, we always want our children to defend themselves, but we have to make that defence happen on fertile ground.

One of the things that have helped us in the research we do in the workshops is to show bullied adolescents who they are, and the figure that is hiding behind the bully. It's the young people themselves, the adolescents themselves who tell us: "She is forcing me to go to a party because she doesn't want to go alone. So I'm not the one who's scared." We have two basic tools for starting to talk about this. One is to strengthen the young person who is in the position of the victim. We make them stronger when they understand that they're not the only one who's afraid, that they're not the only one who's insecure.

When a young person is bullied, verbally assaulted, this type of aggression is very tough because society doesn't witness it. Suppose someone hits them, a physical blow, there's a tutor, a teacher who is a witness, who can say: "Your punishment will be... whatever". But when one young person comes up to another one and hurts them with words, saying: "You're fat. Ugly. You're stupid. Idiot...” that can deprive our children of the concentration they need in school. This type of bullying, which society doesn't witness, does a lot of damage. Above all, it prevents concentration, it inhibits intellectual capacity, the ability to think and the affective aspect.

Int.: That's some advice for parents who find themselves in the situation of having a victim in their home. Then there are the parents who also have a bully at home, which is a second problem, isn't it? But whoever is with a victim, you must never counteract violence with more violence, you've made that clear.

MT: There's a previous step, which is quite difficult. It's quite difficult to make young people talk. We have to go into the problem in depth: "You seem different. Your mood has changed. You come home and you're grumpy...." Then as we have found in the workshops, the children begin to speak.

In the scripts that the young people write in the workshops, for example, there are dialogues where a mother tells an adolescent: "But why can't you say no to your classmate so you don't go to the party?", and the daughter replies: "Stay out of it, mum; It's nothing to do with you...", when really what her classmate had done was to threaten her: "If you don't come to the party, I'll tell everyone that you like such and such a boy...". So the first thing is to make sure you listen to them, without being intrusive, and watch to see if something is happening to them.

Int.: Take care in order to find out what it is. Bad grades may be a symptom of this. Poor performance.

MT: They're calls for help. But above all (I do want to emphasise this) we shouldn't find out by being reckless - by getting involved in our son's or our daughter's life. We must respect them as the individuals that they are. But we must show them that we're here to help them, to listen to them. So once that space has opened up, show them who they are, find out who the person is that bullying them. What they're doing and saying to them, assuring them (this is very important) that we're not going to betray them. Because one of the things that adolescents rightly fear from adults is that we say, for example: "Well, then I'm going to talk to the teacher." "I'm going to go to the school." "I'm going to get him kicked out of school." That's when they stop trusting us.

Int.: That's the worst thing. Who should we talk to then?

MT: First, talk to your son or daughter. Then try to make them stronger and begin to open up a space with their words. In other words, make themselves heard. This is one aspect of the problem, because we have two major aspects in a bully-victim pair. We must remember to deal with the bully.

Int.: The bully... I'm sorry to interrupt you, Monica Toscano, but I think we have the first call. We've chosen a few from among those we received. Hello Carmen. Pleased to speak to you. They tell me that your son hits other children?

Listener: He's five years old. Yes, he hits other children.

Int.: He's the bully, I mean, the one who hits others.

List.: But it was the other way round when it all started. In my son's case, he was going to school and one day he was hit. I feel quite guilty because once he'd been bitten, and I said to him: "Well, stand up for yourself. If a boy does that to you, then don't let him." I think it was at that point that he started hitting other children.

Int.: He's five years old? Now you have the problem. Well, I had it before, but it's worse now.

List.: Now other mothers come up and complain. So he's very aggressive at school. They've had a word with us about it and everything. There's really no problem at home. That's what I can't explain.

Int.: Monica, is it normal for them to act very differently at home than they do at school?

MT: It is not particularly common for them to act differently than at school, but I think this kind of behaviour in children should be considered quite carefully.

Int.: How does Carmen change this direction he is taking?

MT: First of all, hello, Carmen, and thank you for calling. You tell us that in the beginning, it was your son who was being hit. Other children bit him and you said: "Well, stand up for yourself," which is the typical response from all parents in situations where all we can think of is wanting to defend against what they're doing to our children.

One of the important points is first to see what is happening in the school, with the peer group, and get help from the teachers to be able to think about how he can be helped. In other words, when a young person has a change of mood, or personality, or state of mind, it is because there's a situation that they don't understand. Speaking of fears, one of the things that happen now and again at this age, is a fear that they are not addressing. Something is probably scaring them, and they're responding to that fear with some violence.

I think that working with the teachers would be very useful, and you would certainly have a lot of help from the teachers, to be able to see what is happening at school, and to be able to understand what he is scared of, the fear he is expressing by means of this violent response.

Int.: That's quite clear. All the best to you, Carmen. Thank you very much.

List.: Thank you very much.

Int.: Countering violence with violence doesn't work. If we have a young person who hits others, as in Carmen's case, could we extrapolate this to other cases of aggression, even if it is verbal, obviously?

MT: Of course. Now let's turn to adolescence; because in the case of Carmen's son, he's still very young, and it's very likely that what he has are those typical childhood fears that he doesn't understand, which make him get up in the morning without having slept well. Sometimes children don't sleep well at night because they experience what we call the "night terrors." They can't rest. Their entire frame of mind, their whole mood, all their state of concentration may be different at school. Teachers also know a lot about this - about boys and girls who can't concentrate because of some fear that they haven't understood.

The other point is the bully, but when this emerges in adolescence. This is also a young person who is afraid, whose childhood violence has not been given enough boundaries. There has been no process of internalisation of a father or a mother telling him or her: "We don't do that. That's not how you treat other people." Young people begin to calm down after boundaries have been placed on their violence.

Among adolescents who hit or insult others, this internalisation has generally not taken place. We're going to talk quite a bit about the importance of boundaries.

Int.: I can see that the foundations for all the future development of the personality are laid in childhood. Not resolving it in childhood only exacerbates the problem, but it is not resolved with time. I mean you don't resolve anything by not doing anything.

MT: If we don't understand, we have to understand.

Int.: Maria is on the line. Pleased to speak to you. Hello. I'm listening.

Listener: Hello, good afternoon. I have a son who's fourteen years old and he hasn't told me directly, I don't know if it's because he doesn't dare or... He seems nervous lately, he doesn't want to see his friends, he doesn't want to go out and he's insisting that he wants to join the gym. He wants to do karate, tae kwondo, some kind of self-defence. He hasn't told me and when I ask him, he doesn't want to answer me either.

Int.: Do you think it's to defend himself?

List.: Exactly. Because I've also spoken to the teachers and they say that some of his attitudes in class or at the school could mean that he has an enemy.

MT: Good afternoon, Maria. Thank you very much for calling. One of the most useful things among all the tools is attentive parents.

I want to tell you that it is very important that you pay attention to this behaviour that for some reason surprises you in your son. That's very important. It's very likely that he is looking for a way to define an external boundary through the gym. This gives him physical strength. But where we have to make them stronger is on a psychological level, on an emotional level.

But I don't want to let this go unmentioned: the bully is presented as an enemy, but we often see that bullies suffer just as victims do. Because one of the things that we think is important is to see that the bully is also suffering and may also have been the object of the violence from others. On most occasions, the bully has previously been a victim. But yes, as far as your son is concerned, I think it's important that you can understand who this training he is doing is aimed at and what it is for. If it is preparation for life or for a hostile environment, which you don't understand and to which you do not know how to respond to at the moment, you must try to find out what is happening to him.

Int.: You can't sort it out by hitting people. Thank you very much Maria. Marta is calling. I'm told that she is a teacher of children with problems. Is that right, Marta?

Listener: I'm a volunteer at a school.

Int.: I suppose you must also know a lot about what Monica Toscano is talking about. From experience more than anything else.

List.: Yes. What I've found is that I have a lot of children and adolescents who are immigrants, and they spend very little time here, because they are immediately sent back to their country, which is a very difficult situation for them. They treat each other very violently. They insult each other, hit each other, shout at each other. It's a bit of a strange situation, because you don't have much time to work with them either.

Int.: You're only there for a few days and you don't know how to focus...

List.: A few days, a few weeks, and in the conditions in which they arrive... For their families they're like a hope, and they have to go back, and that creates anxiety and a feeling of failure, and they feel terrible.

Int.: You're doing a magnificent job, Marta. Isn't that right, Monica?

MT: Yes it is, Martha. Congratulations. It's no small thing to work with children at this age. What's more, they aren't sure where to continue, because one of the most difficult things is that one of the strongest fears in adolescence is of what is different. So, on the subject of immigration as well, one of the things that we have to work on as a society is that young people also attack to distinguish themselves from what is different. There's a world that they don't understand. That applies to both children who arrive in a different country, with the pain of having left their own, and children who are already there, who don't fully understanding what is happening.

Int.: That's why there are groups of immigrants that form urban tribes. Obviously.

MT: It's not easy. We mustn't isolate ourselves from each other. We must help our children to integrate with differences and enrich themselves with them, something that we must learn to do as a society.

Int.: Thanks for coming, Monica. Congratulations.

MT: Thank you for having me.

Book by Monica TOSCANO, "Adolescence. Acting before situations arise. Theoretical and practical parameters I of the MONICA TOSCANO PREVENTION IN ACT®method" Chapter: Making room for parents' voices. Answers on the radio. Revised and updated edition. Barcelona, Maximum Prevention S.L. 2012.

TOSCANO Monica's book, “Adolescence. Act before the events happen. Theoretical-practical parameters I of the MONICA TOSCANO PREVENTION IN ACT® method ”Chapter We make room for parents' voices. Answers on the radio. Revised and updated edition. Barcelona, Maximum Prevention S.L. 2012.