What verbal bullying entails and how it influences young children
Theme: Health Issues and Disease / Ethics and Controversy
The American philosopher, historian and writer, Will Durant, once said “A healthy mind does not speak ill of others. To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves. Nothing is often a good thing to say, and always a clever thing to say.” With this quote, I want to begin this article about verbal bullying. Scientists have been researching bullying for over 40 years. A concept like bullying is abstract; it can take various shapes and forms, and a two-line definition certainly cannot cover all aspects of bullying. However, for the sake of this article, let us consider the most accepted definition. Bullying is defined as “the use of force, coercion, or threat, to abuse, aggressively dominate or intimidate. The behaviour is often repeated and habitual. Bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behaviour characterised by (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.”
For the sake of completeness, let us look at another definition which states that bullying is “an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.” That was a lot of words, so let me break the definition down to digestible phrases. Considering the first definition - “hostile intent” is quite simply anger and unfriendliness, but “imbalance of power” has several connotations. It suggests that as the perpetrator gains power, the victim loses power. The perpetrator may derive power by being physically stronger than the victim, by being in a group that targets a single person, or by having a higher social status in the group. When such behaviour is sustained by the perpetrator for a long time, it is classed as bullying. The aforementioned definitions do not give us a detailed picture of bullying, but they state that bullying does not have to be by physical violence only. Though seen everywhere, bullying, and especially verbal bullying, is prevalent in the lives of school-going children. This establishes the focus of today’s article - the impacts of verbal bullying on a child.
“One of the most common and hurtful forms of verbal bullying is name-calling,” claimed by 75% of elementary school students. When one name-calls another, they are attempting to define them based on personal prejudices rather than facts. Between children, this may be when one child calls another child “stupid,” “ugly,” “fat,” “nerd,” etc. This may seem trivial to grown-ups, but for children, the use of such derogatory terms destroys their self-esteem and self-worth. It is important to consider that childhood is a sensitive time - children learn what they see, and what they experience affects them greatly. To demonstrate this, here is a common scenario: let’s call our bully “X” and our victim “Y.” X and Y see one another regularly in school and also when they hang out with other kids, but don’t know each other well. X is known to be smart and brave and Y as being timid and shy. X is often in a large group while Y is either alone or in a small group. One day, X and their friends call Y “stupid.” Y remains silent and the name-calling continues for months. Y expresses several times that they are hurt and tries to stop X, but X does not mend their ways.
Let’s analyse this, keeping the definition in mind. We know that X and Y don’t know each other well, so when X chose to call Y “stupid,” it was most likely out of bias - if X knew Y well, they might not have held a derogatory opinion about them. Even if X knew Y well and thought negatively about them, calling Y stupid upfront was still hurtful as it was X’s way to tell Y that they are smarter than Y - this is the imbalance of power. X’s need to express superiority and the mere intent of wanting to tell Y that they are stupid is unkind - this is the hostile intent. X’s continued rude behaviour despite knowing how it affected Y - this is the repetition. What X never realised was that their hurtful words changed Y’s opinion about themselves. Y started believing that they are indeed stupid, i.e incapable of understanding difficult concepts and undeserving of kindness, though none of that is true as no one should be treated that way.
Bullying, whatever form it occurs in, has lifelong consequences that can be detrimental to a child’s health. These may be, but are not limited to:
The destruction of their self-esteem - being called “ugly” for a long time will cause a person to believe that they are truly ugly. They then may have problems with their looks or feel as if they are overweight, further leading them to use unhealthy means to match someone else’s standards of beauty
Encouragement of unrealistic and overly critical views - believing that if they don’t prove people wrong, they will be associated with failure
The compromisation of certain beliefs and values - a naturally introverted person could try to be more extroverted because of peer pressure, opening their minds to distress
An attack on their sense of well-being - this adds to negative changes in personality and behaviour
Depression and the contemplation of suicide
Post-traumatic stress disorder as well as sleeping and/or eating disorders
The impact bullying has on a person’s mental health is vast, yet it is the most overlooked as wounds of the mind do not leave a mark on a person’s body. But this can be prevented if schools and parents take certain measures, such as:
Modelling how they could treat others with kindness - using respectful and friendly terms and treating others the way they want to be treated
Encouraging kids to talk to trusted adults if they are getting bullied - even if the adult cannot solve their problems, opening up to someone helps a person feel lighter
Encouraging kids to stand up to those who bully them - providing tips they could use to stand up to them, and teaching them to say “Stop” firmly
Suggesting strategies they can use to stay safe - staying around adults they trust so that bullies are discouraged
These are only a couple of the many things schools and parents can do to help their children if they are bullying others or are getting bullied themselves. Understanding the considerable impact of bullying on a child’s mental health, these measures are really the bare minimum and guardians and mentors should aim to achieve more than that. Educational institutions undeniably play an important role in shaping a person, but the role played by parents is equally important. Every parent can implement these things in their child’s life, they have the ability to do this. But the question is, are they willing to?
If you would like to read more about how bullying may be prevented, please have a look at this article: https://www.apa.org/topics/prevent-bullying
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