Timothy hesitated, considering his response. Often described as shy, Timothy was known by family and friends as being the quiet one.
Briefly, a flashback from his childhood flitted across his mind. He was in grade eight. It was a tough year. While most of the boys in his class had begun getting taller and filling out, he was still small, shorter than many of the girls even. Which led to merciless teasing. They called him “Tiny Tim” and would often stuff him into his locker.
Suddenly, Timothy was pulled back into the present moment. Two of his colleagues were leaning over his cubicle, waiting for an answer. “Uhhh…thanks, but I should really focus on getting these reports out.” Even while saying it, he regretted being so shy. He wished he had the courage to say yes, to join them for lunch and get to know a few more people around the office, but fear and insecurity held him back.
Sighing heavily after they walked away, he turned back to his computer.
Veronica* always knew that her son, Ryan, was a bit different than other children. He was quiet, uncoordinated, and had different interests than boys in his class, preferring to spend his time alone examining plants and rocks rather than taking part in sports or group activities.
In kindergarten, children started picking on Ryan because of these differences. Veronica frequently found herself at the school, talking with teachers or the principal about the bullying her son experienced. Children would make fun of him, intentionally exclude him, and sometimes physically hurt him. As Ryan got older, the teasing got worse.
“I found myself getting extremely upset and demanding that the teachers do something about it—speak to these children’s parents—that this sort of thing should not be tolerated,” Veronica recalls.
Eventually, it seemed that things were getting better. When her son stopped talking about being bullied, Veronica assumed he was no longer experiencing it. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered the bullying hadn’t stopped, but that her son had just stopped telling her about it, because he didn’t want to upset her. This was a very painful realization for Veronica.
“As parents, we get so hurt by seeing our children being hurt, but we don’t necessarily have the skills to deal with that. So when my son was bullied, I’d get angry, and I’d try to fight for him, but I didn’t have the skills to effectively deal with these situations.”
Reflecting back, Veronica wishes she had approached the situation differently, so that her son didn’t feel the need to hide the bullying from her.
Veronica’s daughter, Madison, grew up watching her brother being bullied because of his differences. “My daughter was so hurt by watching this happen to her brother, but he told her not to interfere, and not to say anything to me, so that guilt was something that she carried with her.”
Madison remembers struggling with wanting her brother to feel safe, but feeling like she couldn’t do anything to make the situation better: “When I said something to him about it, he would get mad at me. And when I said something to the bullies, they would just laugh at me. And then he would get embarrassed that I would have to defend him.”
Now, Ryan is in high school. He is six feet tall and 180 pounds, so bullies think twice before they mess with him. But Veronica sees the impact that years of bullying have had on her son.
“I know that it’s affected how he sees himself. I see it in his confidence, feeling like he is not good enough to go after an opportunity, or even ask a girl out. I see how the years of being teased and harassed for who he was have left an imprint on his personality.”
Looking back, Veronica wishes that she would have focused more on being there for Ryan, and making sure that he knew he was loved for the way that he was.
“I spent a lot of time being angry about what was happening, when really I should have spent my time building him up, and making sure he knew that I thought he was great the way that he was. And that he was loved unconditionally. Kids need to feel worthy of love, valued, and that they belong somewhere.”
The facts on bullying
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. There are many different ways that someone can be bullied. Bullying can be physical, cyber, verbal, sexual, social, racial, religious, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic.
Sudden changes in behaviour may indicate that a child is being bullied. They may become sad, angry, or withdrawn. Other possible signs of bullying include:
- Unexplainable injuries
- Unexplained illness such as stomach pains and headaches
- Lost or damaged personal items, such as clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
- Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating
- Having a hard time sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Slipping grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Decreased self-esteem
- Self-destructive behaviours such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
- Often, younger children are unable to express their emotions through words, so they may show physical symptoms of bullying, like headaches, or stomach pains. These are symptoms of stress, manifested in abrupt physical, emotional, behavioural, and social changes.
Although bullying typically tends to start in elementary school, peak in junior high, and subside in high school, the impacts of bullying can affect a child for life, causing long-term physical problems and mental health issues. Bullying can be devastating in childhood, and result in children growing up to be withdrawn, shy, and insecure adults. Adults who were bullied as children sometimes have a hard time trusting others, may find it difficult to form and maintain lasting intimate relationships, and may even struggle with psychiatric disorders.
Helping a child who is being bullied
As Veronica explained, “Parents need to understand that how we react, when a child tells us that they’re being bullied, how hurt we get around seeing our kids struggle, will affect them as well, and will affect their ability to ask for help.”
What to do if a child is being bullied:
- Be there to comfort and listen. Let the child know you’re there to support them and to help keep them safe.
- Make sure the child knows where they can go to for help when confronted with a bullying situation.
- Help develop the child’s social skills by encouraging them to do things they enjoy.
- Practice how to respond to bullies with the child. Teach them to respond without anger, and stand up for themselves.
- Build your communication by encouraging the child to talk about their feelings and ideas.
- Consider how, as a role model yourself, your actions and reactions can influence the child. How do you treat others and how do you let others treat you?
- You have the ability to act as a positive support for children and youth in your life, helping them navigate through feelings of anxiety, depression, or self-harm, which may come from being bullied.
Build your natural support skills today. The United Way Natural Supports Simulation is a free, interactive, online resource that helps adults develop skills to actively listen, validate emotions, remove stigma around mental health, and engage in conversations non-judgmentally with the goal of helping children and youth building confidence.
* All names have been changed.