Bullying: No laughing matter

From playground fights to the online rumour mill, bullying is on the rise


“In Pakistan, violence has become a part of the culture,” says Aftab Arif, a father of three. “It’s in our homes as corporal punishment, on our streets as a means of settling an accident and in our media as political and sectarian killings.”

In the midst of all of this, it is hardly surprising that emotional and verbal bullying is dismissed as unimportant. In fact, many even consider it a necessary ‘rite of passage’ for both the bully and bullied – to make them into strong human beings unless it escalates into physical violence.

School and college vernacular is rife with taunts that would have the bully hauled up anywhere else in the world. In Pakistan, however, the bully usually walks away in gales of laughter, from one target to another, proud of what they have just done. Most teachers and parents are too pre-occupied to even recognise the problem of bullying, let alone rectify it.

Bullying – in all its emotional, intellectual and physical forms – can occur as early as primary school wherein children who seem ‘different’ may be ostracised, teased or threatened. Although bullying can take many forms, for the child at the receiving end, it is never innocuous. If a child is being called names, teased, ignored, joked about or stolen from, they are being bullied. Religion, race, caste, social class, physical disabilities and even superior intelligence or looks are all reasons enough for being targeted a bully. Children with high self-esteem might avoid under-performers as not good enough. Girls, in particular, tend to move in exclusive cliques, silently undermining outsiders by spreading rumours and revealing secrets. Boys, on the other hand, resort to more apparent means such as physical abuse, spitting, shouting and generally rebellious behavior.

“At least 50% of my patients agree when I ask them if they are being bullied at school,” says Dr Ayesha Mian, chairperson and associate professor of psychiatry at the Aga Khan University Hospital Karachi. “Underlying mental issues like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can make children even more vulnerable to bullying and increase its destructive power.”

In general, bullies tend to be impulsive, aggressive, rude, insensitive and intimidating in nature while their victims are relatively much more shy, sensitive and introverted. Physically, the former also tend to overshadow the latter and subconsciously use their bigger size to exert their authority. “Often, the bully hails from a difficult family life, having watched their parents deal with problems aggressively,” adds Dr Mian. “Other times, the child may simply not know that physical or verbal aggression is not acceptable behaviour.”

At the other end of the spectrum lies cyber-bullying that knows no age or gender limits. The anonymity offered by the online world makes way for shockingly crude language and behaviour. In fact, a global survey commissioned by Microsoft to study online bullying ranked Pakistan as 22nd out of the top 25 countries. About 26% of the young participants (aged 8-17) indicated cyber-bullying, 53% admitted to being bullied offline and a staggering 64% reported both on and offline bullying. “Cyber-bullying is especially damaging to a child’s self-esteem,” says Dr Mian. “Rumours, disreputable photographs and insulting comments are frequent complaints made by youngsters suffering from depression and anxiety.”

Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are just two of the possible symptoms and by-products of bullying. In reality, children exhibit a variety of signs that could indicate social problems at school. “My daughter began waking up in the night, complaining of a stomach ache and asking if she could skip school the following morning,” shares Alya Khadim*, who discovered that her child was being bullied for her British accent after they moved back to Pakistan from the UK. Saima Asghar*’s happy-go-lucky, five-year-old daughter on the other hand, stopped smiling altogether and would burst into tears out of the blue. “She would cry for no reason and never wanted to go to school. As it turned out, her best friend had ‘gone bad,’ with much surreptitious pinching and mean whispers.”

YoungMinds, a UK-based online mental health resource for children and adolescents, cites unexplained anxiety, hatred for school, missing possessions and loss of interest in academics as consequences of bullying. Children may suffer from insomnia and mysterious aches and injuries. Some children may also exhibit suicidal tendencies.

Despite this, bullying isn’t given due attention by most Pakistanis. “Even parents dismiss it without realising how debilitating it can be if not addressed properly,” says Dr Mian. Some parents rely too heavily on the discipline of the ‘branded’ school they send their children to, to believe bullying exists. In fact, even children who attend these elite, private institutions don’t see bullying as a problem as their teachers and prefects are always on the prowl for anyone breaching the school’s rules. “The fear of consequences keeps children in check,” says Sofia Hameed*, whose sons study at one of the most prestigious institutions in Karachi. “If the threat keeps children at their best behaviour, it must be okay.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t okay. Dr Mian receives as many cases of bullying from the top-tier schools of Karachi as from the ones where awareness of bullying might be non-existent. Mother of two, Nadia Karim* suggests that many parents forget that even teachers can be their children’s offenders – bullying doesn’t have to come from fellow students only. “Punishments that were acceptable a generation ago are considered mean, destructive and ineffective now,” she explains. “If a teacher practices them now, they would be considered bullies.” Nadia, however, admits she would be afraid of taking up the issue with her children’s teachers lest they become even more troublesome. However, the instance of teacher-student bullying is uncommon and requires a different treatment than inter-student problems.

Of course, this is not to say that a bully is a villain to be feared and punished for their ill-temperament. We must remember that bullies are children too and their negative behaviour is but a cry for help. “Family dynamics are often to blame when it comes to bullying,” explains Dr Khalida Tareen, professor of psychiatry at the King Edward’s Medical University in Lahore. “The endless excitement of joint families, financial pressures in nuclear families, lack of attention from busy parents and spousal problems between the mother and father can cause a child to react unexpectedly.”

Dr Tareen believes a child’s nature determines how they react to the various triggers in their lives. An introverted child may withdraw towards books and imaginary games while a more extroverted one will lash out on others, thereby becoming the bully. “It’s how bullies defends themselves in a world they believe is rigged against them,” she adds.

Therefore, what is needed is a stable, nurturing and secure environment to help both the bully and the bullied feel cared for. Individually, Dr Tareen suggests that, “The bullied should be encouraged to walk away and ignore the bully and so, take away their power.” Bullies, on the other hand, should be praised for their achievements and given some responsibility to develop a sense of self-worth.

On a parental level, one should start by encouraging children to talk about everyday things that bother them and monitor their daily behaviour for any signs of trouble. Parents should also make a concerted effort and spread awareness regarding bullying, its causes, effects and possible solutions. All instances of bullying must be reported to school staff so that appropriate measures are undertaken to resolve the issues. Also, if a child continues to exhibit bullying-related symptoms, parents shouldn’t shy away from seeking professional help from a mental health expert.

As for schools, a stringent anti-bullying policy is a must to keep the students in check. “Such policies need to become an integral part of the curriculum,” says Dr Tareen. Encouraging children to create anti-bullying posters, arranging plays and helping them compose songs on said theme are just some creative ways to instill the idea into young minds.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, February 8th, 2015.

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