Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, Associate Professor, Dept. of Child Adolescent & Family Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health is a renowned authority on child psychology and weighs in on how often things take an ugly turn, to a sinister clinical mental health issue.
“One thing we must always keep in mind is that bullying is a universal phenomenon and is not limited to urban playgrounds; it can happen anytime, anywhere — while you walk on the streets, at a party you attend, and for adults even in the workplace. It can even start in your own home” said Dr Ahmed, the reputed psychiatrist.
“Bullying can be verbal, social, or even physical — from being called names, being teased and humiliated, to being ignored and left out. And unfortunate as it may seem, most people even do not initially feel that they are being preyed on. In the beginning, most of it seems like mere joke,” he added.
Many parents and adults feel that it is all part of growing up. Is it?
There may not be a clear-cut answer.
Dr Ahmed went on to say, “bullying is something that has existed in all cultures; the nature and severity of the matter are taking new shapes. In the current context, it is important that we have a system that can ensure its prevention, or at least early detection, and in clinical cases, an early diagnosis of the problem that has resulted from bullying”.
One of the initial responses to bullying is in the child experiencing helplessness. They may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale. The fear of backlash from the bully is also a cause.
We all know from experience that bullying can be a humiliating experience. Children may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak.
Bullied children may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand. The fear of rejection by their peers is often far greater than we can ever imagine. Individuals they consider as friends can help protect children from bullying, and by opening up to their parents or a higher authority at school, many fear that they may eventually lose this support.
Even for discerning parents or vigilant teachers, identifying a victim may not be easy. But to pick early signs of discomfort in a child's mind is simple enough.
Children who are facing issues usually show early signs, which may include, but is not limited to —lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry; frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness; changes in eating habits, difficulty in sleeping or frequent nightmares; declining grades; loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school; sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations; feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem; and self-destructive behaviours.
In the past, bullying was considered a matter involving a bully and one s/he bullied on. However, advances in medical science and psychology research reveal that the bully themselves often have past history of various forms of abuse.
Early signs that the child is bullying may include — recurrent incidences of getting into physical or verbal fights, having friends who bully others, increased aggression, repeated detentions at school, unexplained extra money or new belongings, blaming others for their problems, and a tendency to deny any responsibility of their actions.
Recognising and understanding a problem can very well be the first step towards the solution. “Early symptoms may be as subtle as a growing tendency of the child to lie,” said Dr Ahmed.
The specialist also said that these symptoms can be manifestations of distress, frustration, insecurity, and depression resulting from being bullied.
“Some of the victims of bullying also develop post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorder, which can not only hamper the development of the child, but also result in permanent psychological issues. Often the victims of bully become bullies themselves,” he said.
It is clear that both boys and girls can be victims of bullying. However, the fact that boys are 4 to 6 times more prone to turn into bullies is not well known. Most people assume that the trauma differs depending on gender.
The fear of being bullied, or becoming labelled as a bully, is so deeply ingrained in the mindset of the parents and the children themselves that all interviewees wished to remain anonymous. All names used in the entire series of articles have thus been changed upon their request. We would like to express our sincerest thanks to all those who were brave enough to narrate a traumatic experience they do not wish to relive.
Star Lifestyle also thanks Laila Khondkar, Director, Child Rights Governance and Child Protection, Save the Children in Bangladesh and Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, Associate Professor, Dept. of Child Adolescent & Family Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health in helping us with their valuable insight.
Dr Ahmed said, “From a psychological perspective bullying is considered cross-sectional and multidimensional. Every case is unique and to split them on gender grounds is a mistake.”
Most parents are still not ready to accept that their child is a bully. Those who are bullied prefer silence in the fear of further harassment, and school authorities often turn a blind eye in fear of losing their reputation.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed however feels that this can never solve a problem.
“While addressing the topic or trying to solve individual cases, we find the children more eager and ready to accept ideas and suggestions. Parents are, unfortunately, not as conducive. Their preconceived minds adhere to certain notions, and it is extremely difficult for us to change their mindset. Unfortunate as it may seem, schools are least cooperative. While most children are abused by their peers, quite often, the teachers are the perpetrators — an idea which the school is not ready to accept.
“No matter what the case may be, from my professional experience I feel that more schools should be open about accepting the fact that bullying does take place, and they have a duty to prevent or get involved when it happens,” he said.
Clinical intervention can bring good results. Psychotherapy often yields excellent result; as do medication. Prejudice often leads to parents ignoring specialist advice, particularly when it comes to medication. Unless we accept that there is a problem, there can never be any solution.