backpacks & bullies – school bells ring the alarm for some

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The start of the school year is often a time of excitement filled with the hope of new experiences and ample possibilities for children and teenagers. But for many it can also be a period marked by dread and anxiety. Bullying, the repeated and intentional use of words or actions to inflict harm can have traumatic consequences for a child, it is an issue that no parent wants to be confronted with and while it is not uncommon in its occurrence, it is seldom talked about.

In this interview, Nadia Al Nassar, a Counselor at Fawzia Sultan Rehabilitation Institute, sheds light on this issue and discusses how to best understand, respond and prevent the problem.

Question: How would you define bullying? When should a conflict be considered bullying?

Answer: Bullying is characterized as unwanted, aggressive behavior among individuals and groups of all ages. We have to be cautious with labels like “bully” and “victim” as they may indicate that the behavior is unchangeable, and in using these terms we may also fail to recognize that many “bullies” are also victims of abuse.

There are three primary components that we must look for to determine whether a conflict is in fact bullying. Firstly, the aggressive act has to be intentional such that the person is purposefully attempting to harm an individual. Secondly, there must be a real or perceived imbalance of power between the instigator and the person being bullied which means that the instigator has more physical or social power than the person or group being bullied. Lastly, the behavior must be habitual which means that it is repeated over time or is likely to be repeated.

Q: In your opinion, what are the awareness levels and attitudes towards bullying in Kuwait?

A: Bullying is often not taken seriously, and this may be due to the lack of understanding of its harmful effects on both the bully and the victim. On a positive note, there is a noticeable rise in youth-based initiatives and campaigns that are discussing and condemning bullying behavior in Kuwait.

Q: Are there any figures on how prevalent the problem is here? Has it become more severe globally?

A: There is minimal research on the prevalence of bullying in Kuwait. However, a study conducted by Amer Al Saleh in 2014 found that an alarming 80 percent of 9th and 10th grade students in public schools have experienced some form of bullying.

Globally, research has shown that between 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 young people have experienced bullying. There is growing awareness of bullying, which may lead some to believe that bullying overall is on the rise. However, studies in the US suggest that rates of bullying may be declining. Whether or not the severity of bullying has increased or decreased over time, it remains a significant and attention-worthy problem globally.

Q: What are the most common types of bullying that a child or teen may be subjected to?

A: Bullying is commonly categorized into the following types: physical, verbal, social/relational bullying and cyber-bullying. Physical bullying includes hitting, shoving, pinching and restraining a person, as well as damaging of property. Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments and making threats. Social bullying, also known as relational bullying, is a non-direct form of bullying, meaning that it involves hurting someone’s reputation and/or relationship. Examples include excluding a person on purpose, spreading rumors, embarrassing the person in public, and so forth.

With the age of technology, people are vulnerable to receiving mean text messages, rumors sent through social networking sites, embarrassing personal content posted online or fake profiles. This form of bullying is known as cyber-bullying and unfortunately could occur in the comfort of one’s home. All types of bullying can be equally harmful to one’s wellbeing.

Q: What are some of the effects that bullying can have on an individual?

A: Each individual is unique in their capacity to be resilient, which is the ability to move on and cope with stressful life events. Nevertheless, bullying can be a frightening experience for any person. Individuals that are bullied may have low self-esteem, lower performance at school or work, lack meaningful friendships, are less accepted by peers, experience social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and nightmares. Sadly, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, victims of constant bullying may be at a high risk of suicide.

Q: Can the experience of being a victim or a bully persist in adulthood? If so, in what ways?

A: Bullying is often perceived as a childhood or school-related problem; however, bullying dynamics are common in adulthood whether at home, work or social settings.

Q: A lot of parents choose not to intervene and look at bullying as adversity that serves as a primer for life, a lesson to be learnt. What is your response to this? When and how should parents intervene to manage and resolve such issues?

A: It is true that disputes may enable children to learn social skills like conflict resolution. There are many incidences when behaviors may not be considered bullying, but are nevertheless distressing. For example, mutual conflicts where there is no power imbalance, single acts of aggression and social rejection or dislike. It is understandable that parents do not want to be over-protective and solve all their children’s problems. However, bullying is not only distressing but can have adverse effects on a child’s mental and physical wellbeing. At the very least, parents can help their child by talking about the distressing situation and working together to brainstorm solutions. That way parents are allowing their children to make their own decisions and develop their problem solving skills. Sometimes just listening to the child and providing support is helpful. Parents should assess the severity of the situation and intervene when the bullying is ongoing, their child is unsafe or the behavior is causing their child to feel continually upset, ill or sick and unable to attend school.

Q: What are the gender differences in bullying?

A: There are significant differences in the ways boys and girls experience bullying. Boys are more likely to engage in direct forms of bullying such as physical and verbal bullying, whereas girls are likely to engage in indirect bullying such as relational bullying (e.g. spreading rumors).

Q: In the case where bullying isn’t physical, what signs should parents look out for?

A: Parents know their kids best and can help their child by noticing changes in mood and behavior. Some of the warning signs include fear of going to school, low self-esteem, withdrawal or depression, appearing distressed after school, anxiety, and continuously missing personal belongings such as books.

Q: Today, kids and teens have to also deal with cyber-bullying with exposure to social media. What are the implications of this and what different interventions would this necessitate?

A: Cyber-bullying is bullying through digital and technological platforms such as text messaging and social media. This form of bullying is unique, in a sense that it is harder to escape given that it is not exclusively based in a certain setting. Also, those who engage in cyber-bullying can do it anonymously and it may be difficult to know who the bully is. Furthermore, it is difficult to remove content once it has been posted online. Parents can help prevent cyber-bullying by educating their children on cyber-bullying and being aware of what their children do online. Children and teenagers must understand that they should avoid sending or posting information online that could embarrass them or be used against them.

Q: How should kids and teens respond when they themselves are bullied or witness an incident? Who should they seek out for help?

A: It’s important not to aggravate the situation by engaging with the bullies. If possible, children should walk away or ignore the behavior. Using neutral language when talking to the bully may help deescalate the situation. When kids are bullied they may feel alone and vulnerable, therefore there needs to be support from both parents and teachers.

Q: How can school administrators and leaders discourage bullying?

A: The first step is to clearly denounce the act of bullying and create policies and rules against bullying behavior. Schools must be closely monitored, keeping in mind that students are usually more likely to bully in certain settings such as bathrooms and stairwells. Furthermore, including themes of tolerance and acceptance in the curriculum can help reduce bullying. Reward and encourage students who demonstrate respectful behavior.

Q: On the flipside of this conversation, what motivates a bully and how can parents prevent their children from bullying others?

A: This may come as a surprise but many bullies have been victims of abuse themselves. The abuse may have occurred at home, school, work or other social settings. People who bully may redirect their own frustrations and hurt towards someone else. Furthermore, many children learn to bully by witnessing aggressive or confrontational behavior in their parents or other influential people in their lives. Another motivation is loneliness, as bullying often brings attention and an increase in popularity to the aggressor. Furthermore, some bullies may have difficulty empathizing with other people.

Parents should not automatically blame themselves if their child is bullying others. However, it is important for parents to be aware of their own behaviors and make sure they are not modeling bullying-like behaviors. Parents should also verbalize their disapproval of bullying and aggressive behaviors. Also, it is crucial to assess whether your child feels frustrated at home and may be acting out the frustrations in other settings.

Q:  Are there community-wide strategies that you would recommend for Kuwait?

A: Bullying can be prevented, and community engagement is fundamental to achieving our anti-bullying goals. The biggest sustainer of bullying behavior is silence. When we do not talk about the problem, we fail to acknowledge it as such. Therefore, the first step is to establish a shared vision of bullying, enabling us to have an open discussion about the matter and how it can affect an individual or group. Community members can advocate for bullying prevention programs to be incorporated into school curriculums and youth-based programs. Furthermore, we must empower and encourage those who witness incidents off bullying to safely intervene in order to stop and prevent it.

  • By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff

Nadia Al Nassar is a counselor with a broad range of experience across different fields of clinical specialty, including a special focus on working with pediatric and young adult patients. Nadia’s professional areas of interest also include maternal psychology, psychopathology, trauma, testing and assessment, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

In her professional career before coming on board at FSRI, Nadia concentrated largely on working with younger patients, with experience providing psychological services to patients ages 3 to 24. During her time pursing her post-graduate studies in the United States, Nadia worked with The Door, a non-profit youth empowerment program based in New York, where she served as an Intake Counselor. She was also involved with Brave Buddies, an intensive group behavioral treatment program designed to help children with selective mutism (SM), and completed a 10-week placement in the UK schooling system, working with children suffering from learning disabilities.

Nadia earned her Bachelor’s degree, with honors, in Psychology from the University of York in the United Kingdom in 2014. She also recently completed a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in the United States, Nadia has a keen interest in the field of research, and most recently worked with Columbia University’s Teachers College Autism Lab on a research project focusing on symbolic play in children with autism.

Nadia Al Nassar – B.Sc, M.A. – Counselor


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