Killing with kindness

29th August 2014 at 01:00
Most parents' first instinct is to protect their child from bullies. But denying young people the space to fight their own battles may be setting them up for a lifetime of pain. Adi Bloom reports

Sophie was ugly. Sophie was boring. Sophie did not belong in the playground, the class, the school. Spend time with Sophie and you would only prove that you were as boring as she was.

That was how the bullies saw Sophie (not her real name, because she has clearly suffered enough). She was in her early teens when the bullying started. It began with a group of girls in her class calling her names and making her feel that she didn't belong in the school.

Eventually, they began to threaten Sophie's friends, too. Hang around with Sophie, they said, and you will be treated the same way as she is. Sophie's friends stopped talking to her.

It is often assumed that bullying happens because of the bullies. These are children who are usually deeply insecure, and who mask their insecurity by picking on others even less secure than themselves. But other factors are also at play. The same society that routinely condemns bullying behaviour often creates precisely those circumstances that allow it to flourish.

"Overprotective parenting," says Dieter Wolke, firmly. Wolke is professor of psychology at the University of Warwick. Such is his status as an authority on bullying that specialists in the field tend to open conversations on the subject by pointing out their indebtedness to Wolke.

"Overprotective parents like to be involved in everything with the child. They're all the time around the child. They intervene. They're often anxious of letting them do things on their own, like climbing a tree. It's very risk-averse, anxious behaviour. It takes something away from children: the ability to deal with social situations.

"Overprotective parenting is related to those who become victims. It's like you don't get an inoculation: a small dose given so that you can fight the disease."

He is not suggesting that good parents should submit their children to low-level bullying. What he is saying, however, is that parents who do everything for their children often fail to equip them with the self-sufficiency to deal with a bullying attack. "Small conflicts are absolutely normal," he says. "But if you're never exposed to them, you never learn how to deal with them and you never develop strategies yourself."

If parents are insecure and uncertain of their own position in the world, they are likely to see it as a terrifying place, full of unknown dangers. This sense of peril is then passed on to their children. And children who step out into the world in a state of wide-eyed terror are far more likely to be picked on by bullies than those who are confident and self-assured.

"I have a nephew who was diagnosed at the age of 4 with a sleepy eye," says bullying expert Carrie Herbert. The boy was told that he needed to wear glasses with an eyepatch in order to remedy the condition. Children at school called him names, then took his glasses and smashed them. "He was bullied and bullied," Herbert says. "If anyone so much as said `four eyes' to him, he'd dissolve into tears."

By contrast, Herbert herself was overweight at school. When a classmate called her fat, she went home and reported the incident to her father. "We Herberts have always been fat," he told her. "That's why we can swim in the Atlantic without getting cold."

The next time someone called Herbert fat, she therefore replied: "I bet you can't swim in the Atlantic."

"What's the Atlantic?" the putative bully asked.

"There you are," Herbert said. That was the last time anyone called her fat.

"It's that kind of bravado and confidence that's standing behind a child," she says now. "If you don't have that bravado and confidence, then you're in trouble. Bullying is about: why does it get under the skin? Why can't they shrug it off?"

Herbert is the founder of Red Balloon Learner Centres, which provide education for children who have been so badly bullied that they are no longer able to attend mainstream schools. What she often sees among her students is that confidence - or lack of confidence - is passed down through the generations. "It's to do with being comfortable in your own skin," she says. "If you're comfortable in your own skin, you know what you are and aren't prepared to put up with."

Victim mentality

It is often easy for teachers to spot these unconfident parents: they are the ones who want to know what happens at every point during the day, who volunteer help at every opportunity. Alternatively, teachers might notice that a child seems particularly fearful or insecure. "The problem is, what the teacher sees is also seen by other children," Wolke says. "If you start crying and run away, a bully will home in on you. The bully sees exactly what the teacher sees."

Claude Knights, chief executive of Kidscape, which works with bullies and their victims, agrees. "It can take 20, 30 seconds to gauge someone," he says. "If you have a victim script, with all the passive behaviours and triggers that bullies are looking for, then it doesn't matter if you change schools. Some families change schools two, three times, and the child is bullied every time. The bullies see that you'll play that game: I'm the bully, you're the victim. Then it all starts all over again."

Sophie's victim script was well-established. Without the ability to shrug off her bullies' taunts, she was forced simply to endure them as they grew worse and worse. The bullies became violent: they hit her and they burned her hair. After school, they would go to her house and throw stones at the windows. Her parents took the issue to the local police.

The police, however, said it was an internal school matter. The teachers and school leaders were very concerned, but they had no idea how to tackle bullying on this scale. Understandably, they were also concerned for the reputation of the school. Sophie began refusing to attend.

"Her parents were bemused," says Knights, who worked with Sophie at Kidscape. " `Why is this happening?' They blamed themselves. She was obviously feeling very vulnerable, so they wanted to keep her away from the situation, away from school. It was wrapping her up in cotton wool a bit. It wasn't solution-focused, as such."

Knights often sees this kind of reaction among the parents of bullied children. "Anger is very common," she says. "There's a lot of anger: against school, against the bully, against the bully's family." Others are angry at the system. Many take the problem right up to the secretary of state, desperate for an intervention from on high.

"The second part of overprotective parenting is that when their child gets bullied, then all hell sometimes breaks loose," Wolke says. "They phone the school, they want meetings with the headteacher, they may phone the parents of the bully."

Less-protective parents, by contrast, will not wade in and attempt to deal with the problem themselves. Instead, they will sit down with their child and try to work out a solution together. "Some parents are very anxious about their children," Wolke says. "They're anxious about tasks where the children could injure themselves. They're anxious about letting them do things on their own.

"So they think they do a really good thing if they intervene all the time. But what they communicate to the child is: `My parents worry all the time because they think I'm useless.' "

If, for example, children have never learned to fall asleep on their own, their default response when they wake up will be to scream for a parent. There is no other option, because they have no strategy for self-soothing. "Parents could deprive their children of making experiences that are helpful," Wolke says. He suggests setting children tasks that are slightly more difficult than they can easily manage. "It gives them the feedback: `Wow, I can do that.' Often, that's taken away."

Deprived of such feedback, children can resort to other, less-constructive coping mechanisms. Sophie, for example, began to self-harm. Eventually, this escalated to such an extent that she took an overdose of paracetamol.

"When parents are terrified that their children are going to kill themselves, they go into overdrive," Herbert says. "Usually it's in terms of buying them things: I'll buy you a McDonald's or a skiing holiday, a new skirt or a pony."

Often, this is a desperate bargaining process: an attempt to keep a bullied child from self-harm. But children develop a sense of their own power in a world where they have pitifully little control. Herbert has seen children turn to their parents and tell them that they will kill themselves unless they are given an ice cream. "You just want to keep them alive," she says. "But at some point, the parents have to say, `No, I'm not going to be bribed in this way.'

"You have to give parents the power back, so they can say, `Darling, you're not going to do it. Don't be ridiculous.' You need to empower parents to say no and make the kids realise that they're not in control. It's about power and control, really."

This is true even when suicide attempts are genuine. One teenage girl whom Herbert worked with was bullied so badly that she tried to hang herself from the banisters at home. When that failed, she slit her wrists with a kitchen knife. Her father began sleeping on the floor outside the girl's bedroom to prevent her from making another attempt on her life.

"He just wanted to keep her alive," Herbert says. "But you need to get parents to a position where they're saying, `You're only 14. There need to be some boundaries.' "

Once again, she says, it is about allowing children to experience the world for themselves. By testing their own limits, children develop a sense of what they can and cannot do. By contrast, overprotected children have no experience of their own competence and therefore tend to assume that they lack the skills to negotiate life.

Changing the script

Sophie was referred to Kidscape, where she was enrolled in therapeutic assertiveness training. These sessions help the children learn to trust themselves, and to trust their own abilities. "We're trying to give them a Teflon coat," Knights says. "We're gradually building up confidence, building up the person. It's about the way you stand, the way you project yourself. Eye contact is very important. These are life skills."

The Kidscape programme also involves sessions for parents, encouraging them to step back and let their offspring handle the problem themselves. "We have mums not letting children out of their sight," Knights says. "One lad just wanted to go to the toilet and his mum was there, hovering outside the door.

"You can improve children's skills, but parents - in the blink of an eye - can take them right back to where they were. They feel really positive and then parents take them back immediately: `Oh my gosh, are you all right? Come to Mummy.' "

After working with Kidscape, Sophie started at a new school. Inevitably there were wobbles, but she went on to sit her GCSEs successfully. However, when it came to A-levels, she began to struggle. She was intelligent and motivated enough to cope with the work. But she lacked the fundamental self-belief necessary to see her way through the exams.

"Sometimes if you're bullied, you develop a perfectionist streak," Knights says. "You feel you'll never be good enough. You have to push yourself and push yourself, to prove that you're OK and can do what other people can do."

Sophie began to fall back into familiar patterns. She became withdrawn. She stopped spending time with her friends. She became pessimistic and started seeing the worst in everything.

"If you haven't got that Teflon coat, then any sort of life crisis can throw you back again," Knights says. "So there will be times of setback, usually attributed to things that happen in terms of the life cycle: the death of a grandparent or the illness of a sibling."

But this is not the only way in which victims can suffer, even after the bullying itself has long since stopped.

"Victims of bullying have difficulties over and above any emotional problems they had as a child," says William Copeland, clinical psychologist and epidemiologist at Duke University in North Carolina. Copeland has found that people who are bullied are less likely to finish school or university, and to hold down jobs and earn a good salary, than those who are not bullied. Decades after leaving school, victims are still more likely to experience mental-health problems such as anxiety and depression than those who have not been bullied.

This is true even once childhood poverty, family circumstances and pre-existing emotional conditions have been factored into the equation. In other words, it is not simply that children with emotional difficulties are more likely to be bullied. Being bullied causes emotional difficulties.

Harmful to health

"Clearly, there's a piece of this that's about the social experience of humiliation," Copeland says. "It's extraordinarily caustic to kids, especially when they experience it repeatedly."

And the effects are not simply emotional: they are physical as well. Copeland studied the blood of bullies, victims and children who were neither, looking for a marker that indicated body-wide inflammation, which is linked to greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. The largest increases in inflammation were among the victims of bullying, putting them at high risk of these illnesses (see panel, page 21).

"Bullying really does seem to leave scars that are very long-standing," Copeland says. "What better place to put our public-health dollars than in something like this, that affects kids early on in life and has the potential to change their functioning for decades and decades to come?"

By contrast, the lowest increases in inflammation were witnessed in the bullies themselves. "It seems that there's some sort of adaptive effect of being a bully," Copeland says.

Sophie is now 20 years old. Since dropping out of school, she has held a number of jobs, none of which has reflected her actual intellect or ability. She still lives with her parents and relies on them considerably. She is, however, planning to return to college and is considering a course in childcare.

"There's so much improvement," Knights says. "But there will be times of setbacks. Those are the times when victims relive the bullying. They truly relive it. Then you have to build up the Teflon coat all over again."

Read more about problem parenting on pages 28-29

The shortcut to good health: become a bully

Forget eating well or exercising regularly. If you want to improve your health with minimal effort, become a bully.

"Bullies are actually pretty healthy, quite strong, and do pretty well in later life," says Dieter Wolke, from the University of Warwick. "There's an absence of mental-health problems. They're able to hold down jobs."

It is important to note here that there are two types of bullies: popular and unpopular ones. The latter category includes bully-victims: those who bully others because they are being victimised themselves. In the long term, bully-victims often fare as badly, if not worse, than pure victims. They have a significantly higher than average chance of ending up in jail, unemployed or homeless.

It is the popular bullies who do well in life. They often have high levels of social intelligence and a natural capacity for manipulating their peer group.

Wolke and William Copeland, of Duke University in North Carolina, took blood samples from children aged 9-16. They screened the blood for markers of inflammation, which can indicate that someone is at a higher risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. By the end of the experiment, when the children were 21, increases in inflammation levels were lowest among one very specific group: the bullies. Put simply, these children were healthier than all the others, including those who were neither bullies nor victims.

Wolke draws a comparison with a study of British civil servants. This showed that the highest-ranking staff members were the healthiest, regardless of how much they drank or smoke. But as soon as they retired, thus surrendering their high status, they were beset by health problems.

"I think having higher status also helps you to be healthy," Wolke says. "Bullies have a really high social impact. Half the class thinks they're the really cool kids; the other half is afraid of them. They don't have to be alert and defending themselves all the time. They're in a very protected situation."

This can become a self-perpetuating cycle. As adults, bullies tend to choose jobs where they can dominate others. The health benefits, therefore, continue to accrue.

But Copeland argues that there are ways to guarantee all the advantages of the bully without the antisocial flip side.

"There are pro-social ways to experience higher social status: leadership schemes, athletics events," he says. "We should find ways for victims to learn from the bullies, to experience the same success as them. There's actually the possibility of learning from bullies. But you obviously have to be very careful with that."

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