Hello! I’m Emily. I’m an autistic psychologist who specializes in researching and helping autistic youngsters, teachers, and parents cope with the difficulties around feeling bullied. I work with individuals and do workshops in the UK, USA, and Europe. And one of the things I’ve done is to look at the huge myths around what is and isn’t bullying and some of the things we’re advised to do.
First of all…What is bullying? Every school is legally required to have a definition and most say it’s behavior that is deliberate, repeated, and involves a strong individual against a weaker one. I could pick all sorts of holes in that for you (it’s often thoughtless rather than deliberate; it only needs to happen once to have long-lasting negative effects; weaker children sometimes pick on stronger ones to counter their own sense of fear). I could go on, but really, I wanted to show you some useful ideas around what advice we give those who are bullied (or fear getting bullied), because this has a big effect on what happens next.
I thought it might be useful to look at what parents tend to advise youngsters to do when they feel bullied. I’ve asked hundreds of parents this question and usually they respond in one of three ways.
- Just ignore them and they’ll stop
- Tell the teacher
- Hit them back
I’ll start with the first one—‘Just ignore them and they’ll stop’
This advice makes good logical sense because experience has shown us that usually this is the case. Whoever is doing the bullying does get bored. And they do often stop.
However, the difficulty is that, even if you just feel bullied, your body experiences exactly the same levels of stress as if you had been mugged late at night in a dark alleyway. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing becomes shallow, you either get ready to run away (flight) or punch/shout back (fight). Or you might just feel powerless to do anything at all (freeze). Your main emotion is fear. And with all your oxygen being used up by your muscles to run away, fight, or stay rigid…you can’t actually just ignore it. So, if it’s a problem with biology, we need a biological response.
I suggest you teach your youngsters the following exercise so oxygen can start going back to their brains and they can think clearly again. Practice on yourself first!
- Think of a situation you find scary (and recognize how panicked that makes you feel)
- Now think of a color that makes you feel braver or stronger…Red? Dark blue? You choose
- Stand with your feet slightly apart and take a breath, deep into your stomach. Imagine this breath is the color that made you feel brave or strong—let it fill your whole stomach
- Breathe out as if that color was going down through your legs, through your knees, your feet, and through the floor. Think of it spreading underground as huge steadying root, until you completely run out of breath
- Now your body will take over and you will automatically take in a huge, deep breath
- Finally, back to your personal scary situation. Note that, although it’s still there, it’s no longer quite so alarming. And because you now have lots of oxygen in your brain, you can finally not ignore it, but think rationally about whether you want to ignore it or do something about it
Fantastic, isn’t it? It’s just a case of you using your own biology to help you out when stressed.
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Now the second strategy—‘Just tell a teacher’
Again, this is good, logical advice. Surely all teachers are trained to deal with bullying issues thoroughly and sensitively? If only! Some are fantastic, but most have had no training at all and are too busy struggling to deliver ever-changing curriculum and with paperwork issues to have the time needed. So how do we help our youngsters know when it’s serious enough to insist on help when they’re upset?
When we feel bullied, our self-esteem goes down and it’s hard to ask for any help. We tend to say things like “I probably deserved it.” Sadly, I hear so many autistic young people say they’ve been described by others as stupid, lazy, abnormal…so it’s not at all surprising many have a very low opinion of themselves and don’t know how appropriate it might be to complain. The next exercise is a fun thing to do to raise self-esteem and confidence.
- Between you, think of a list of all the things your youngster can do—his/her skills. Anything from drawing, math, football, running, remembering details—make a long list of everything you can think of
- Next, generate a list of all the things about his/her personality that are lovely. Is he/she friendly? Kind? Enthusiastic? Gentle? Again, write a really long list
- Last of all, and hardest, make a list of things he/she likes about the way he/she looks…anything from (my favorite) really comfy clothes, to wild hair, to perfect eyebrows. It really doesn’t matter. The important thing here is that it encourages physical self-confidence
Now write up all these lists of positive things. Get him/her to decorate the lists, and get him/her to keep choosing one word from each list every time he/she goes into a new situation. Feeling positive about ourselves means we are not only able to ignore minor bits of teasing and bullying, but we are way more likely to ask for help (with everything, including feeling bullied) if it feels more serious.
And last of all—‘Hit them back’
This is very popular with parents and, to be fair, we probably all know of cases in which someone has finally hit back and the bully has been very shocked and stopped. In fact, lots of films are based on this idea of someone driven to fighting back and then winning.
There are two problems with this advice though…the first is that even if your bullied child was driven beyond endurance, the law will still punish him/her for violent behavior. Plus, schools are obliged to follow this by involving the police, even with primary school pupils. The second problem is violence doesn’t ultimately solve anything. If you put someone down, he/she usually works hard to regain his/her battered pride by either bullying someone else or plotting revenge.
I suggest that next time there is an issue around bullying, work really hard with your child to help him/her understand why someone might behave so badly. Often, he/she is totally unaware the other child might not have a supportive family similar to his/her own. The other child might be being bullied himself/herself. If there is understanding, it makes it far more likely children will feel less anxious about others.
Armed with higher self-esteem and the ability to ground themselves, it is more likely children will look and feel more confident, thus appearing less like a potential easy victim.
Coping with bullying is always hard for parents. I know we’d all do anything we could to help our lovely youngsters avoid it. I’m so hoping this article is a start and proves really helpful.
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood