When I was a child I was severely bullied. This went on continuously throughout 5 schools, and has had a hugely detrimental effect on my adult life. Through years of therapy and a lot of thinking, the hardest thing to get my head around is that the adults who should have helped failed to step in and protect me. This is a letter I wish I could have written to the teachers, staff and other adults aware of my situation at the time.
Dear staff member,
I am not sure if you remember me from so many years ago, but I will try to remind you now. I was the quiet girl in your class. I was conscientious and polite, but perhaps a little socially awkward. I was the person that sat apart from the class. I was picked last in P.E, and the one that never had a partner in class. I was the child that walked alone at break time, you even made comments that I needed to try harder to socialise. Later on in my school life, I was the one you found hiding in the bathrooms during lessons – what you didn’t know is that I was leaving classes to cut myself up to 20 times a day.
Sometimes you watched me crying. More often then not, your reaction was unacceptable. You made me feel an array of emotions, but non of them positive. You said ‘I’m sure they’re just trying to be your friends’ and to ‘Just ignore them’. You even told me off when another child hit me, and when you found spitballs on the floor after bullies had been throwing them at me all lesson. You made me feel embarrassed that I was being bullied, unworthy because nothing was ever dealt with, and unlovable. You made me feel like the perpetrator. I truly believed for many years that it was my fault – after all, I got bullied throughout my entire schooling career, and the only continuum in 5 schools was me – it must have been my fault.
What you may not be aware of are the aftereffects that bullying can cause. It is something that society as a whole seem unaware of, and even though I grew up with it, I too was unaware. It seemed unbelievable when I was sat in a psychiatrists office years later being told that I ‘clearly showed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ alongside severe depression, anorexia and self harm. I had no idea that PTSD was something that could be caused by anything so negligible as name calling and a little ‘rough and tumble’. I was experiencing flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety and dissociating constantly. I was unable to cope with the most basic of activities – I really can’t count the number of times I had to dump a trolly full of food half filled in the supermarket due to a panic attack, and the number of lectures at uni I couldn’t cope with attending. I had whole days that would go by without recollection due to dissociating over the smallest of triggers, and when I finally came back to myself I could spend hours crying uncontrollably for reasons I couldn’t understand. I was a ball of self hatred. During these years my depression was spiralling out of control. I had many years spent with 180 tablets and a bottle of rum stashed away ‘just in case’ tomorrow was as bad as today, and many times stood on the edge of train platforms willing myself to jump off. My eating disorder required hospitalisation, and my self harm continued for 13 years. I also found myself in unhealthy relationships. I had been taught to accept abuse from nursery, and ended up in 2 abusive relationships because I had no idea what a healthy relationship was. Being cared about and loved was alien to me – why would I expect to be respected when I was taught for so long that this isn’t a luxury people give to me. I had no idea what it was to be liked, loved or listened too.
Fast forward to now, and it has taken 12 years of therapy to get to this point. I no longer have an active eating disorder, and no longer self harm unless overly triggered. My PTSD is manageable – I still have triggers directly linked to bullying (crowds, noise, small groups of people I don’t know etc), and I still have a tendency to dissociate. I have also lost large parts of my memory from certain years of my life, tho bit by bit little sections return. Indeed, I often see school photos and have no recollection of anybody in the class – it really is a little off putting!
So, what could you have done to change this? After all, you are only one person right? Wrong. Just one person stepping in could have changed everything. Here are a few points that could really help the next child you deal with.
First off, if you do nothing else, take the time to listen and validate the child crying in front of you. By taking that time to hear whats going on, you can help them to change whats going on inside of them. Through listening you tell a child that their thoughts and feelings are important. You show them that they deserve your time, that they are able to open up and that someone cares. You teach them that they are not alone – and that is something I dearly wish someone had done for me. Through listening you are telling them that they are worthy.
Dont assume ‘just ignore them’ is a sound piece of advice. That single phrase is the thing I remember most, and the words that did far more damage then any bully possibly could have done. By telling a child to ignore the bullies, it makes them feel helpless, weak and inept. It teaches them to hide their emotions (after all its often followed with advice on hiding your reactions as thats what bullies love most), and to stop speaking out. Ignoring absolves the blame from the bullies, and hardly goes into teaching any child respect and compassion towards others. I understand you may be pushed for time, or stressed off your feet, but that phrase makes it crystal clear to the child that you are either uninterested or unable to help them – neither of which are allowable.
Please step in. Whether this means that you discipline the children involved or pass it on to a higher level, make sure something is done. Often both the bullies and the bullied need help, and this will benefit all involved. Making sure people talk about acceptable behaviour and being held accountable for their own actions is important – it teaches children how to act in later life.
Putting support in place for the child that is being bullied is also important. Give them someone to talk to a few times a week, and a space they can go to to feel safe. Make other teachers aware of the dynamic that is cropping up to allow everybody to keep a watchful eye and nip issues in the bud before they escalate. Set up a buddy system and maybe even set up break time activities for those that are dealing with bullying – sometimes another person that understands what your going through can really help you normalise your emotions and begin to talk through whats going on. You can’t force children to get along with each other, but you can certainly try to encourage a tolerant and compassionate environment.
It is also important to realise how much a childs self esteem and confidence can be effected. Setting up sessions that help a child build up their self image could really go a long way to preventing the ill effects often seen later in life.
Never make a child feel like its their fault. Growing up the opinion was that the child must be doing something to deserve it, and as such their was a real stigma if you were unfortunate enough to end up being the one that got picked on. I am slowly realising that I was just a child. I was unable to protect myself, and it was down to the adults to do this for me. No matter how awkward, different or odd the child may be, it is never their fault. By implying this, you set them up for years of self hatred, blame and feelings of inadequacy. I spent so long trying to work out what I had done wrong that I genuinely believed I was the problem. I couldn’t figure that ‘thing’ out but spent many years actively trying to self destruct because I despised myself so much.
Also, remember that bullying isn’t character building – its character destroying. I was a very different child before nursery. By all accounts, I was loud and perhaps a little over confident. This is a far cry from the mouse of a girl I became. I could have been in a very different position to the one I am in now had it not have been from the trauma I suffered at school. Never consider it a positive.
Verbal abuse is just as bad as physical abuse. Name calling may seem easy to ignore as an adult, but you try it when it goes on day-in-day-out for any length of time. For me, verbal bullying has taken years longer then any other sort to heal. A thump or kick fades much quicker then the emotional scars I was left to manage, and the damage cut much deeper. Often its the remarks that people find it hardest to get passed, I know many adults who are still hung up on the topics they were teased about in school, so it really is imperative that you deal with these just as seriously as you would if someone was physically beaten up.
I hope that you do things differently now. I hope that you care for all of your students and support them much more then you did for me. It seems that I was particularly unlucky. I fell through all the cracks, and it is unfortunate that things were not stamped out as they should have been. As the adults in charge, it is up too you to take responsibility and change things.