Bullying: a complex problem

Bullying is a frequent topic in the Australian media and I know from my travels that it is a very real issue around the Western world. I am often asked my views about how to overcome it and what to do to prevent it and so I will share my thoughts and ideas in this article.

I can write with some authority about this as I was a victim in my home environment and a completely awful bitch and a bully at school.

Bullies, I believe, are created in the early years of life. The essential brain developments that sculpt the frontal lobe development which will ensure emotional maturity need very particular care and nurturing in the first two years. During this time the nerve pathways that underpin learning and language development, and also for establishing anti-anxiety chemical systems in the brain grow. This young brain is very susceptible to stress and distress.

Warm, attentive parenting will help a baby or toddler repeatedly activate the release of the positive soothing chemicals oxytocin and opioids that will counteract the cortisol of the distress response. The young brain is largely run by the primitive responses from the lower or reptilian brain and those feelings overwhelm easily our wee ones.

“When a child is not given enough help with his intense lower brain feelings and primitive impulses, his brain may not develop the pathways to enable him to manage stressful situations effectively. The legacy later in life is that he will not develop the higher human capacity for concern, or the ability to reflect on his feelings in a self aware way. Brain scans show that many violent adults are still driven, just like infants, by their ancient rage/fear and defense/attack responses deep in their brain.” — Margot Sunderland, The Science of Parenting (2007)

So what are the best ways for parents and carers of children to best support this essential brain development that will help them grow into caring children without a need to bully others?

My top tips are:

  1. Create a caring bond early.

  2. Create pathways of comfort.

  3. Involve others to help in the first two years only if they can be loving, caring and comfortable with safe, nurturing touch.

  4. Avoid forcing young ones when experiencing separation distress.

  5. Healthy management of parent emotions and use of the right voice and energy—being calm, enthusiastic and optimistic is helpful.

  6. Ensure opportunity for respite for parents.

  7. Avoid shouting and criticism as it strengthens the lower brain patterns of distress, fear and rage.

  8. Routines bring children comfort and lower the risk of an emotional overload of fear or rage.

  9. Reduce potential stressors for babies and toddlers such as shopping centres, large social gatherings, too much activity or over stimulation from screens and large toys with bells and whistles.

  10. Create healthy sleep cycles and patterns as soon as possible.

  11. Protect children from early bullies, whether they are older siblings or at day-care. Then teach them how to become assertive, not aggressive.

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Bullies are simply immature in the brain development and then that creates a pattern of behaviour that becomes a habit. Building significant caring adults in a bully’s life who show they care, is vital in helping to heal these patterns. The brain has plasticity and can change over time however it cannot without lots of TLC. Punishment and punitive critical behaviour management will fail as it is not supporting the growth of neurons in the upper brain.

If we remember all children simply want to be loved, and accepted then this is what bullies are secretly wanting. The young brain before school has a much better potential for change to overcome early delays. Unfortunately our systems especially education have created such a serious phobia about safe touch that those vital warm, loving child care workers and teachers are unable to soothe and nurture children who DESPERATELY need it to help them manage their stressful and overwhelming negative feelings.

In the UK they have Nurture Groups in some schools who are trained in safe touch and reassuring nurturing and they work closely with children with serious behavioural patterns so that they are able to gain essential emotional and social skills so they can re-join normal classrooms. I agree with Margot Sunderland that large day cares should have emotional nurses and I believe all primary and secondary schools need the same. Safe touch and the benefits from reassuring contact benefit all students experiencing distress.

Many students today process grief and loss in school toilets (which, incidentally, are often not very safe places) because there is not anyone who can hold them while they simply cry. We are denying a natural response of an emotionally mature adult to give comfort. I would like to see a formal accreditation for child care workers and teachers that they have completed training in all the legalities of safe touch and various techniques that help children and teenagers diffuse negative emotions safely.

Bullies and victims both need support and rarely will they receive what they need within our current systems. Emotional growth needs trust, respect and appropriate support, and only specially trained people with a kind, caring disposition will achieve that. If our modern world continues to put work and wealth ahead of the vital early years of children’s lives, we will continue to despair at the increasing violence and aggression in our communities.

Schools will simply continue to be left to manage the results of unhealthy parenting, and the disruption that occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Sadly, the children from loving caring homes get penalised because their learning environment is disrupted by these emotionally and socially incompetent children. Teachers are struggling with unreachable and unteachable children, who tomorrow become adults with the same low competencies who then struggle with finding a place to be. Healing our world begins from the cradle to pre-school.