Every time the name Crump (a pseudonym) comes into my mind, I have a tinge of guilt. The memory goes back 70 years when he and I were age nine and we were at school together. He was an effeminate boy, given to whining, and he was broadly disliked by his schoolmates. He may have been pushed around a bit, but he was never physically bullied. We were at a good Catholic school and we knew that that was wrong. But he suffered contempt from his peers, and he was frequently criticised for his erring ways. He must have been very unhappy.
I should, of course, have taken his part. But I was at an age when my immature moral sense was guided by the attitudes of my peers. So I passed by on the other side.
I was later to learn that the unpopular boys were often the most interesting. And, from time to time, I have read how people who achieved distinction in later life often had a history of being bullied it school. A characteristic of high achievers is their independence of thought, which may well make them unpopular in conformist circumstances. Indeed, ensuring conformity is a frequent motivation for bullying the outsider. But I do not think that Crump would have benefitted; to the best of my knowledge he sank without trace. And we should expect that to have been so, because, in general, the long term effects of being bullied can be very serious indeed for those who do not have the innate toughness and confidence to survive it.
Several studies of these long-term effects have been done, and a recent one published this year in Psychological Science gives us a good overall view. The children were assessed between the ages of nine and 16, and the adult outcomes measured in their mid-20s.Victims presented very clear health risks in adulthood, being six times as likely to be diagnosed with serious illness, or to develop a psychiatric disorder. They were more than twice as likely to have difficulty in keeping a job, or to commit to saving. Poverty in young adulthood is common. They have difficulty in forming, or sustaining, long-term friendships or keeping good ties with their parents in adulthood. They are also prone in childhood to become bullies themselves, in turn, since they lack the emotional control to cope with their experiences. Those who have been bullied and have themselves bullied appear to be the most affected by the consequences.
Another recent study, by the American Psychological Association, shows that victims of chronic bullying were substantially more likely to commit crimes in adult life and, in consequence, to find themselves in prison. Female victims shared these characteristics, as well as a propensity to turn to alcohol or drugs. The author, Michael Turner, commented: “This study highlights the important role that healthcare professionals can play early in a child’s life when bullying is not adequately addressed by teachers, parents or guardians.” He tells me that he is planning further studies to refine his conclusions.
The NSPCC tells us that nearly half of all children report that they have been bullied at some time or another. Around a third of children experience bullying in a given year, and one in five of the children who were worrying about being bullied said that they would not talk to their parents about it. Two out of five have experienced cyber-bullying. Bullying was the main reason that boys contacted the NSPCC ChildLine service.
Experts are agreed that bullying is potentially a very damaging experience with severe long-term consequences. And parents are most concerned that their children should neither be bullied, nor bully in turn. They may wish to take action through the school as forcibly as possible. But it may not be as easy as that. It is hard to tell whether an isolated episode of bullying, which many will experience, is of short duration and can be safely ignored with the help of a little parental support. Nor must we suppose that parents will always know about it. Children have their own private world of relationships, nowadays much extended by social media. They may feel that the interference of parents will identify them more clearly as a target. And they may well be ashamed of being bullied and, as their self-confidence leaks, they may begin to feel that they deserve it. This suggests that action should be taken before it is actually needed – in the same way that prudent parents tackle sexual education.
The subject for discussion is not best opened by a direct question such as: are you being bullied? The third party approach is better. Here, in general conversation, the questions are in the form of: is there much bullying in your class? What kind of person is a bully, and what makes them so? Do you have any friends who have been bullied? Can we imagine what it feels like to be bullied? We might even have a personal experience of being bullied to pass on as an anecdote. This should be an informal discussion not an interrogation, nor a tense interview. Even if personal clues are not raised in the children’s answers, at least parents can ensure that necessary information is given.
Notwithstanding such an ideal, parents should keep a weather eye open for uncharacteristic changes in their children. A sense of depression, loss of appetite, poor sleep and an unfamiliar reluctance to go to school are among the signs which may tip off parents that their children need support and help.