School bullying is a problem around the globe. As well as the victims, the other children who witness this kind of harassment can also be impacted, stresses psychologist Catherine Verdier, who specializes in school bullying issues.
From insults and name-calling, to mockery, teasing, physical abuse and sexual assault, school bullying can take the form of repeated verbal, psychological and/or physical violence inflicted by children on their classmates.
It's a serious issue which, due to its complexity, must be fought by various approaches. One of them is education and encouraging the development of values such as empathy and kindness, says Catherine Verdier, a children's psychologist, therapist and analyst.
It's a concept that the specialist develops in her book " L'écologie scolaire " [the ecology of school], published in April by Editions Dunod. ETX Studio caught up with the psychologist to find out more.
In the collective imagination, kindness has long been associated with "weakness." How has this notion evolved in our societies?
There's more awareness about it, and it is given more value than before, but putting that into practice is more complicated. Kindness is fundamentally linked to friendliness and respect for others, as well as empathy and goodwill. However, we often associate these notions -- when we teach them to children -- with being "polite" or "good." Which, of course, is not the same thing.
What advice would you give to parents to help instill these values in their children?
The key is to pay attention to children's emotional vocabulary. Studies have shown that the more a child is shown kindness and is listened to, the more oxytocin they secrete, which will make them empathetic and altruistic. Discussion, support and encouragement also work very well, as the child reacts by mimicry. But there is really no instruction manual. Kindness is transmitted more than it is learned, and the same is true for empathy.
What role does empathy play in school bullying?
Empathy is at the heart of the bullying issue. According to scientific research, empathy emerges at a very early age, as early as 18 months. But if you ask a bully to put themselves in their victim's shoes, you'll find that empathy is gone.
Conversely, too much empathy can lead to heightened suffering for others: children who witness the bullying of a peer will suffer for that child and thus for themselves. Generally speaking, a child who witnesses violence (whether at school or at home) is also a victim, because witnessing these scenes, especially if they are repeated, will generate anxiety and worry. Guilt too. The child doesn't know where to stand, they will wonder if they should defend the victim, at the risk of being bullied in turn, or being stigmatized for "telling".
What can we do to help children who witness bullying?
By helping them feel less guilty and making them understand that standing up for a friend or peer is a sign of courage and empathy, and that it does not make them "a snitch." This is a term that we should stop using, because we are not talking about tattling or snitching, but about helping people who are suffering! We can also tell them (again, without making them feel guilty) that not reacting to violence is, in a way, condoning it. The aim is to make them understand that kindness is a strength.
Couldn't herd instinct risk overshadowing the values conveyed at home?
Absolutely, but the intensity of the violence often ends up making children uncomfortable, and they then generally become more inclined to talk about it. This collective dimension is also essential because the bullies do everything they can to keep their victims in a situation of isolation and exclusion.
How can the power of the collective be used to help combat, or at least limit, school bullying?
The strength of the group can be very negative in bullying, but it can also be very positive. If we take the statistic that one in 10 children is a bully, that leaves us with a large number of children in witness positions. So the power of this group is enormous, and it is very important to make them understand. Adults obviously have a major role to play and must also be made aware of these mechanisms and levers.