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Mastering Bullying?!

Katja Subellok, Nitza Katz-Bernstein, Carina Vinbruck | 01.03.2008

Research with stammering school children and their parents. By Katja Subellok, Nitza Katz-Bernstein, and Carina Vinbruck - University of Dortmund.

This article describes research findings about how individual children can cope with and become 'resilient' to bullying situations. Please note that there are clear policies and guidelines in the UK about bullying at school which, in essence, state that the bullied child's only obligation is to 'tell' the school and that it is then the school's responsibility to deal with any bullying situation in a school context. BSA Education Officer Cherry Hughes will report on the situation re bullying in English schools in a future article.

Public perceptions that individuals who stammer are less intelligent and psychologically abnormal are still very common. These perceptions as well as the stammering itself increase the risk of bullying, especially during school years. Some countries tackle the problem by establishing guidelines about bullying at school. Nevertheless, complaining and 'telling' the teacher about it is a big step for children. A lot of 'hidden' teasing and bullying goes on, and a 'victim' may need support to decide whether the incident counts as bullying and should be reported. He also has to learn in the longer term to take responsibility, and how to cope with the reality of being laughed at.

In a research project 'Families with stammering children in an international comparison' at the University of Dortmund, Germany, stammering and bullying was one of the areas we focussed on. We carried out quantitative and qualitative analyses of narrative interviews, comparing reports by 96 school-age children aged 7-12 with those of their parents.

The quantitative comparison showed a high correlation between the reports of parents and school-age children regarding bullying events. This means that most parents either learn of the bullying, or assume the situation fairly accurately without being told. Our results also confirmed in some sense that stammering children must almost 'inevitably' count on being bullied or at least teased during their school years.

We also looked particularly at how to cope with bullying, from the point of view of both child and parents. It is likely that parents' and children's ways of dealing with bullying will influence each other, and that there will be parallels with coping skills for stammering. The research shed more light on this connection through a selection of seven families, where statements of parents and children were analysed qualitatively and compared. In the seven interviews with children (6 boys, 1 girl), the child spoke freely about their stammer and gave revealing information about handling bullying.

One interesting finding was that 5 of the 7 children reported that their actual reaction to bullying was physical or verbal, in other words an active response. However, most children would prefer to ignore the bully or show indifference. They want to be able to react in terms of calmness and 'coolness'. It seems that dealing with bullying, finding the way that personally feels 'right', is not easy and differs between individuals. We also found that some parents had resilient coping strategies for dealing with bullying experiences of their children.

We conclude that there is no one universally agreed way to cope with teasing and bullying. However it seems that both children and parents tended to aspire towards dealing with bullying calmly. For some children and young people though, it can be a long and difficult road to exhibiting a 'convincing' appearance of 'playing it cool'. An important intermediate step is not letting oneself be pushed into the role of the defenceless 'victim'. For this children must firstly learn from authority figures, such as teachers or parents, that bullying is seen as unacceptable. Secondly, for example in speech therapy, appropriate ways of dealing with bullying situations may be offered, worked on together and tested. And thirdly a social network of family and friends must be formed, to offer children support in a crisis or where they are in doubt. Furthermore, if parents succeed in remaining calm whilst not dismissing the bullying, it is easier for the child to take the same attitude, because they feel that the adult believes in their ability to cope with the bullying. Even if children are unable to counter the bullying successfully themselves, adults can give the child confidence in being able to find a successful way of dealing with it in the future. In this way, an important step is taken towards mastering bullying.

Reference: Subellok, K. & Vinbruck, C. (in prep.): Mobbing meistern?! Eine Untersuchung von stotternden Schulkindern und ihren Eltern LOGOS interdisziplinär.

Therapy work with the child who stammers

  • encourage child to 'tell' teachers or others, in line with the school's policies
  • have bullying as something to talk about
  • practice assertiveness exercises and techniques
  • look for solutions and work on alternatives, eg role play
  • encourage child to discuss with their teacher eg a presentation on stammering, as part of a whole school view on diversity.

Support and encouragement by parents

  • handle stammering openly in the family
  • give the child support and take his/her feelings seriously
  • approach and inform educators and teachers, if they don't already know
  • not to see bullying as due to the stammer alone
  • to view the problem as temporary and solvable
  • to plan and take concrete steps
  • to work with the child on possible solutions
  • to talk with the child about bullying one has experienced oneself, and take the drama out of it
  • to separate one's own problems and fears from those of the child (projections!)
  • to see teasing within the family, eg with brothers and sisters, as an area to practice.

From the Spring 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 10-11