Wendy Craig (Queen’s University), Joanne Cummings (York University), and Debra Pepler (York University)
Recent highly profiled cases in the media of bullying leading to suicide have highlighted a significant public health problem, one with tragic consequences. Our research shows that at its core, bullying is a relationship problem where the rights of children are violated.
Bullying is a problem that arises from complex interpersonal dynamics. Within the relationship context of bullying, those children who bully are learning how to use power and aggression to control and distress another (to violate their rights); those children who are repeatedly victimized become trapped in abusive relationships that are increasingly difficult to escape. Relationship problems require relationship solutions.
Bullying is essentially the abuse of one’s superior power to distress or control another, and thus bullying is wrong and unjust. Relationships that prevent bullying are rights-respecting relationships. If children are developing mutual respect, they are likely to respect the rights of others. As well, if children’s rights are being respected and they are learning to respect the rights of others, there is less motivation to engage in bullying.
Research on the prevention of bullying highlights the importance of fostering mutual respect between children and between children and others in society. The focus on respectful relationships to prevent bullying converges with the focus on rights-respecting relationships in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
When we understand bullying as a relationship problem and acknowledge that respect is the universal foundation for healthy relationships, it provides clear direction for all adults, children, and youth about the importance of supporting those who are vulnerable to victimization and engaging in bullying. Preventing bullying is recognizing and standing up for the fundamental human right to be valued and to be psychologically and physically safe. It challenges each of us to do better and to find a more ennobling way of being through respecting and actively recognizing each other’s human rights. At the very foundation of healthy relationships is a reciprocal recognition of each other’s human needs for a holistic sense of safety and dignity of person. The latter recognition is manifested by mutually respectful behaviour, whether between parent and child, teacher and student, coach and athlete, or between peers or romantic partners.
How do we ensure respectful relationships? There are multiple ways to do this, and we must do this in all settings where children live learn and play. Parents and adults who work with children and youth need to ensure that they are consistently and responsibly using their power in a positive way, to enable youth to experience mutually respectful relationships with us and their peers. Adults are powerful role models for children and youth and our behaviour in addressing conflict, anger, and aggression sets the stage for how children will address these issues.
In recognizing bullying as a rights issue, it reminds us of our responsibility to stand up against injustice, and refuse to actively or passively accept bullying behaviour perpetrated by others. If we see bullying or aggression, it is our duty to intervene to ensure that children’s rights are not violated. It is our responsibility to:
• actively teach and support prosocial behaviour throughout children’s development;
• to be positive role models;
• to create inclusive and safe social environments where all youth are accepted;
• to actively monitor group dynamics of children and youth and ensure that children are respecting each other; and
• to stand up and support those who are victimized – we cannot afford to stand by.
We need to transcend the tendency to shame and blame when responding to a child or youth who is bullying, and instead find solutions that stop the behaviour in a manner that is respectful, just, and educational or therapeutic. Adults can prevent bullying and ensure children’s rights to be safe in their moment to moment interactions with each other, with children and youth, and through programmatic efforts.
Children and youth can stand up and not stand by to protect their right to be safe and free from harm. Whether they realise it or not, bystanders hold significant power when it comes to promoting – or stopping – bullying. Help with bullying can come from peers intervening directly, telling a trusted adult, or at least not reinforcing the bully.
When peers step in, bullying behaviour stops within ten seconds 57% of the time. There is a need for all children to be trained in appropriate conflict mediation and intervention skills. When more than one child steps in it helps to shift the power imbalance. Even if children are not comfortable standing up themselves, they must be encouraged to tell a responsible adult. Establishing conditions in which children feel responsible can promote peer intervention and positive peer dynamics.
Adults need to support the efforts of all children and empower them to stand up against bullying. Imagine what might happen, if we educated students about the bystander effect and gave them concrete strategies that are designed to over-ride the tendency to hang back? If we know that there are certain circumstances that increase the likelihood of stepping in to do something, then it seems worthwhile to make them aware of how to create those circumstances. The time is now to empower those peers who stand as witnesses to acts of bullying, to stand up and ensure everyone’s right to be safe.
In extending patronage to Promoting Relationships and Preventing Violence Network (PREVNet), Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s former Governor General, wrote:
Finding ways of predicting and preventing the development of these relationship problems is a necessity. Bullying is not only about threats and intimidation, it is foremost about contempt and injustice... I wish with all of my heart that your research and expertise will propose new insights to find solutions to this ever growing problem among Canada’s children and youth. Let’s all rise up for a world where respect is valued above all else.
The goal of PREVNet is to engage all adults and professional who interact with children. We can ensure children’s rights through consistent messages, responses, and supports to address bullying problems. In doing so we can promote healthy relationships based on respect for each person’s dignity; this is necessary in all settings where children and youth live, learn, work, and play. We must each be prepared to rise up and ensure the right to be safe for all!
Wendy M. Craig is the Scientific Co-Director of PREVNet at Queen’s University; Joanne Cummings is the Director of Partnerships PREVNet; and Debra J. Pepler is the Scientific Co-Director PREVNet, York University and Hospital for Sick Children.