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Bullying without blows

Unknown to most adults, bullying is often an invisible and rampant warfare. The bully could be as young as six. And the tactic he employs needn’t be punches or shoves, write Veenu Sandhu & Neha Tara Mehta.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2007 02:21 IST

At 15, Shreya Tiwari was like any other Class X student — cheerful, a bit worried about her board exams and occasionally moody. Her parents had no reason to believe their daughter was struggling with a serious problem — until a month before her exams, when Shreya had a nervous breakdown and was taken for psychiatric help. It emerged that the girls in Shreya’s class would often ostracise her and not talk to her for days, even weeks. They wouldn’t share their notes with her or include her in their group. But neither Shreya’s parents nor her teachers realised that in doing so, Shreya’s classmates had been bullying her for years. <b1>

Unknown to most adults, bullying is often an invisible and rampant warfare. The bully could be as young as six. And the tactic he employs needn’t be punches or shoves. It could be as subtle as keeping a fellow child out of the group, spreading rumours, not sharing tiffin or showing the victim down at every opportunity.

“Bullying isn’t always about violent or aggressive behavior,” says Dr Amit Sen, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Sitaram Bhartia Hospital and Research Centre, New Delhi. “In fact, most bullying is subtle and therefore unnoticed. Which is why it can do grave damage to the mind of the victim and the personality of the child or teen bully,” he adds.

Writing on the wall

For the last one month, Anuj Grover, a Class XI student of a popular Delhi school, has been the butt of jokes among senior students. The source of his misery is the graffiti in the boys’ toilet, which makes sexual references about him. Shocked and humiliated, Anuj has since erased the slanderous comments, but not before the unknown bully had succeeded in doing the damage.

“Damaging comments scribbled in the school toilets are a common form of showing a fellow student down,” says Priya Warrick of Warrick Counselling Centre, which works with 38 schools across Delhi.

“Boys and girls both indulge in such ‘relational bullying’, but girls are more prone to it,” says Rajat Mitra, the director of Swanchetan, a Delhi-based NGO. Dr Sen agrees, “While boys use physical force, girls can be more scheming.”

Surubhi Maheshwari couldn’t agree more. This Class IX student skipped school in Mumbai for a week following an offensive graffiti, which made her the subject of a whisper campaign. This, in a school with an anti-bullying policy.

While teachers say they constantly urge students to be more sensitive towards fellow students, Warrick insists on having responsive toilet attendants. “After the indecent MMS incident, some schools started maintaining registers outside toilets. Students were supposed to sign in the entry and exit timings,” she says. <b2>

Gang of girls and band of boys

Besides spreading rumours, bullies also twist the need to belong to their advantage. Pritesh Munjal, 16, experienced this first-hand. A boy who would rather read than play cricket or football or hang out with the girls, he finds himself being thrown out of the group every now and then. “It is very disturbing,” is all that Pritesh is willing to say about it.

Counsellors say camps and cliques start as early as Class VI. Territorial lines get even more rigid in the senior classes. Says Ragini Sen, 14, a student of a Saket school, “You are either in the popular group or outside it. You have to fit in somewhere.” Being in the popular group, she explains, has its advantages. “You want people to be there for you when you are in some sort of trouble. But for that to happen, you need to be there for them first.” <b3>

Ask Karan, who changed schools in Class XI, and desperately wanted to ‘fit in’. “One my second day at school, two gangs of boys in my class were having a fight in the bus yard. I went and stood with the popular gang — so that I could be accepted as one of them. The next day on, they started calling me for all their after-school dos.”

A class apart — literally

Extremely bright children may also end up being socially isolated from the class. Anamika Dutt, a topper in a Lodhi Road school, learnt the hard way that being blue-eyed girl meant that she unwittingly awakened the green-eyed monster in other kids. “When I was made the monitor in Class VIII, the whole class started holding me responsible for all problems with the teachers. Once the class planned a mass-bunk, but the teachers found out. My class blamed me — and nobody spoke to me for two weeks.”

Now in the XIIth, she was also called a teacher’s spy and ostracised recently when her classmates clandestinely planned a Conti party, and the teachers found out the venue. “It was a boy who had told the teachers,” she says. So what can be done to ensure that peerless children, don’t literally, be without peers?

Says Maheshwari Natarajan, “Teachers are surrogate mothers and can gauge the mood of the class the moment they walk in. They need to be careful about not putting any child on a pedestal. Don’t single out any child for criticism or praise.”

Keep talking

Often, bullying is an attention-seeking behaviour, say psychologists. A particular act can also trigger the abuse, they add. Who should know this better than six-year-old Ankita Mehra. The Class I student has an annoying fan in Dhruv Ahuja, her classmate who insists on being with her all the time. When she refuses to do so, her pushes her, snaps at her or pulls out the contents of her schoolbag. Once, while Ankita was boarding her school bus, he gave her a peck on her cheek. The children in the bus roared with laughter. The seniors thought it was awfully cute. Ankita did not and snapped at everybody. She was promptly written off. For the next few days nobody wanted to share a seat with her. The child ended up getting doubly bullied — by her young admirer and by the children in her bus. In class too, this led to lunch-break politics with fellow students refusing to share their tiffin.

“I finally got her to tell me what was wrong and I was shocked at the trauma my little daughter had been facing,” says Poornima Mehra, Ankita’s mother. The mother and daughter talked about it for a long time. “And then I told her that perhaps she should try being extra polite with her bus-mates even if they weren’t,” says Poornima. The Gandhian lesson worked. “Within two days, Ankita was her usual cheerful self. She told me it was very difficult to be nice when everybody was being mean to her, but she managed. And I admire her for that,” says Poornima as Ankita gushes, “Now, everybody wants to sit with me.”

Regarding Dhruv, Poornima says she decided to take the teacher into confidence and deal with the issue.

“Six or 16, children need parents to talk to, to confide in and to turn to for help,” says Gauri Ishwaran, principal, Sanskriti School, New Delhi. “If you talk to children logically, they will always respond,” she adds.

But lack of communication can be serious — even fatal. “Victims can suffer from long-term emotional and psychological problems,” says Dr Sen. “They are prone to stress-related ailment, which, in extreme cases, can lead to suicide,” he cautions.

Spot the signs

Warrick says the problem today is that to a great extent, children are raising themselves. She explains, “With both parents busy with work, children feel neglected and start looking for role models outside. This may manifest itself in the form of bullying.”

Rajat Mitra feels the primary cause of bullying is contempt. “The bully is often insecure,” he says adding, “Bullying is significant around age 10-11, but it is now being seen in younger children.”

Worse, a child could be an angel at home and in class, but a bully in a different setting. “This makes it very difficult for parents and teachers to accept that their child is a bully,” says Dr Sen.

As Ishwaran says, “The answer lies in keeping your ear to the ground to be able to identify both the bully and the victim.” Parents of Aymaan (10), the head boy of junior Modern School, Kamil and Rima Zaheer say parents always need to remain engaged with the child and pick up signals of any possible problem.

Rima sums it up for all parents, “Bullying will always be there. You need to teach your child to be emotionally strong. You cannot take on bullies physically.”

(Some names have been changed)