What do you think of when someone mentions bullying? Physical punches, kicks, beatings? Or threats of physical violence unless favours are given? Stealing of trainers, school bags, dinner money?
What about name calling? Isn't that just normal childhood behaviour? Is it really bullying? Surely it can't actually hurt anyone? Well, yes, it can, and does, hurt people, far more than you might think. I was bullied relentlessly throughout my years at primary school. I couldn't tell you when it started, I don't really remember it ever not happening. I was never physically assaulted, unless you count filling my wellies with snow or a bit of jostling, but the verbal abuse was constant and it wasn't just one or two people, it was nearly everyone in the class, and some that weren't. What marked me out as a victim? I doubt I'll ever know really, but once the pattern was established there was no going back.
Every single day of my school life, every break, every lunchtime, walking to and from school and any time I was seen by my classmates, or other children I didn't even know on several occasions, I would have to negotiate name calling, taunts and teasing. Why? I wasn't a nasty child, I didn't smell, I didn't wear glasses (then), I was just a little girl that for some reason, everyone decided didn't fit in.
You may be asking what the school did about this consistent bullying? Well, the answer would be nothing. Not because they were incompetent, nor did they not believe me. The reason they did nothing was that they didn't know. I told no-one. Occasionally there were instances when I did tell, once, whilst I was still in the infants, my mother noticed I complained of a sore stomach one Friday each month and had to stay home, though by mid morning I was fine and would happily go back to school after lunch. She spoke with the Head Master and found out that once a month there was a longer playtime to enable staff meetings. I was scared of the children playing some kind of chasing game apparently, although I have no recollection of this. Action was taken to ensure extra supervision during these breaks and my Friday morning stomach aches disappeared. Another time was when I was seven and had broken my arm falling on ice in the playground. Being slowed up by a plaster cast meant I was bullied during break times even more and I must have told on that occasion as I was allowed to stay in school for breaks until the cast was removed.
Never though did I tell anyone just how persistent the bullying was. Looking back I think there were several reasons for this. Firstly, what could I actually say? Oh, so-and-so called me this or that name? They wouldn't let me play their games? They don't like me? Even at such a tender age, I knew that anything I could say would sound lame and hardly like 'proper' bullying behaviour. Secondly, I was happy at home, I had a family that loved me and siblings that I fought and played with as all children do. Nothing about my home life was like the loneliness and isolation I had elsewhere. Why, then, would I want to bring those feelings home to my safe place? Possibly too, there was the chance that I may have thought I wouldn't be believed or taken seriously, or that there was nothing that could be done to stop it. In truth I think telling anyone just didn't cross my mind. While the bullying wasn't actually happening I shut it out, not wanting to think about it, let alone talk about it.
Moving on to secondary school things did improve, there were fewer comments shouted at me across the street and the name calling pretty much stopped. However, I had been irrevocably affected by the bullying and I found making friends difficult to say the least. I felt that no one would want to be my friend and that I was basically unlikeable. I was awkward with people I didn't know and assumed people would forget who I was if I didn't see them for a while. In second year I made friends with a girl in the year above me, someone who hadn't known me from primary school and knew nothing about me being 'the one that no one likes'. I met her through the school choir and, through her, joined an amateur dramatic society outside school. She probably saved me from ending up far worse than I have, and she is still one of my best friends, although she lives overseas now.
You might think that knowing the root of a lot of my self esteem problems would mean that I could leave them behind and move on. Sadly, that has not been the case. The bullying throughout much of my formative years has left me believing still that I am intrinsically unlikeable, unloveable and unattractive. Even when face to face with evidence to the contrary in the form of people who take the time to be with me, and even someone who is the love of my life who actually wants to marry me, I cannot believe that the opinions of all those children all those years ago were wrong.
This is the legacy that bullying leaves. It changes you. It breaks you. Never think that name calling or verbal taunting are not 'proper' bullying. The scars they leave are deeper and more long lasting than any punch or kick. If your child tells you someone is calling them names and being mean to them, please, don't tell them that old lie about 'sticks and stones'. Words can hurt you. Words do hurt you, and they can keep on hurting you long, long after the bruises from sticks and stones have healed.