Psychologist authors book on assertiveness aimed at children who can use her tips to stand up to tormentors

If your child regularly comes home with unexplained injuries, has suddenly become sullen or withdrawn and is often caught faking illnesses in order to avoid going to school, then chances are he or she could be a victim of bullying.

Based on the findings of a 2013 study done by research company Pondering Panda in over 2 000 schools across the country, one in two South African children stands a chance of being bullied at school.

More than 50% of participants admitted to being bullied, with a further 68% saying that they feared being physically attacked or threatened with a weapon at school.

A more recent study, conducted by non-profit research organisation Africa Check on a total of 49 countries earlier this year, revealed that the country’s Grade 5 pupils reported the highest occurrence of bullying in schools.

A total of 44% reported to being bullied weekly, with 34% reporting monthly incidents of bullying. More boys who took part in the study (47%) reported being bullied weekly as compared to 40% of girls.

While much effort is put towards reducing incidents of bullying at schools – usually by singling out and disciplining the perpetrators – not much has been done to advise children on how they can effectively stand up for themselves to prevent such incidents from either occurring or becoming repetitive.

Aiming to fill that gap is educational psychologist and author Jo Hamilton, who recently released a book titled The Ultimate Assertiveness Toolbox for Kids.

Aimed at school-going children of all ages, adolescents and adults alike, the book contains 20 illustrated tools or tips which children can use when confronted by bullies.

Tools are given for a range of bullying tactics such as how to adequately shrug off negative comments, how best to maintain eye contact in order not to appear afraid and how to successfully walk away from a potentially confrontational situation.

These tools also come with suggestions of what type of situations the particular tool can be used in, when not to use it and what signs to watch out for while in action.

Each tool is accompanied by an animated illustration.

Hamilton, who has worked with children in various capacities for over 20 years, said the tools were a combination of ideas gathered during research which preceded writing the book, plus tips she herself created through her work with
children.

Hamilton says assertiveness is an essential tool as it can help children avoid becoming victims of bullying as this knowledge and skills empower them to effectively handle not only daily interactions, but also meanness, put-downs, unthoughtfulness and jealousy from their peers.

“When children are able to handle these interactions effectively, they tend to not have a victim mentality or body language which tends to reduce their chance of being bullied,” Hamilton said.

“When children respond assertively they come across as a fairly confident, strong and comfortable with themselves.

“Other children respect this. When children use my assertiveness tools they respond in a less predictable manner and this difference makes them harder for a bully to target.

“The contents of my book [the tools] are aimed at all children, adolescents and it even works for adults. Sister Ann Richardson, one of my peer reviews, stated that she felt that the tools could be adapted to assist toddlers as they started to learn to socialise. The images, style of writing and examples in the book appeals to a primary school aged child but the tools can be used in all stages of life. Unfortunately bullying occurs at all ages at school, even in the workplace and in marriages. It can occur in different ways.”

Hamilton, who has for the past nine years worked as a school psychologist at a Johannesburg-based private school, said she has frequently been called upon to deal head-on with bullying issues.

Realising that this was a problem which reared its head at all schools from time to time, Hamilton said she had started teaching assertiveness to children in small groups.

Many, if not all, of the children who attended these classes were children who had experienced bullying in their respective schools. While this was the foundation of her knowledge about assertiveness, Hamilton said she later refined and deepened her understanding of this concept in order to produce her book.

“I have tried and tested the tools out with various children over the years to create the 20 tools in my book. Children love the tools and once they have grasped the concept they sometimes come up with new tools of their own. The tools are easy to use and adapt.

“Once you start using the tools they become integrated into your behaviour. The use of the tools affirms the person that they are worthy and deserve respect just like the person they are interacting with. Being assertive involves being respectful towards one’s thoughts and feelings whilst at the same time being respect to those of another,” she said, adding that while she believed schools were doing all in their power to reduce bullying, it was not an easy thing to prevent as teachers cannot control what children say and do all the time.

“Children also tend to bully when the teacher is not present as there is less chance of getting caught. Bullying can even occur in front of a teacher, during class with body language such as glares, rolling of eyes, flicking of hair or with comments said under one’s breath or by not letting someone sit in a seat or even by pretending the person doesn’t exist.

“This behaviour is common in emotional bullying and it is very hard for teachers to detect.”

Hamilton said both children and adults who have been bullied often carried hurtful and often very deep scars. As part of healing, she suggested either play therapy or psychotherapy, which can help them to express their feelings of hurt, fear and confusion.

“This would be part of the healing process. They will need lots of affirmation and support to help build up their self-esteem and sense of worth. It is important for the caregivers in their lives to be mindful of the impact of the bullying scenario and do all they can for the child to feel that she or he has been heard and that their feelings are acknowledged.

“It is sometimes helpful for children who have experienced bullying to hear the stories of other survivors of bullying – to know they are not alone and to hear how one can be resilient and learn to trust the goodness that is in their environment. Depending on the duration and intensity of bullying, this can take quite some time,” she said.

“I think that parents and schools need to work together to curb bullying. If parents and schools are talking a similar language to children there will be a bigger impact. This involves an active, on-going approach that will benefit all children.” Hamilton’s book is available at all good bookshops or by visiting www.clockworkbooks.co.za at a cost of R230. — zisandan@dispatch.co.za

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