I collect my daughter from school.
I know she is not herself. She is quiet, withdrawn and won’t make eye contact with me when I ask her how her day was.
I know something is wrong. She is usually a witty, happy-go-lucky child with a charming sense of humour that would make even the grumpiest of persons grin. She is smart and creative; but also super sensitive, so has learned the skill of not letting anyone see how she is really feeling.
Except me. I know when she is not being herself.
When we get home and her sisters go upstairs to do their homework, I tell her to wait downstairs with me as I needed her help with the dinner. I push her some more, asking again how her day was. Ever so quietly, with a slight quiver to her voice, she tells me her day was okay, but again keeps her eyes down. I can tell that she is close to tears. I choose to hold off making the dinner and sit her down next to me at the kitchen table.
I push gently again, but to no avail.
I am really worried about her. I know tough love is now required. I need to know what is bothering her. Sternly, I tell her that she is not going upstairs until she tells me what is really going on. I know each of my children well enough to know which approach to take with them, and when. Ignoring the problem, or waiting until they are ready, is not always what is needed when your child is near breaking point.
She bursts into tears, followed suddenly by an outburst of all that is troubling her.
Tells me how everyone is school has suddenly stopped talking to her and she doesn’t know why. Tells me that many of her friends have stopped responding to her on her social media platforms. Tells me that she sat in the locker room that day eating her lunch because she had no-one to sit with. Tells me she has not being asked by her friends to get ready in each others houses to go to the next disco.
Tells me not to tell anyone, and most specifically, the school – what she has just told me. Terrified I will make it worse.
I just hold her tight to me, wiping her tears, and I let her talk. The story of her trauma spills out, in a non-coherent manner. My heart is pounding. I am trying to make sense of what she is telling me; try to put all the pieces together. Try to show her I am strong. But right now, I feel weaker than her. Inside, I am crying. Every emotion is running through me at the same time. I am angry, I am scared, I am fiercely protective.
There is nothing worse than seeing your child in a pain of which there are no medications for.
When her heart wrenching sobbing subsides, I ask her to go back to the beginning of the story. Try to make sense of the situation.
It turns out that the girls in her class had taken a sudden dislike to another girl in school and had stopped talking to her. My daughter had decided not to unfriend this girl – she continued to talk to her and tried to include her in the gang. I was so proud to hear this – I had raised her to never be mean or unkind to anyone. And most importantly, never to be a bystander or worse, a “sheep” following the leader of the pack.
But because she did had done the right thing, she too had now become isolated.
I asked her did she know who might have started this whole situation and she was able to identify one girl in particular.
As a youth worker, I know a lot about childhood bullying, but in more recent years I have also learned about bullying in the workplace; more specifically, I have become aware of a type of bullying called workplace mobbing. “The reason that this type of overt harassment is referred to as mobbing is because typically one individual assumes the “ringleader” role, rallying many to participate in similar, systematic behavior that is frequently demonstrated by virtually everyone within the organization who interacts with this individual.”
This “ring leader” can also be called the “instigator” or “chief bully” – one individual who suddenly finds a reason to dislike another person.
“If this ringleader is an extrovert it will be obvious who is coercing group members into mobbing the selected target. If the ringleader is an introvert type, he or she is likely to be in the background coercing and manipulating group members into mobbing the selected target; introvert ringleaders are much more dangerous than extrovert ringleaders.” [ Mobbing-USA]
This person will usually be clever enough to gain the trust of other, weaker persons – who are often called collaborators. Both instigator and collaborators are usually insecure in themselves and need to find a way to make themselves feel superior. Jealousy is a running theme in this type of bullying. The instigator will plant seeds in the collaborator’s heads – usually untrue rumours or spiteful underhanded remarks about the victim. It can be about their looks, their personality, their work or their skill-sets. The ring leader will feed on the collaborators vulnerabilities, making them feel better about themselves. The ringleader will find something wrong in everything the target of the bullying does – and more so if the victim is a high achiever and well liked in general.
Mobbing targets are typically educated and well-regarded for their competency. Further, they tend to be attractive and often are both outspoken…they also tend to be highly accomplished, exceptionally creative and greatly dedicated. Because of their competence and strong [work] ethic, it is often very difficult for mobbing victims to comprehend why they suddenly were isolated, humiliated and ridiculed. In fact, former allies can quickly turn against the target — without cause — believing that because the individual is being widely criticized, there must be just cause. The target is often branded as a troublemaker and others who had otherwise good feelings about the person quickly disassociate, creating feelings of isolation and abandonment. The target quickly loses his or her feelings of belonging, identity and dignity. www.nobullying.com
Once the instigators and collaborators start working together, another wider group is formed. These are usually the “bystanders” or as I call, the “sheep”. They listen to the instigators and collaborators and often make a subconscious decision to follow the leaders. They don’t necessarily know they are part of the acts of bullying or exclusion, even if they do know “something” is wrong. Nevertheless, they become part of a mobbing group, because they don’t question what is happening, or try to prevent it. Bystanders can often be vulnerable themselves and don’t want to be seen as “different”. They may themselves have been victims of bullying in the past, and are afraid of it happening again.
Now when this whole group come together, this is when the target suddenly recognises that something isn’t right. They find they are all alone and suddenly nobody wants to talk to them. They feel paranoid and isolated. They question themselves.
Mobbing is sometimes thought of as a terrible and unrestrained virus that spreads throughout a group through the use of such tactics as: Gossip; Baseless accusations; Humiliation; Isolation; Intimidation; Condescending behavior; Public discrediting; Creating a hostile environment; Isolation; Ridicule; and Malicious, relentless emotional abuse.
Exclusion mobbing is often the worst kind because the victim often cannot prove it is happening, and it is quite difficult for management of schools or workplaces to enforce rules to make people be “friends with one another”.
And this is exactly what was happening to my daughter.
So what did I do?
I explained this type of bullying to my daughter and asked could she identify the different personalities who would fit the roles of instigators, collaborators and bystanders. She was able to do this. I explained what a bystander was, and that they may not know they are doing it. She was so worried that I would get the school involved (out of fear of making a bad situation worse) and so she asked me to allow her time to try to talk to some of these girls, before I took action.
The next day she came home from school, smiling.
I could not tell you how I felt – the relief was something unbelievable. I didn’t realise how tense I was all that day. My daughter relayed what had happened that day. She told me that she went up to one girl at a time in school and just started talking to them. On their own they were different people – they were happy to chat to her. She asked them had she done anything wrong – all said she hadn’t. At lunchtime she then “acted” carefree and confident, held her head up high and followed these girls to lunch and sat down with them. None of them ignored her.
As she told me the story, my heart filled with pride at her bravery.
She then told me that during one of her classes during the morning, one of the teachers had put her and the “ringleader” in a pair to work on a project together. They were forced to interact. My daughter told me that they started talking, albeit small talk. The ringleader did not have her full gang around to come to her aide. And so my daughter was now in the position of negotiation, even if she didn’t feel it at the time. She stayed upbeat in her conversation and acted like nothing was bothering her – pretended nothing had happened. And the ringleader had no choice but to talk.
At lunch break the ringleader saw everyone talking to her too – what could she do, but interact?
As my daughter chatted to me, she was smiling – from her eyes.
She looked down at her phone as she told me about her day, and I could see her scroll through notifications as one by one the group started interacting with her again. I asked her did any of the teachers talk to her that day.
She then looked at me, somewhat accusingly, and said yes, they had.
You see, I had contacted the school. I could not be a bystander either. I had to override her fears, for her safety.
The chaplain had strategically arranged a private meeting with my daughter to ask her what was happening. At this stage in the day, my daughter had already talked to the girls in question and she told the chaplain that she felt much better. The chaplain told her how proud she was of her to 1) take action and 2) for standing by her friend and not becoming a bully. I feel the other teacher who had paired my daughter and the ringleader together on a project, knew exactly what they were doing – and it worked.
There were lessons learned here – firstly, my daughter know knew how easy it was to become isolated when part of a big gang – and she made a promise to herself to not forget that – and most importantly to never become that type of person. She stood by her friend who was being excluded and continued to be there for her – even if she lost all her “friends” again because of it. She had figured out a way to not let the bullies see she was upset. She had learned the reasons she was a target: she was – is – a beautiful, smart, creative and talented girl in nearly everything she does. She knew her friend was also the same. She figured out that it had all stemmed from jealousy.
Secondly, she also learned that I would do whatever I could to protect her. Children often don’t see the bigger picture and are consumed by that days events. They need to know that someone always has their back. Yes, I went to the school without her consent, but I ensured it was done in a way which none of the bullies would know. Our trust is not broken because of this – if anything, it is stronger now.
And thirdly, she was now educated on what “mobbing” was and to be able to identify it for the future.
But I learned lessons too. I had to hold back on my maternal instincts and think clearly – I wanted so badly to ring the parents of these children and ask what was going on. I wanted to sit all these girls down together and discuss the situation. I wanted to go into that school as a youth worker to explain to all classes what mobbing was. I wanted to pull my daughter out of school to protect her.
I am, after all, only human.
But I didn’t do any of these things because I would not be doing my daughter justice. I have always said, we cannot change other people, only ourselves and how we react to them. I needed to show her the skills she would need in life to overcome it. Because, this, sadly, would happen again.
It happens every single day in workplaces across the world.
I feel that we, as society, need to be educated and be more proactive in preventing this particular type of bullying.
It doesn’t matter if we are ten or thirty years of age – bullying has a serious negative impact on the victim(s)- and often too, the bystanders. Schools may talk about individuals as being bullies, but quite often do not differentiate between this and “gangs”. Instigators need others to make mobbing successful. They often justify their actions by creating rumours or pointing out flaws in a person that do not exist. I have recognised this characteristic in people I once was good friends with – and when I started disagreeing with their statements or changed the subject, these friendships gradually terminated.
Many of us as adults see this on a daily basis, but turn a blind eye. We hear people “bitching” about others, making snark remarks about their clothes – or making comments such as ” Who do they think they are?”
This is all bullying. There is no other way about it.
And it is up to us as individuals to put a stop to it. As parents, as bosses, as colleagues and as friends.
We need to think about ourselves – are we bullying without knowing it? Could we be the instigators or collaborators? Do our children hear us judging others? Hear us knocking others parenting styles, talking about people being “too big for their boots” or gossip about everyone in the village? Are we the bystanders, and go along with what others are saying, for the sake of peace and quiet?
Don’t stand by and think because you are not doing it, it is not your responsibility.
Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you may find one day that you are the one left on the outside.
Or worse, your child is.