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Children’s behaviour: impolite, rude or a bully? How to recognise and respond adequately?

Bullying is widely discussed both by society and at school. It is not only discussed, but also active attempts are made to reduce it. Because bullying does take place. It exists both among children and among adults. Parents are concerned about children’s bullying because they want to protect their children and make sure that their child is not involved in bullying. Finally, they fear that their child may become an observer of bullying. As bullying is discussed so widely, the question must be asked – can every disrespectful behaviour of communication between people be called ‘bullying’? A notion of ‘bullying’ is often relied on in the situations where some actions of the child cause the unpleasant feelings of another child: hurt, disappointment, sadness. However, the excessive and incorrect use of this notion may be harmful. First of all, it is because it diminishes the experiences of true victims to bullying. Where any action (or word) which hurts is called ‘bullying’ and that action (or word) is being responded to as ‘bullying’, the attention shifts from the response to true bullying. Bullying is a serious societal problem which requires responsible, accurate and coordinated ways of response. For where the word ‘bullying’ is heard from the parents or pupils at school, the school community reacts to it by taking proactive actions – it seeks to clarify the situation to effectively respond through necessary aid measures. Nevertheless, unpleasant emotions and experiences are caused by various elements of disrespectful behaviour, such as impolite or rude communication. Bullying is an extreme form of disrespectful behaviour with another person. How can one tell bullying from other types of behaviour then? According to Signe Whitson, the child and adolescent therapist, internationally acknowledged expert on bullying prevention and author of the books ‘How to Be Angry’ and ‘Friendship & Other Weapons’, child’s behavioural intentions and frequency of disrespectful behaviour can help recognise the forms of disrespectful behaviour.

Being impolite. Showing tongues, making faces and body gestures, for instance, sticking the tongue out, showing ‘horns’ by putting fingers to the head, etc.; standing at the beginning of the queue by ignoring other children; boasting about being the best (at school, in sport, art, etc.); even throwing leaves or grass at another child – all this is a disrespectful behaviour of the child. Such elements of disrespectful behaviour alone do seem like bullying. However, when we see the context where they manifest themselves, and if this behaviour is spontaneous and unplanned and is a result of an inability to anticipate the consequences of the action and a lack of respectful behaviour skills, and if that behaviour is not meant to really hurt someone, then it is disrespectful behaviour we are dealing with rather than bullying.

Being rude. The main difference between impolite and rude behaviour is related to the behavioural intention. Impoliteness is an impulsive and unplanned action. Whereas rude behaviour is meant to hurt, undermine, diminish and criticise someone on purpose. To hurt someone by saying, for example: ‘I hate you’, ‘you are ugly (stupid, disgusting, etc.)’. This is the language of anger. Very often it is anger, namely, that stands as a reason for children’s rude behaviour. After a surge of anger is over, the child often feels sorry about his rude behaviour. If the child behaves this way once or a couple of times but not always and feels sorry for the way he acted, we are talking about rude behaviour. Children with rude behaviour need help in expressing their angry emotions appropriately and in understanding their feelings as well as in learning adequate ways of expressing them.

Bullying. Bullying is an intentional, constant, recurrent action taken by the child with a psychological or physical advantage to hurt (psychologically and/or physically) another child. A bully treats a bullied child as if he is insignificant, helpless, unnecessary and without an opinion.
A bully seeks to increase his power, influence and status. He wants to achieve that by bullying because he is probably not aware of other ways to achieve that. And this is one of the reasons for why the public blaming, punishing and shaming of the bully gives an effect contrary to what is expected. Attention, although it is negative, is attention still, and attention is the influence and status. Another reason for public punishment being ineffective is related to the fact that when we publicly punish a bully, we distance him from a group of children he has difficulties with in constructive communication even more. Executioners and victims in the group of children detach the members of the group from one another and highlight their differences. Whereas, when a group of children is united, similarities are sought, etc., it is possible to find solutions as to how the group of children can learn to be together without hurting each other.

Ways of response?

Response to any disrespectful behaviour between children is paramount. Adults’ reactions, however, must be assessed and measured, whereas the response must be carefully considered. Wise but not fast. When responding to impolite and rude behaviour of the children, first of all, tell your children that this behaviour is impolite and unacceptable. If the situation requires, we can expand our response by saying that this behaviour will not be tolerated and will lead to certain consequences. Teach children adequate and respectful ways to express something that they wanted to express by impolite or rude behaviour. Teach children how to recognise angry emotions and teach them proper ways to express them – maybe hit the pillow, scream into a pillow, draw lines on a sheet of paper fiercely, tear a sheet of paper, clench and open the fists.
Do not give the child an opportunity to justify his impolite or rude behaviour by phrases ‘he/she started it’, ‘I was only defending myself’. When inappropriate behaviour is justified, children’s tolerance to aggression is formed. If self-defence in impolite and rude forms is allowed, this creates a space for the child to provoke other children to behave accordingly so that it leads to the situation where the child may start ‘defending himself’.

When reacting to bullying, it is important to understand that blaming and intimidation are totally ineffective strategies. If we blame a person for his action, we do not encourage him to seek changes. Blaming makes one defend themselves. When we are in a defence mode, we attack, become angry or withdraw into ourselves. Blaming is not an effective strategy in managing bullying as it does not encourage the child who is blamed to rely on thinking (especially critical thinking) skills. For a blamed child is not prompted to consider his behaviour, discuss and look for solutions, he is not taught to take responsibility. Whereas intimidation, which is typically related to taking away certain privileges from the ‘guilty’ (for example, an opportunity to use smart devices for some significant period of time), may be effective in exceptional cases only, for instance, where the child really acknowledges the damage done by his behaviour and agrees that ‘sanctions’ imposed are suitable and fair.

Effective response to bullying covers said ways of response to impolite and rude behaviour. When responding to bullying, however, the following strategies should be additionally employed:

Consistent conversations with a child. It is important for a bully to know that adults significant to him are aware of his bullying. When we ask the child to tell what happened, it allows him to describe the situation from his point of view, organise his thoughts, hear his story and learn to take responsibility for his actions.

Teach children to assume responsibility for their actions. To tell the truth and take responsibility. Being responsible means a critical approach to the situation and available resources necessary to make decisions suitable for the situation. We may say that taking responsibility is also a position. For no leadership is possible without an ability to assume responsibility. Tell your child that we all make mistakes but all of us have an opportunity to correct that mistake: by saying ‘sorry’, restoring damage done, taking responsibility, making a commitment to refrain from making similar mistakes in the future. By helping the child to understand the significance of assuming of responsibility, we may say that taking responsibility for is an act of courage.

Help the child to find his personal strengths. When the child finds his strengths inside himself, his relationship with himself changes – his self-esteem increases. When the child understands and accepts himself the way he is, and accepts his traits, he becomes more tolerant towards others; this reduces the communication conflicts and children are able to find more constructive ways to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Encourage and praise appropriate behaviour and efforts. Encouragement and praise are necessary to ensure the continuous desired behaviour of the child. There are no children who bully all the time, everywhere and with everyone, irrespective of how frequent that behaviour takes place. When we manage to capture the moments when the child’s behaviour does not have the elements of bullying, we must be really proud of the child at those moments. Even the smallest desired outcome should be strengthened. It is even more important to reinforce child’s efforts that he puts to change his behaviour – perhaps instead of an immediate angry remark, he abstained and waited for two minutes. It is important to notice such efforts, as they may seem irrelevant to us, but they take a lot of willpower for a child. Perhaps if we are wise in our response to child’s efforts, he will wait for not two but maybe three minutes, or maybe, some time later, he will abstain from an angry comment after all.

By Virginija Rekienė, psychologist at ‘Erudito licėjus’