I’ve written quite a bit about bullying. It’s an important subject because a) it’s so common, b) it can be really damaging and c) it offends my sense of fairness. I mean, if you’re not trying to pick a fight, why should you have to put up with someone else attacking you? When I did my research, I discovered that 5-10 percent of children get bullied for long periods of time even if their school is aware of the problem and has strategies in place to deal with it, so I thought, what can those children do to help themselves?
It seemed to me that the lasting harm from bullying is emotional, so the way to protect yourself is by knowing how to not let bullying crush your self-confidence and make you feel anxious and depressed. So up to now my non-fiction books about bullying such as Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends have been about building good psychological self-defences and my fiction books on the subject such as How to Get What You Want, by Peony Pinker have been about children who find their own ways of tackling it.
I didn’t particularly notice that my latest book The Binding was about bullying until my publisher sent me some publicity questions and one of them was ‘What would you want children reading the book to learn from it?’ I hadn’t been thinking about what readers might learn – the book was just a story – but the answer I came up with was this: ‘It’s a classic bullying situation, where a powerful, charismatic child is able to dominate the others in a friendship group, using humiliation and exclusion to crush any opposition. I’d like children to think about the importance of sticking up for each other, and the power of the group when they stand up to bullying together.’
The role of bystanders in bullying situations wasn’t something I’d focused on before, but what my new story shows is how much difference we can make if we don’t just walk away. Even if all we do is privately acknowledge what we’ve witnessed, and the wrongness of it, that could feel really supportive for the person being picked on.
If we speak up and get other people to see that it’s wrong too, that could be even more supportive. As long as we ignore it, our silence tells both victims and bullies that we think bullying is OK. But it’s scary trying to support someone who is being picked on. What if the bullies turn their fire on you? The Binding is a scary story. The hero has to go right out on a limb to try and break the power of the strongest and protect the weak. But there’s safety in numbers, and facing our own fears is what makes us become strong.
Have you witnessed a bullying incident? What did you do?