Bullying – A Longing to Belong
by Una O’Connell
I attended the 2013 conference in Seattle, offering both a panel presentation and a workshop. Although I live in London, I trained at the Hellinger Institute in NY in 2001/2 and therefore, feel an affinity with the United States. Following the Seattle conference, Lisa Iversen kindly hosted me in several locations across the Pacific Northwest. I returned for a second visit to Bellingham in October of 2014 and ran workshops on: ‘The Invisible Landscape of Bullying’ and ‘Longing to Belong: Walking the Path between Home and School’.
When I was five years old I bullied a girl in my kindergarten class. Hatija was quietly confident and very bright. I was considered neither of those things. I was fascinated by Hatija; I wanted to be like her, I wanted her to notice me and admire me too. I didn’t know how to win her friendship in a way that was kind and inviting, so I made my presence felt in other ways. I was angry at being ignored and so I began to provoke her. I sought to point out what I felt was lacking in her. This made me feel better about myself, but it wasn’t long before Hatija’s friend reported me. I was called in front of the teacher and accused of being a bully and a racist. I didn’t know what either of those words meant. If someone had explained the concept of victim and perpetrator to me in the language of a five year old, I believe I would have seen myself as the victim and Hatija as the perpetrator.
Since 2006, I have worked systemically and therapeutically in inner city London schools and I have noticed that children who bully others share certain characteristics. They often struggle academically, they come from families where there is conflict and they are seen as leaders by their peers. Boys fight in the playground. Girls express their anger in more subtle ways by forming friendship groups that are consciously exclusive.
Bullying is often modelled in the home and transferred to school. These children use violence and manipulation to help them feel energised and in control. They learn that it is more immediately manageable to incite fear in others than to feel the fear and the isolation in themselves. At heart it is a longing to belong, the search for a guaranteed place in the herd.
Belonging and inclusion are key themes in constellation work and they are key themes in education. School exclusion has risen by 13.9% in a single year in the UK. As a strategy to eliminate bullying, it is highly damaging because a child’s difficult behaviour is based on a fundamental feeling of exclusion which has its origins within the family. Excluding children from attending school doesn’t teach them anything; it simply reinforces the idea that they deserve to be excluded.
It is important to forbid bullying and yet its roots must be reckoned and respected. Strong feelings are instinctive in all of us and they can give us the courage to stand up for the things we consider to be important, such as injustice. Managing anger should be taught with intelligence and sensitivity as part of the school curriculum. Mostly it is simply forbidden and punished.
In response to these concerns and to the comments I often hear from students about ‘unfairness’, I developed a range of exercises for working in groups. The following is an example:
I say to a child in a green sweater: ‘You’re wearing a red sweater’. My mistake is obvious to everyone. However, if I accuse someone of having taken my phone and that person denies it, who can the children believe? Who is telling the truth? It is possible that I left my phone at home, so the only person who really knows the truth is the person I am accusing. The children work in pairs, practising strong body language, calming breath and developing inner resources: ‘I know the truth, even if nobody else does. There is no shame because there is no truth to the accusation’. I encourage them to use their breath, to feel their truth travelling up through their bodies and into their chests, to hold it for a moment in their hearts, then to exhale gently, allowing that inner certainty to unfold into the expression on their faces. If they feel strong and clear, they can look the person in the eye, be it another child, be it a teacher and, holding firmly to what they know to be true, say out loud:
‘I am sorry you have lost your phone. I didn’t take it and I hope you find it’.
If we can stand up for ourselves in a calm way, it becomes easier to talk to each other and it becomes easier to listen.
As parents, as leaders and teachers, as adults, one of the greatest gifts we can offer children is to be good role models, to behave with as much honesty, integrity and congruity as possible. I am reminded of a comment made by a former gang member: ‘I don’t think kids are bad. They just learn what you teach them’.
Una graduated with a degree in French from the University of Reading. In 2001/02, Una trained in Systemic Family Constellations at the Hellinger Institute in New York. In 2007, she began working for Kids Company, a London charity supporting children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, founded by Camila Batmanghelidjh. She worked in primary and secondary schools, facilitating group work in the classroom and managing issues around belonging and inclusion, family and culture. Una also provided training courses for both the teaching faculties and the team leaders at Kids Company schools. She now works freelance, providing workshops and trainings for educators, school therapists and social workers on the subject of ‘Family Conflict, Family Loyalty – navigating the path between the two’. More information about Una’s work can be found at www.unaoconnell.co.uk.