By Tim Porteus

A WELL-KNOWN saying goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

That, of course, is completely untrue. Words can devastate us. And those who use them to bully and undermine others know this.

The use of words to ridicule, humiliate and destroy other people’s confidence is something we have all probably come across. The perpetrators of this kind of bullying are often dealing with personal issues and bullying themselves, but this is not always the case. If it goes unchecked, bullying can become a culture that seeps its way into becoming an accepted norm. And for those on the receiving end of cruel and unkind words, the damage and hurt, while unseen physically, can be emotionally crippling and last a lifetime.

Words are that powerful. And being on the receiving end of this can happen at any stage in our lives. But those most vulnerable are children. They are at a formative time in their life, when their sense of self is being formed. It’s a vital time to lay the foundations of self-esteem and confidence, and bullying words can literally destroy this.

And childhood is also a time when young people are compelled to be together at school. They have little choice in the daily environment they have to inhabit, which is shared by many other children. Bullying can take place subtly and even outside school gates. Cruel words can be whispered quietly or shouted in public, the damage is the same.

I remember this when I was at school. I was bullied to some extent, but it was more physical than emotional. That was very unpleasant. But I was also subjected to verbal bullying and the words used bruised and hurt me more than anything else. And emotional bruises last longer, a lifetime even.

“Try to ignore the words,” is often the advice given, because it is so difficult for a school to police what children say to each other, as it is simply impossible for teachers to supervise every moment of every child’s day.

Our schools, it is to be hoped, have rigorous anti-bullying policies. This includes introducing a culture in which bullying is challenged and seen as unacceptable by a child’s peer group. A core part of this is the promotion of empathy and understanding for others’ feelings, as well as recognition that we all have vulnerabilities.

But when parents know their child is being bullied, and see the devastating impact the words used have on him or her, there can be a sense of powerlessness, and anger, that the authorities who should be looking after the wellbeing of their child are failing in their responsibilities.

I understand this and it is indeed the responsibility for schools to respond on this, and to be fair I think in general they do. But what I also know from a number of parents in our county who have spoken to me is that some children are suffering terribly from this kind of abuse, and there seems no way to stop it.

The advice to “ignore it” comes from an admission that no matter what policies are in place, bullying with words is almost impossible to completely stop, especially when it’s taking place outside the school.

Ultimately, the only way to stop it is to create a society in which kindness and empathy are root values taught to our children from the very early years, both at home and in early years. And I know great work is being done on this, and we often don’t see the difference that has been made because it’s difficult to evidence the absence of something.

But none of this helps the children who are being bullied and their parents who are trying to find a way to keep their child safe. It’s an agonising dilemma for parents, and it’s added to if the child is older and at high school because of the embarrassment that can be caused by a parent being seen to fight a young person’s battles. This can even be a new focus for the bullying.

But just as damaging is leaving the child to “the school of hard knocks” in which they are left to sort it out themselves. This approach rarely achieves what it seems to and, especially with bullying using words, it can leave a child emotionally very vulnerable.

So what is a parent in this situation to do if they feel the school remains unsafe for their child, despite the school’s attempts to challenge the bullying? Changing schools or home education are often options looked at, and can sometimes work. But for many that is not an option.

I do not have any simple guaranteed solutions, but one which I believe could be used by parents, ideally in cooperation with schools, is the use of stories. Bear with me on this.

Some words can devastate, but others can heal and protect us. I don’t mean for this to sound simplistic, I understand the trauma that bullying causes. But words can be used to fight words.

I had personal experience of this when I was at school. Unkind and cruel comments about me stuck to me like sticky willies. I took them home with me as they became embedded in my sense of who I was. I began to even believe some of them, that I was useless. My response was to emotionally hide, and sometimes physically hide. But the words curled up with me and almost became part of my identity.

Then I was told a story. The story was not about me, but about bullying in a very different context. I remember it showed me that the bullying, although being personally experienced, was not actually about me. It wasn’t a defect in me, it wasn’t something wrong with me, or anything I did.

It also made me understand the words being thrown at me did not describe any part of me or who I was. This was important because being bullied creates a very personal and almost secretive pain.

The story showed me the bullying wasn’t because of who I was. The cruel words thrown at me had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the bully.

This, of course, didn’t immediately stop the bullying. It remained unpleasant, but it stopped me internalising the words, they didn’t affect me as before. I found new strength in being proud of who I was. I used new words, and kind ones, for myself and others.

And that was the beginning of real change within me and the end to being so vulnerable to the bullies. And bullies feed on vulnerability.

I’m not suggesting this will always work, or that there is no other way, but it is an option that could be used by parents in a desperate situation. So many local parents have spoken to me about this issue that I thought it would be useful to write about it.

And please do get in contact if you would like more information on how storytelling might help in a situation you or your child is experiencing.

Words can make a difference, in a good way as well.