Bullying is a problem for children everywhere. But if you are an expat, you might be an easier target for tormentors. Ben Jones reports.
A recent photograph on the front page of the Spanish daily El Mundo was a shocker.
It showed a young boy in a classroom standing over an 11-year-old schoolmate and taking a swing at his head.
The victim was recoiling and raising his arms to defend himself.
The photo was taken from a video that showed several boys beating the daylights out of the child.
Equally shocking was the setting – the Colegio Suizo, an expensive private school near the upmarket Madrid neighbourhood of La Moraleja – highlighting the facts that bullying is a growing problem in Spain and that it can happen in even the best educational institutions.
A recent study put the number of children harassed in some way by classmates in Spanish schools at 23%. Experts say that what happens in Spain is only the tip of the iceberg and bullying is common across Europe.
These days, parents, teachers and child psychologists are now coming to grips with how widespread bullying is and are trying to combat the problem, whether it is physical violence, threats of violence, verbal abuse or just socially isolating a victim.
Expat children targeted by bullies
Expatriate kids, of course, are not immune as children who are different in some way from their peers are the most frequent targets of bullies.
“My parents took me out of German schools and put me into an American school because I was always picked on for being different,” said one young German-American who lives in Berlin and grew up in Munich. “I certainly liked it better but I certainly don’t feel integrated in German society.”
Isolated in state school
“We moved here to the Costa Blanca four years ago and sent our son and daughter to British schools,” says a British businessman, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“But these schools were ‘Little Englands’ isolated from Spanish society and as we wanted them to integrate into the culture around them, we put them in a Spanish state school. That’s when the trouble began.
“Our kids were insulted, called ‘puta inglés’ by both kids and teachers and suffered racial abuse,” he recalls.
“I even had a headmaster use the phrase ‘arrogant English’. At one point we moved them to a new senior school only weeks after they began at their original school because my daughter was threatened with being stabbed!”
He added: “And it wasn’t just us. Between 15 and 20 per cent of the kids at the school are northern European and from what the parents tell me the majority are having problems.”
“I think there is a certain amount of envy or resentment on the part of the Spaniards towards the foreigners and this comes out in overt racism.”
“And the bullying has a knock on effect: the kids band together in nationality groups and never properly integrate.”
A different experience
Another British parent says her son and daughter had a different experience of bullying at a Spanish state school.
“My little boy had problems with bullying but it was from an English child and my daughter was bullied initially because she wears glasses but her tormentor was American,” she explains.
“They have not been bullied because of their language or culture.”
Whoever is doing the bullying, how best can a child defend him or herself?
“It is important to empower our children to handle these situations on their own before we become involved,” says Derek Randel, the US author of ‘Stopping School Violence: the Complete Guide for Parents and Educators on Handling Violence’.
“This would really build their self-esteem. We want our children to understand that they are not the problem, the bully is.
“They have the right to feel safe and to be proud of what makes them different,” he told Expatica.
“We have to explain to that when a victim is silent only the bully wins, therefore the child must tell someone.”
According to Randel, children should also try their best to ignore their tormentor.
“Many times saying anything to the bully can ignite them more. I like to teach the child that if you’re bullied use humour and walk away.
“Do not hang around waiting for the next insult. If picking on you is no longer fun then the bully will move on to another target.”
Steps to take
Randel also suggests steps parents can take.
“Put your child into different activities so they can meet as many kids as possible and this should result in gaining more friends. As parents we also need to talk about and model good body language.
“Teach your child to walk with their head up, shoulders back, like they own the place. Many times our body language invites bullying.”
For children in foreign environments, such as expat kids in Spain, Randel suggests that the children should assimilate as much as they can.
“If they fit in better, they become less of a target,” he explains.
All the parents interviewed for this article wished to remain anonymous