The solution to bullying: a sense of belonging


By Claire Kinloch, External Communications Director

When our young people start our programme during selection phase, they are often shy, nervous, and have trouble making eye contact or engaging in conversation. But it doesn’t take long for the transformation to start taking place.

The first thing that is most spoken about by our young people – sometimes only weeks into the programme – is the sense of ‘team’ they get when they come to work with us. Loneliness starts to dissipate. Connections (that soon become friendships) start with fellow classmates. Friendships blossom between teenagers who have seen one another at school every day for years, yet have previously never spoken. It’s the simplest thing that gets them on track – a sense of belonging.

Last month we had the privilege of attending the World Anti-Bullying Forum in North Carolina courtesy of our partners, BRP. Amongst many insightful and diverse research presentations from around the world, there were some common themes that cropped up, including:

  • Bullying, either face to face or online is mentally disabling and disarming for the victim. It is designed to make others feel like outsiders and with that can bring huge mental health issues including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, the inability to function normally day to day and in extreme cases suicidal thoughts.
  • It’s not just the victim that feels the pain. So too does the bully; often struggling themselves with their own mental health challenges and the need to push others away to create space for their position amongst a tribe. And so too does the often overlooked, bystander. Staying neutral in certain situations can be highly stressful for individuals who need to spend time and effort navigating and planning their own behaviour to not take sides, lose their own relationships or aggravate the situation.
  • The often-frequent cyclical dynamic and roles of bully and victim changing roles, with victims having a high propensity to become bullies themselves stemming from a desperate position of defence and assertiveness. And so, it goes on.
  • The critical role of both parents and school leadership teams, ideally aligned and working closely together to provide a perfect balance of direction, support and empowerment for the young people.

The challenge is to find a way to break this cycle which most likely affects every young person in some way, not just the ones surrounded by the noise. But of course, breaking the cycle needs to be on their terms. Empowering them to lead the way in finding solutions themselves (as opposed to teachers and parents “imposing solutions” on them) was often cited at the forum as critical when it comes to creating positive outcomes from bullying behaviour.

The Polar Academy has seen bullying grow year-on-year since its inception. It is amongst the young people we meet at the schools we work with and around the individuals who take part in our programme each year. We are always growing and learning how to navigate this social pandemic, as much as anyone else. However, we know that our unique programme brings together schools and parents. It empowers our teenagers to lead with newfound confidence. In our experience, core to self-belief is being part of a tribe or team and feeling a sense of belonging. With a strong sense of self-belief and certainty, bullying simply doesn’t exist.