Respecting the dignity of children

Case 2 of 3: Lack of Active Listening by Adults in an Authoritative Position in a Case of a Child Being Bullied by her Peers

During a follow-up clinical visit, Suzie appeared completely changed. She was feeling so good when we had seen each other six months ago! She then seemed fulfilled and joyful, despite several major upheavals in her life. Her parents had made a peaceful arrangement; her emotional security had improved greatly, thanks to the accompaniment of a “grande amie”; and she had also managed to catch up with school, thanks to intensive support provided in the community social pediatric centre.

On the day she came to her clinical visit, Suzie appeared with a dark, dull look, having lost the flame in her eyes. Seeking help, she asked an urgent appointment to see us. She was physically and psychologically assaulted by her peers at school. On a daily and systematic basis, they denigrated her, ignored her and even threatened her with reprisals if she denounced them. For several months, she was abused and could no longer take it. Anyone would understand how these acts of intimidation and aggression might generate a significant sense of anxiety.

A sad girl intimidation moment Elementary Age Bullying in Schoolyard

The mother tried to have the school and the principal do something to protect her child. Suzie was listened to by adults who trivialized the situation, suggesting that there had to be two versions of the story. To be off the hook, the school principal suggested to Suzie she comes in through the main door to avoid contact with her alleged bullies. As the problem was thus resolved in the mind of the school, further meetings with the principal or staff were not deemed helpful. However, Suzie’s sleep was no longer calm as she was overcome with nightmares. Her eating habits changed and refused to leave the house out of fear. She refused to go to school in the morning, and her mother had to push her to get there. Recently, she had begun to denigrate herself and to talk about death.

What should a bullied child do when adults who should be protecting her and upholding her dignity do not really take her seriously?  What should the child think when those in authority do not consider the impact of intimidation and aggression on the dignity of the child and on all of her rights? How can Suzie not have doubts about her worth as a human being when young people her age hurl insults at her like “lame, whore and ugly”? How can she not begin to believe it herself when her bullies are free to continue?

As a pediatrician, it makes me wonder how no one in the school environment has bothered to observe this child’s profound and rapid change from a state of joy and light to that of distress and darkness. How can one ignore such an intense sadness in a child? How can one be so insensitive to a child when one rubs shoulders with her on a daily basis? Unfortunately, I must say that Suzie’s case is far from being an anecdote. Many children suffer the same fate in the school environment and must be cared for and empowered.

I do not promote public lynching—the risk of slippage is too great. Rather, I advocate the intensive and immediate action of responsible adults, for a child to have the courage to disclose assaults on them. Safeguarding the safety and dignity of a child in situations of abuse is of paramount importance, regardless of the abuser’s age or the social status given to their parents. When the child reacts to the bullying by shutting off the world and injuring herself, I am of the opinion that the adults’ inconsideration equates a flight of responsibility and it is simply unacceptable. This practice should be purely condemned. I would even say that this behaviour corresponds to wilful blindness that allows bullies to continue their assaults on the child with impunity. I would not be surprised when these children start reporting these irresponsible adults on #me too!

At the clinic, we made sure that day to actively listen to the child as to understand her situation, and then we promised her we would help her on several levels, including that of caring for her wounds and making sure she regains her vitality. At the same time, the team took steps to meet with the school management, and with the mother and child. We certainly will use every means possible to stop this kind of practice that fails to respect the rights and dignity of too many children.

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