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Update: Clinical psychologist, Nico van Zyl, weighs in on bullying and physical violence among teens

In a society that has become so desensitised to violence, never has the relationship between parent and child been more crucial to curtailing incidents of violence, according to clinical psychologist, Nico van Zyl.

A learner at Ferrum High in Newcastle, is being investigated for attempted murder, following a brutal assault that took place in the boys’ toilet two weeks ago.

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In August, a Dundee High prefect spoke out about how he was dragged to furthest end of the boys’ toilet by a matric learner, pinned to floor and punched repeatedly in the face even after his nose started to bleed and his eye was swollen shut.

In a society that has become so desensitised to violence, never has the relationship between parent and child been more crucial to curtailing incidents of violence, according to clinical psychologist, Nico van Zyl, who weighed in on bullying and physical violence among teens.

Van Zyl urges readers to think of schools as a microcosm of the larger community, and a reflection of its beliefs and behaviours.

“Hearing nearly every day of someone being attacked or murdered, the community at large is becoming increasingly desensitised to acts of physical violence. Especially in light of the fact that many perpetrators seem to get away with it. There doesn’t seem to any justice,” he explained.

“There is a general sentiment of, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ Our desensitisation to violence is evidenced by the fact that the incident at Ferrum hardly reached the news. It’s not sensational enough because nobody died.”

Van Zyl is upfront about his belief that parents bear the responsibility of raising respectful, well-disciplined children and should not, “…throw away their parental responsibility to the school.”

“All schools have systems in place to ensure the safety of its learners and I do think teachers try their best. Life orientation is geared towards teaching conflict resolution and respect from primary school. I don’t think the issue of violence at schools arises from the schooling system,” he said.

“Curtailing violence in schools begins with discipline in the home. Rules and routine are just as important as love and affection, because a child who is disciplined at home is unlikely to commit an act of physical violence. However, if a child gets away with certain things at home, he or she will believe they can also get away with it at school.”

According to Van Zyl, acceptance from the group, especially from friends and family, is very important to an adolescent child.

“The more involved parents are in their child’s life, the more accepted and secure that child feels. Ideally, parents need to cultivate an open relationship with their child, one in which the child trusts you enough to turn to you when something is bothering them,” he advised

“Bullying, at school, starts most of the time with verbal or emotional bullying before it escalates to physical violence,” continued Van Zyl.

“Bullying is very traumatising for children whether it escalates to physical violence or not. If for example, one learner says to another, ‘I will sort you out during break,’ or, ‘I will catch you after school,’ the learner who has been threatened experiences heightened anxiety and will not be able to pay attention in class. Even social and online bullying takes an emotional toll on a child.”

Van Zyl warns that, besides the victim of the assault, anyone associated with the school where a violent incident takes place, can experience trauma, including other learners and their parents.

“Learners who witnessed the violent incident at school may feel anxious that a boundary was not respected. This could lead to thoughts of, ‘If it happened to them, what if it happens to me?’”

Parents should intervene is they observe the following signs that the child may be a victim of bullying at school:

  • The child is not happy at school,
  • There is a notable change in the mental and emotional state of the child,
  • The child suddenly doesn’t want to go to school,
  • The child isolates himself or herself and no longer wants to socialise with friends and family.

On the other hand, speaking in a disrespectful manner to one’s parents as well as disagreeable changes in attitude and behaviour could be signs that a child is capable of acting out in a violent manner.

“If parents observe this, get involved. Try to find out what’s going on,” advises Van Zyl.

According to Van Zyl, an act of violence can also be carried out by a child who has been bullied to an extent that it becomes unbearable.

He warns however, that sometimes there may be no signs before a violent incident occurs.

“A child could feel aggrieved by something another child says or does and act out on it in that moment,” he explained.

“If we stay involved with our children and walk the walk with them, you can deal with challenges easier than if a child feels like he or she is standing alone against the world,” concluded Van Zyl.

“Be involved, show interest and communicate with your children that they are ok, that they are loved, and that they are accepted.”



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