Spoiler alert: This post includes spoilers from 'Stranger Things season 4'. Proceed with caution!
The newest season of the sci-fi-horror show ‘Stranger Things’ throws light on many mental health issues, but the most surprising one is that of bullying. The new season, unlike the ones before, delves deeper into these mental health themes and shows them to be as close to real life situations.
In the new season, the protagonist, Eleven, is shown to lose her superpowers - she is now not as ‘cool’ as she used to be and though she has saved the world earlier, she is now reduced to being a girl-next-door without her superpowers.
While Eleven hasn’t come to terms with this yet, she is trying to cope with a lot of changes - she has lost her father (Jim Hopper) and hasn’t come to terms with the loss, she is in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend Mike, and she hasn’t totally adjusted to the move from Hawkins to Los Angeles.
While she is on this emotional rollercoaster, she is also trying hard to fit into school, which isn’t an easy task. Her grades aren’t great, her linguistic skills are below average, she has a hard time becoming a part of the LA culture and to top it all, she is singled out time and again by the other kids in school.
Eleven goes into a shell and reaches a point where she pretends with Mike about everything being okay with her. She goes to an extent where she lies to him about being a part of the ‘cool girl gang’ in school.
Things escalate with her in terms of getting bullied - she is ridiculed, shamed publicly more than once. There’s anger seething within Eleven’s mind and it finally reaches a point where she has a meltdown and she ends up lashing out and physically injuring her bully.
The change in Eleven’s character arc brings to light a lot of questions about bullying, its forms, how it can be handled and how parents can identify its signs before it escalates.
In a chat with Dr Meghna (PhD Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS), Trauma-informed Psychotherapist & Parenting Educator Founder, Raising Family Academy we discuss these issues and their solutions.
What Bullying Looks Like: It Can Take On Many Forms
Physical bullying: Includes hitting, kicking, tripping, pinching, pushing, or damaging property.
Verbal bullying: Includes name calling, teasing, and intimidation.
Social bullying: Entails singling a person out to make him feel alone or different. It is intended to harm a person’s reputation and includes lying, spreading rumours, giving contemptuous or menacing looks, playing nasty jokes or mimicking unkindly. It also means encouraging others to socially exclude someone.
Cyber bullying: Includes using digital technology to harass someone by posting negative comments; abusive or hurtful texts, emails, posts, images, or videos; deliberately excluding someone online; or spreading nasty gossip or rumours online.
Bullying can sometimes include targeting a person’s sexuality, religion, appearance, gender, race, or disability. Ragging escalates to bullying when one person (or people) are repeatedly targeted and victimised.
Impact of Bullying May Be Seen in the Following Signs
Changes in the teen’s eating or sleeping patterns
Sudden loss of friends
Refusal or reluctance to go to school
Lost books, clothing, jewellery, or electronics
Self-harming behaviours or suicidal thoughts
Frequently falling ill and complaining of stomach aches or headaches
Changes in patterns of spending time online might be a sign of cyberbullying. Parents should watch out for your teen expressing anger or anxiety after spending time online.
If you notice changes in your teen’s mood or behaviour, it is a good idea to talk to them. Some mood and behaviour changes are normal in adolescence. But, if you notice changes such as low mood, lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed, and changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns for more than 2 weeks, or if your teen talks about death or wanting to die, you have reason to worry about your teen’s mental health.
The next step is to take your teen to a qualified mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist who can assess your teen’s mental health status, and give recommendations accordingly.
What Parents Can Do
BEFORE Bullying Happens:
Ask open-ended questions. Although research suggests that parents are often the last to know when their child is being bullied or has bullied someone else, you can break that trend by talking with your teen every day about his social life.
Ask open-ended questions about who he had lunch with, what he did at recess and what happened on the bus. This will be easier to do if you have at least one family meal every day where each family member shares about their day.
Talk about friendships. Use every day moments to talk about friendships and what they entail. For example, friendships should be characterised by mutual respect, and not coercion. Talk about how it’s not okay to force someone to do things they are not comfortable with, no matter how much fun it may seem to you.
Instil an anti-bullying mindset. Teach your teen that being critical, judgmental, making hurtful jokes, spreading rumours, or calling people names they don’t like are unhealthy and constitute bullying.
Encourage them to look for positives in others. Use every day moments or specific incidents to teach empathy.
AFTER Bullying Happens
Talk about your teen’s feelings
Discuss the way it has made your teen feel and react. This will help them label their own emotions and assist with building self-awareness. Talking about it will also help them process the emotion.
Don’t let your feelings take over
Try not to let your very understandable emotions of anger, frustration, or distress show. Calm yourself down before you respond.
Your feelings of distress and reactions will only intensify your teen's emotions or make it worse for them. It might even stop your teen from talking to you another time.
Ask your teen what they would like to happen
Often all they may want to know is how to stop the bullying. Your teen may feel that if the perpetrator is punished, it will be worse for them in the long run.
Depending on how serious the bullying is and how unsafe the situation is, discuss the following with your teen: Would she like to confront or ignore the bully? Would she like to involve her peers? Would she like to confide in a trusted teacher or report this to the school authorities?
Chalk out an action plan
Since bullying is never a one-time occurrence, draw out an action plan with your teen to avert future instances.
This might include thinking about which friend they could turn to, which teacher they could report to, and the ways in which they can respond to the person who is bullying them.
Break the action plan into manageable steps and play out possible scenarios.
Encourage safety behaviours
These include - sticking with the pack and keeping people around them while they're in the school playground or canteen; having someone at the school that they can run to, like another adult, if things get out of control; and avoiding bullying hot spots or places where bullying is likely to take place.
Teach how to get out of a bullying situation
Talk to your teen about ways in which they can defend themselves against bullies, especially if the bullying is physical. For instance, be sure your teen knows to keep his eye on the exit and to use it when the opportunity presents itself.
Other options include making a lot of noise, attracting attention, and knowing how to deflect any type of physical aggression.
Your teen does not have to fight the bully to defend himself. He just needs to know how to exit from the situation and get to safety.
What Schools Can Do
Have clear definitions and procedures that are part of their anti-bullying policy
Have CCTV cameras installed in school classrooms and corridors
Train staff and teachers to handle bullying incidents
Enable students to report being bullied anonymously
Have clear protocols for handling students involved in bullying, such as direct sanctions, use of exclusionary methods, etc.
(Divya Naik is a Mumbai based psychotherapist, writer and media professional. She is passionate about women's mental health, especially perinatal and post-natal mental health and works closely with the community of therapists in the network to build on the same.)