Our Children; Bullied to Death

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Dr Uthman Lateef

It was in the win­ter of 1967 when a young, bespec­ta­cled boy named Steven Shep­herd left his home and walked in heavy rain to straw­ber­ry fields in New­burgh, Lan­cashire. The fields were impor­tant to Steven. Some months pri­or, Steven had an unusu­al and momen­tary break from a sequence of abuse, phys­i­cal beat­ings and theft of prop­er­ty which summed up his time at his school. He had been afford­ed the chance to trav­el to the straw­ber­ry fields. It was a day of respite. His sis­ter said that she wished she could have stopped time for her young broth­er as she saw him at peace with him­self and in his sur­round­ings. He only picked straw­ber­ries that day and nobody picked on him.

On one cold evening in Jan­u­ary 1967 Steven trudged along to a dis­crete area in the straw­ber­ry fields, a place where he had once been hap­py, and took his own life. Before he did, he threw his large glass­es, one of the rea­sons why he was picked on, behind him. He lay immersed in rain and soil and became Britain’s first record­ed case of ‘Bul­ly­cide’, a term coined by the inves­tiga­tive reporter into his death.

Since Steven’s death there have been count­less cas­es through­out the world of chil­dren who were pushed to the ulti­mate edge and chose, trag­i­cal­ly, to com­mit sui­cide. They were faced, in their young minds, with the unbear­able thought of return­ing to school the fol­low­ing day and hav­ing to face anoth­er day of insults, of emo­tion­al detach­ment, of phys­i­cal pain. The recent trag­ic sui­cide of 11 year old Asad Khan is anoth­er reminder that much more needs to be done to under­stand the dev­as­tat­ing effects of bul­ly­ing, and to put into place robust com­mu­ni­ty-led ini­tia­tives to edu­cate,  facil­i­tate and har­ness a spir­it of trust and equi­tabil­i­ty between all peoples.

Where hun­dreds of thou­sands of cas­es of bul­ly­ing are report­ed in schools every year, an equal amount go unre­port­ed. We remind our­selves that schools are only one com­po­nent of a soci­ety, not the only one. Bul­ly­ing, there­fore, needs to be tack­led with ini­tia­tives at home, in reli­gious cen­tres, out­side as well as with­in schools.

The land­scape of bul­ly­ing has changed much since 1967. Though the basic con­struct of inflict­ing pain, tor­ment and abuse on anoth­er is the same, the medi­ums and tools used in the process­es of bul­ly­ing have changed. Bul­ly­ing is the intrud­ing into another’s pri­vate, sacred space. Equal­ly, the mock­ing, expos­ing, and intim­i­dat­ing of oth­ers in the open spaces of cyber space is also bul­ly­ing. Cyber bul­ly­ing is ver­bal harass­ment which includes send­ing threat­en­ing emails, for­ward­ing of pri­vate mes­sages, and the send­ing of abu­sive text messages.

As par­ents and guardians, let us remem­ber the words of the Prophet Muḥam­mad (sall Allāhu ʿalay­hi wa sal­lam) who taught that

 ‘All of you are shep­herds and each one of you is respon­si­ble for his flock…’1

It is our respon­si­bil­i­ty to nur­ture chil­dren who do not bul­ly oth­ers, who are able to over­come their being bul­lied, and who stand for those who are bul­lied by others.

How to deter children from bullying

Teach your chil­dren the impor­tance of empa­thy and to look at the world as a place made up of all sorts of peo­ple just like them, peo­ple who also have lives they cher­ish, loved ones, times of joy and sad­ness, hopes and ambi­tions, peo­ple who also have car­ing par­ents who wor­ry over them.

Teach your child that emo­tion­al scars are deep­er set and more hurt­ful than even phys­i­cal ones. Mak­ing fun of some­body, expos­ing their weak­ness­es, iso­lat­ing them from a net­work of friends, specif­i­cal­ly not invit­ing them to par­ties or events in order to make them feel unwant­ed can be hurtful.

Remind your chil­dren that the Qur’ān calls on us to speak the best of words, in the best of ways and to always remain cog­nisant of the con­se­quences of our utter­ances. It for­bids vul­gar speech, use­less talk, car­ry­ing of tales, mock­ing, back­bit­ing and slan­der, and speak­ing with­out knowl­edge. It encour­ages us to address oth­ers with kind­ness and compassion.

It also address­es those who take light­ly the caus­ing of injury to oth­ers and warns them of the con­se­quences in the Here­after. It rep­ri­mands the arro­gant and boast­ful, the vin­dic­tive and cru­el and those who refuse to treat oth­ers with mer­cy. It chal­lenges us to think about the unique bonds that unite us and to think about our phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences only as reminders of the won­ders of Allāh who cre­at­ed us in dif­fer­ent shades and forms so that we might “come to know one anoth­er. Ver­i­ly, the noblest of you in the sight of Allāh is the one who is most deeply con­scious of Him.”2

We remind our­selves of that great teach­ing, exis­tent in many reli­gions, of not doing unto oth­ers what one would not like done unto one­self. The Prophet Muḥam­mad (sall Allāhu ʿalay­hi wa sal­lam) taught that ‘He who does not show mer­cy will not be shown mer­cy’.3 He also taught us that ‘the mer­ci­ful ones are those whom the All-Mer­ci­ful shows mer­cy towards. Be mer­ci­ful with those on the earth and the One in the Heav­ens will be mer­ci­ful unto you.’4

Being bystanders to bullying

Bul­ly­ing thrives on a spec­ta­cle and the cre­ation of a scene. In this light, bystanders play a great role. It is the crowd of spec­ta­tors who encour­age the bul­ly­ing, who spur and goad, and who record with their smart­phones and share their clips online, only wors­en­ing the mis­ery and shame of the vic­tim. Bystanders are often most to blame. They are some­times the ones who bow to peer-pres­sure, who choose the stronger and more pop­u­lar stu­dents and some­times betray their own friends.

Bystanders have the poten­tial to dif­fuse or to add fuel to the bul­ly­ing. By inter­ven­ing, express­ing dis­gust and by sid­ing with and help­ing the one being bul­lied, the excite­ment and fren­zy of the crowd is com­pro­mised which can have a pos­i­tive effect in inspir­ing hope for the bul­lied and pre­vent­ing an increase of bullying.

We must teach our chil­dren about the great­est of roles they can play in such sce­nar­ios; that of the res­cuers. Remind them that there is always some­thing that they can do. If they feel too over­pow­ered and over­whelmed by the major­i­ty, reas­sure them that they can call oth­ers to assist, alert teach­ers, or dis­tract the crowd.

The Prophet Muḥam­mad (ṣal­lal­lāhu ‘alay­hi wa sal­lam) said, ‘If any­one of you sees an evil then let him change it with his hand, if he is unable to then let him change it with his tongue, and if he is unable to then let him hate it in his heart and that is the weak­est of faith’.

It only takes one per­son inter­ven­ing or say­ing ‘no’, refus­ing to be part of the pack, to change the mood and sen­ti­ments of oth­ers. It requires one per­son say­ing or doing some­thing to make oth­ers think. Too often do bystanders live with the remorse and regret of fail­ing to inter­vene when it could have saved a person’s life.

Teach your chil­dren that some­times a sim­ple ges­ture of kind­ness, whether a smile or com­fort­ing words, can make a huge dif­fer­ence to a child suf­fer­ing with bul­ly­ing. As they feel trapped in the world around them, somebody’s warmth and care can inspire hope and friend­ship. Teach your child to be that per­son who reach­es out to others.

How to support children who are bullied

Imple­ment basic steps such as plac­ing your fam­i­ly com­put­er in the most used room of the house and be aware of who your child is com­mu­ni­cat­ing with online. Warn your chil­dren to nev­er give out pri­vate infor­ma­tion, nev­er exchange pic­tures with peo­ple they meet on the inter­net, to read­i­ly block mes­sages from those intent on unhealthy dia­logue. Remind them that noth­ing is real­ly pri­vate on the inter­net, that oth­ers can eas­i­ly copy, print and share what is said.

It is essen­tial that we devel­op strong, pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with our chil­dren and depen­dents. Remind them that you are always there to lis­ten to them, that they should not feel ashamed or embar­rassed. Remind them of strug­gles you might have faced when you were younger, that life is made up of good days and oth­er days where­in we have to adopt patience and remain hope­ful, and that no two days are the same.

Teach your chil­dren to place their trust in Allāh and to con­fide to Him in their prayers. Teach them the mean­ings of the prayers they recite including,

You (Allāh) alone we wor­ship and Your help we seek.’5

Encour­age your chil­dren with the morn­ing and evening adhkār which act as a fortress of pro­tec­tion. Remind them of that inti­mate moment between the Prophet and his very young com­pan­ion when he taught him,

Be mind­ful of Allāh and Allāh will pro­tect you. Be mind­ful of Allāh and you will find Allāh before you…’6

Be open in your com­mu­ni­ca­tions with your chil­dren so that a trust is fos­tered between par­ents and child. Take out time in the day to sit and lis­ten to your chil­dren about their achieve­ments, hopes, chal­lenges and even their fears. Be ready imme­di­ate­ly if there are any signs that your child is wor­ried or scared to go to school, becomes reclu­sive, and appears dis­tressed. Speak to teach­ers, to school gov­er­nors and be persistent.

Encour­age pos­i­tiv­i­ty in your chil­dren, help them to be con­fi­dent, assertive and strong. Remind them to nev­er tol­er­ate abuse, or ver­bal or phys­i­cal attacks. Enrolling them in self-defence class­es is an effec­tive way of encour­ag­ing self-con­fi­dence, devel­op­ing phys­i­cal strength and is effec­tive in instill­ing with­in them a sense of empow­er­ment. Let them know that they can use their phys­i­cal strength to defend them­selves and not to insti­gate vio­lence on others.

Teach your child to be strong, to nev­er tol­er­ate bul­ly­ing, to answer back, to fight back and not feel ashamed. Bul­lies thrive on over­pow­er­ing their vic­tims, and stand­ing up for one­self is an effec­tive way of dis­cour­ag­ing the bul­ly. Any response, how­ev­er, should be mod­er­ate and with­in rea­son­able mea­sure, and should not enflame the sit­u­a­tion. The dif­fer­ent options should be explained care­ful­ly to your child. Teach them to choose their friends care­ful­ly since ‘friends’ can be bul­lies too. Teach them to not be over-sen­si­tive, and remind them that between peers things do get said, some­times with­out mali­cious intent, and that some­times they sim­ply need to walk away and main­tain their self-respect. Oth­er times, how­ev­er, they need to stand their ground.

Remind your chil­dren every day how much you love them. Tell them that they’re beau­ti­ful, clever and tal­ent­ed. If they hear oppos­ing words from their peers they should feel most cher­ished by their par­ents. Focus on the pos­i­tives of your chil­dren and inspire them to be ambi­tious and look for­ward to see­ing their dreams mate­ri­alise in the future. Help them achieve these goals.

Talk with your chil­dren about how dif­fer­ent things become as they get old­er, about what they will expe­ri­ence as they pass through dif­fer­ent schools, meet new peo­ple, dif­fer­ent teach­ers, about col­lege, uni­ver­si­ty and life beyond. And remind them that what­ev­er they might expe­ri­ence at one point in their life does not rep­re­sent what they will expe­ri­ence lat­er on.

As parents, we are teachers

We can do so much as par­ents to teach our chil­dren the great impor­tance of treat­ing oth­ers with mer­cy, kind­ness and being empath­ic. Our chil­dren watch us, they lis­ten to our words, see our behav­iour. Often­times they copy us. We are their teachers.

Teach your chil­dren about the con­se­quences of their words and their actions. Remind them that our Prophet (ṣal­lal­lāhu ‘alay­hi wa sal­lam) informed us that peo­ple will be dragged into the fire because of the con­se­quences of their words. And so they should choose good, kind words over sar­casm, swear­ing and taunt­ing. Teach your chil­dren nev­er to look down on oth­ers, nev­er to scoff and make fun of oth­ers, and nev­er to be a bystander when oth­ers are harmed.

We will all stand before Allāh and be account­ed, so teach your chil­dren about the val­ue of life; that being kind and con­sid­er­ate is noble and praised and that being cru­el is ugly.


  1. al-Bukhārī
  2. Al-Qur’ān, 49:13
  3. al-Bukhāri
  4. al-Ṭabarānī
  5. Al-Qur’ān, 1:4
  6. Al-Tir­mid­hī