Every child needs a friend

June 02, 2023 - 11:37
According to UNICEF, a shocking 246 million boys and girls have been subjected to violence and abuse in and around the campus.


Over 2,000 students participated in "What I wanna say", a conference on bullying and school violence held in Nghệ An after the wake of N.'s tragic story. — VNA/VNS Photo Tá Chuyên

Anh Đức

I was bullied in my secondary high school days.

If every student waited for recess to come, I dreaded the break, because that's when I got beaten up and subjected to verbal abuse.

Every day of that four years for me was a living nightmare. Yet somehow I was able to stick it out.

But that's not the case for every child.

In April, a 10th-grade schoolgirl named N. in Nghệ An took her own life. The primary reason? The bullying and abuse she went through at school, her parents said.

Before N. committed suicide, she told her mother repeatedly that she "did not want to go to school anymore", despite being a top student in her class.

Her mother eventually found out what happened, and met the school board to report the abuse and asked for her to be placed in another class, but the school rejected the request.

The bullies threatened to beat up N. after class, but her mother came just in time to save her. However, the abuse did not end there and N. ended her life on April 15, when her parents were not home.

A bright and beautiful young girl, N.'s death shattered the hearts of her loved ones. "So much grief... my strong, beautiful and kind girl, who loved her siblings and cared so much for our family, was hurt by society, specifically bullies at school," said N.'s mother on social media.

"We were reassured by the school that the bullying never happened again, but the abuse went on for months afterwards, and my girl took her own life at the age of 17," N.'s mother added.

The number of children having to endure bullying like N. is not in the hundreds, or in the thousands. According to UNICEF, a shocking 246 million boys and girls have been subjected to violence and abuse in and around the campus.

In South Korea, 4,073 students were surveyed by the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence, with 22 per cent of students stating that they were a victim of school bullying, and 16 per cent subjected to painful beatings.

In Việt Nam, every year there are approximately 1,600 cases of school violence. The National Hotline for Child Protection (111) reported an 11 per cent rise in calls reporting bullying, in the first five months of 2023, compared to the same timeframe in 2022. These figures certainly are just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Bullying-Free NZ, an initiative from New Zealand's Ministry of Education, bullying is defined as a relationship problem.

"Students are bullied for lots of reasons. Sometimes they are bullied because they are different, or because they are clever or popular. It can be caused by differences in race, sexuality, religion, disabilities and abilities, weight, height or anything that creates a difference between one child and another. At other times they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Bullying-Free NZ.

When I was young, I tried so hard to figure out why I was bullied. I sometimes suspected whether it was my behaviour or personality that led to the bullying.

My parents, as loving as they are, also suggested I was the problem: "You must've done something they don't like, maybe that's why they bullied you".

I tried to correct that behaviour in an effort to stop the bullying. But the bullies did not stop.

If victim blaming was a thing, I did it on myself every day back then, so did my parents, my teachers, and my other classmates.

The self-blaming had a devastating effect on me: I ended secondary school with my self-esteem at rock bottom and communication skills painfully underdeveloped because no one in the class would want to befriend me. I feared reaching out to the world, because I feared that the world would betray me again.

When I sought psychological help in my older years, my psychotherapist pointed out that the bullying I faced as a child contributed immensely to my depression and anxiety disorders as an adult.

Indeed, research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in 2019 suggested that "children and youth who are bullied over time are more likely than those not bullied to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem".

But it's not only the bullied that are affected by bullying. The same study shows that bullies themselves are also subjected to more anti-social behaviours, or even substance abuse, and bystanders or witnesses to bullying might experience increased anxiety and depression, "due to fears of retaliation or because they wanted to intervene but didn't."

Around the time of high school, I had a chance to wind down and find out about my bullies, wanting to look at things from both perspectives. Not many of them had a happy family, with parents either too neglecting or pampering them. A more aggressive, dog-eat-dog attitude towards life was taught to them, rather than the love and care for others.

My other classmates who did not directly bully me, tended to alienate me and did not want to become friends. I did hold a bit of resentment for them in the past, but later on, I understood why they might have acted that way: they also have a fear of being bullied as well.

In my opinion, there would hardly be anything more frightening and devastating for a human being than the sense of loneliness, of being excommunicated from the world. And for every person who has low self-esteem, being excluded sinks them even further into the hole, to the point that they deny their own existence.

I was almost, almost at that point. Until a hand reached out.

My first-ever friend, who I met in my first year of high school, is currently my best friend. When I moved on to high school, I still feared my past catching up with me. 

As Hoàn Kiếm is a relatively small town with kids widely connected with each other, it is possible that people who either bullied me in the past, or knew my history could trouble me even in a new environment, and indeed there was. I was not hopeful of a new start to my social life.

That is, until my friend came, and became the first person to regard me as a person, and opened me up to the world, when I thought that no one would ever befriend me or like me enough.

A realisation came to me, that sometimes all we need is someone who would dare to reach their hand out, and say "Hi", that all we need in those dark times, is a friend.

I decided to open myself up to more people, and made more acquaintances across the years, in all corners of the globe, regardless of the differences. In doing so, I even had the chance to talk and make peace with some of my classmates in secondary school, who apologised for their past behaviour.

It could have been different for me, I could have been sitting in a room full of hatred towards the world, or worse. But that one friend was the difference maker.

And the reason why I choose to be a friendly person is because I want to be that difference maker, a friend, to anyone in need.

Dear readers, this month is Children's Month in Việt Nam, and one of the themes of the month is to protect children. In protecting children against bullying, many solutions are needed, such as proper monitoring by parents and teachers on their children's behaviour, or projects that raise awareness and prevent bullying behaviours.

But the most simple and sensible thing, that every one of us can do, or teach our children, is perhaps, to become and be a friend.

Parents and teachers should try to be a friend to their children and students, to listen closely to their stories, and help them overcome their differences if needed.

And children, if you're somehow reading this, please, be a friend.

Because you never know what a difference it can make for a person's future. — VNS