Whether your child has only just revealed that they are in a bullying situation or this has been going on a while, it’s distressing for both parents and child. This article will talk you through what to do when your child is being bullied.
You may feel despairing, angry, or many other emotions.
School should be a safe environment for all children, and understandably you may feel that school staff or school officials are not doing enough.
School culture is so vital to a safe learning environment. Are healthy relationships and positive behavior modelled and taught? It’s not just about stopping bullying, but about fostering values such as compassion, kindness and respect for others who are different to ourselves.
Bullying Can Have a Lasting Effect
Does your child’s school have a sound understanding of what bullying actually is? It’s not just physical threat or physical bullying. Though physically aggressive behavior can be traumatic and disturbing for your child, verbal and emotional bullying can be equally distressing. These days children may also be presented with cyber bullying or abusive text messages. You can read more about the definitions of different types of bullying in this article from the NSPCC. All forms of bullying can contribute to low self-esteem and mental health problems. In extreme cases this includes PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
I work with older teenagers who are still trying to recover from bullying that happened earlier in their childhoods. Bullying, both the physical harm type and the more subtle emotional or verbal bullying, can be so traumatic that it has a lifelong impact. Of course, this depends on the nature of the bullying, severity, type, how long it goes on, and the internal “resources” that can help your child deal with it. By resources, I mean how safe and loved they feel at home (a “safe base”), whether they have academic or emotional needs which place extra stress on them (for example, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia), and how resilient they are able to be. It can also depend how confident your child is to handle challenging social situations, and whether they have the social skills to repel bullies successfully. For example, some children manage to avoid bullying by
Why Children Bully Others
A child who bullies others does so because they feel insecure or not good enough in some way. Putting others down projects their bad feelings onto someone else, and makes them feel temporarily better. They feel powerful.
Other children may go along with bullying behaviours as part of a group, bowing to peer pressure. We are social animals and our primal need to fit in is so great, sometimes we will act against our values. This is especially true for children who are unsure what their values actually are . This is not an excuse for bullying, more an explanation.
It is up to parents to teach values such as kindness to their children from the very start of their lives. Schools, however, are responsible for a culture of kindness and not tolerating bullying behaviour. Sadly I have found that whilst all schools have an anti-bullying policy to deal with clear incidents of bullying, some do not actively work to build a school culture of kindness, understanding and appreciating one another’s differences. This can lead to unkindness in the playground which is not direct bullying but can be a slippery slope. For example:
- Leaving someone out of a group;
- making repeated throwaway comments;
- putting someone down, or
- using social media to shame someone.
Take a Step Back
First of all, you are entitled to feel all the emotions you are feeling. But when thinking about developing an action plan, it can be helpful to try to put emotions aside if possible, and get a factual understanding of what is going on. Then you will be in the best position to judge what is the right thing to do, to support your child.
The first step is to write down as much as you can. Dates of the bullying incidents. Exactly what happened. How your child responded. Try to get the views of other children who witnessed what happened. Younger children in particular may get confused about what happened or may struggle to describe it accurately.
Here are some additional questions to help you reflect:
Is your child’s teacher or head of year aware of what has happened?
Is the bullying being carried out by one person, or is their a group involved?
Are the bully’s parents aware? How have they responded?
Does your child have good friends who stand up for them and provide moral support?
Does your child have a good understanding of what bullying is? Are you absolutely certain they are being bullied?
Always Take Bullying Seriously
Whilst it is always crucial to take bullying seriously, it is also important to take a step back and consider that your child’s view and those of others may not match up. Make sure you listen carefully to your child’s story, taking a note of any details such as what your child tells you the other child said or did, and when. That way you can ensure your child feels heard. Don’t immediately assume that your child’s version of events is 100% correct. Sometimes young people get it wrong, exaggerate or misunderstand another person’s intentions. Empathise with the emotion even if you are not sure exactly what happened. For example: “I can see why you felt lonely when James seemed to invite everyone to play the game except you. That must have been horrible.”
The Difference Between Bullying, Teasing and Banter
I know from personal experience that some children think they are being bullied when actually their friends are engaging in good-natured “banter”. Equally, some children do not realise when they are being bullied. Talk through the differences with your child, using examples if possible. It is important for your child to be very clear on this, so he can quickly and correctly identify bullying. This video might help.
Even if considered “just banter” by the child who is dishing it out, derogatory comments about another child’s race, colour, ethnic group, religion, sexuality or gender identity are never acceptable. Your child’s school should not only have a bullying policy but be actively working to promote and celebrate diversity.
What to Do If Your Child is Being Bullied
Things to Do at Home If Your Child is Being Bullied
- Continue to provide lots of empathy with the emotions your child expresses (fear, stress, anger, and so on). Try to remain calm and help your child regulate their emotions.
- Work extra hard to provide a safe haven at home. This might include extra treats and comforts such as a movie and popcorn snuggled up as a family. A secure attachment and “safe base” are crucial when a child faces challenges outside the home.
- Provide extra nurture. Don’t be afraid to treat your child as if they are younger for a little while, to help them feel safer. For example, reading bedtime stories and giving cuddles. Even teenagers like this sometimes.
- Ensure that friendships and social activities outside of school carry on, so that your child has as many positive social experiences as possible.
- If the bullying is online or via messaging apps such as SnapChat, you may need to monitor your child’s mobile phone (cell phone) to keep them safe and to gather evidence of the bullying.
- Reassure your child that better times lie ahead (many successful and happy adults had a hard time with bullying as children).
Communication With School if Your Child is Being Bullied
The next step is to liaise with your child’s school. If you possibly can, try to remain calm and neutral throughout.
- Keep written notes including dates when bullying was reported to you by your child.
- It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the school’s bullying policy. That way you can ensure everything that can be done, is being done.
- Notify the school of your concerns at an early stage and build an action plan together. For example, staff may agree to monitor you child’s interactions in the playground for a while, and maintain regular email contact with you to build up a picture of what is going on. Meet face to face if you can.
- If your child is struggling with friendships in general and being rejected by peers, staff should have a number of resources they can link your child to, such as mentoring, friendship skills groups or a buddy system. It does not mean your child is not being bullied as well. They may also be struggling with certain important friendship skills and may benefit from some coaching or support, separate from the bullying issues to be addressed.
- Aim to build a close and trusting relationship with key members of staff from school, such as the Head of Year and/or Head of Pastoral Care. Always try to avoid a defensive pattern of communication; aim for openness and collaborative working. Most members of staff really are keen to do their best for your child. If you have concerns that someone does not have your child’s interests at heart or does not have a full understanding of the situation, try to build a rapport with someone else instead. In secondary schools, the school counselor may be able to offer additional support to your child.
- Take further action only if, despite your best efforts, things do not improve. Take your concerns to the Head teacher, and to the school governors if necessary.
In General: Things to Do if Your Child is Being Bullied
- Get as much support as you can from family and friends. It can be challenging and stressful to support your child through a difficult time at school.
- It should never be up to your child to change who they are. It’s the bullies who need to change. Having said this, there are some useful resources which may help children deal with bullies. In the excellent book Bullies, Bigmouths and So-Called Friends, author Jenny Alexander seeks to develop “readers’ psychological defences”. This book is ideal for pre-teens and young teens.
- If, despite your best efforts, the bullying is not dealt with, you may need to consider involving external agencies including the police.
- If you think your child is experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of bullying, discuss this with your GP. This might include post-traumatic stress, low mood, depression, or anxiety. Your GP can refer you on to appropriate services but you can also read about child therapists in this article.
Taking Your Child Out of School
I see many children who have been removed from a school by their parents. Often they felt this was the only option to preserve their son or daughter’s wellbeing. Sometimes, these children start a new school and end up being very happy. Other times, the pattern may repeat itself. Occasionally, families decide to take their child out of formal education altogether and home-school them. There is no right answer; each child’s needs are different. Do not feel you (or your child) have failed if you decide to take them out of a school. Sometimes, the “fit” between the child’s needs and what the school can offer, is just not a good match.
“School Refusal” (Also Known as EBSA or Emotionally Based School Avoidance)
If your child starts to refuse to go to school as a result of bullying, this article may help.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need. Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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