My daughter’s friends are excluding her. Is she being bullied?

Q: My daughter who is just eight fell out with one of the girls in her class and since then the girl has been ignoring her and this upsets my daughter. I initially tried to advise her to “move on” and find other friends but it seems that now some of the other girls have joined in and are ignoring my daughter and excluding her from games in the yard. I told my daughter I needed to talk to her teacher, but then she got upset and was worried it would make it worse. My friend thinks my daughter is being bullied and says I have to go to the school to sort it out or to contact the other parents. To be honest, I am nervous of doing either, especially of contacting the other parents. We live in a rural village where everyone knows each other and I don’t want to make a big fuss and get the other parents involved; it could all backfire. Yet my daughter is miserable going to school each morning. What should I do?

A: Falling out with someone is hard enough but this leading to being excluded or isolated in school makes the situation worse. Though some of these excluding behaviours can be very subtle (“dirty” looks, making comments, going silent when the child comes in, and so on), they can still be very hurtful. When they become patterns they are indeed forms of bullying and can make a child very unhappy in school.

Whereas physical bullying (such as intimidation) is more common with boys, social bullying (such as exclusion) is more common for girls. Both types are more common in primary school than secondary school. In an Irish survey, up to 43 per cent of primary school children report experiencing or being involved in bullying and this figure falls to 23 per cent in secondary school.

So you are right to be concerned about your daughter and to want to do something to help her. Whatever happened between her and the other girl does not mean she deserves to be excluded or made unhappy. The first step in helping her is to listen to her and support her emotionally. The fact that she can talk to you about what is going on and you listen to her is an enormous benefit. Whatever happens, you want to ensure she feels able to turn to you and that she does not have to repress her feelings for fear of upsetting you, etc.

The second step is to explore with her what she can do about the situation as you have done already. Ignoring the excluding girls, or making light of their behaviour or focusing on friendships with other children can be good tactics in trying to move on from the situation. However, it is important to acknowledge that for many children who feel socially excluded these tactics can be very hard to put into practice. Feeling excluded can make you feel powerless and isolated, especially when there is more than one child involved.

For this reason it is a good idea to consider going to the school to ask for their support in resolving the matter. Schools and teachers have a responsibility to address bullying and to reduce exclusion in their classrooms.

Of course it is important to handle this delicately and you should be very sensitive to your daughter’s reluctance – you want to do this in a way that she feels okay about and which makes things better for her. For example, if you went in “all guns blazing” saying your child is bullied and demanding immediate action, this could lead to defensiveness and escalate problems.

Instead, a more indirect approach, at least initially, might work better. For example, you might meet the teacher and principal and describe how your daughter feels unhappy and excluded and look for their assistance in helping her feel included in the classroom.

Make sure to emphasise your daughter’s fears about the other girls knowing that it has been raised and thus things being made worse for her.

There are lots of things that teachers can do in a subtle way to address the situation, that don’t draw too much attention to your daughter. For example, the teacher may be able to do a few class teaching sessions on friendship and inclusion, or support your daughter in making connections with other girls or even have a quiet word with one or two of the girls about changing their behaviour or ensuring your daughter feels included.

Be patient about resolving this with the teacher. It is first a good idea to raise their awareness about what is happening and then to seek their support. Make a time to meet to review and check if things have improved. If a low-key approach does not initially work, then you could let the teachers know about this and they can consider other options such as informing their parents.

I share your reluctance to contact the other parents directly yourself about the issue. Unless you know them very well this could be a hard conversation to get right – any suggestion of bullying or words close to it can lead to parents becoming very defensive or emotional. As a result, if contact with the other parents is necessary then it may be best done via the school which has the authority and skills to raise the issue.

Alternatively, you might try to directly improve the relationship between your daughter and the other girls by setting up a situation where she can meet one of them outside school, maybe during an activity or even a play date. This again is a delicate matter to get right and you would really need your daughter’s co-operation and to pick one of the girls most likely to respond (maybe one of them least involved in the excluding or the girl whose parent you feel most comfortable with).

If you manage to arrange a one-to-one play date that goes well (without necessarily mentioning any problems), this could break the ice and be a big step towards moving things on.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.