Unfortunately, bullying isn’t uncommon, and in some surveys up to 40 per cent of children report experiencing or being involved in bullying at school. Many children who are targeted are already marginalised or struggling. Up to half of those who are bullied suffer in silence and don’t tell their parents or teachers what is going on.
Bullying behaviours can be physical and direct, such as slagging, intimidation and aggression, or more subtle and relational such as exclusion, talking negatively about a child to others, or the silent treatment.
The growth of social media, texting and online communication has provided new ways to harass others, and, given the public nature of these forums, they can be more devastating for children and teenagers.
Bullying is also a complex group phenomenon, which is reinforced by an audience and supported by the silence of bystanders. Many children who engage in it are not aware of its impact on the victim or may have been victims themselves. All cases require a sensitive response.
How can you tell if your child is being bullied? Though some children are reluctant to tell, there are many indicators that your child might be being bullied or that s/he is coping with some other problem: unexplained cuts or bruises, sudden lack of confidence; anxiety about going to school; poor school performance; privacy about online communications.
WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD IS BEING BULLIED?
The first thing is to help your child to talk about what is happening. Being specific about your worries can help a reluctant child to open up. You can say, “I notice you have been very unhappy going to school the last few days. Is there anything or anyone bothering you there?”
Listen to your child’s feelings about what has happened and support them emotionally. Remember this is as important as taking action to stop the bullying. Crucially, reassure your child that he or she is not at fault and does not deserve to be targeted.
Be careful about over-reacting to what your child discloses by becoming very upset yourself or by immediately rushing in a rage to the school to demand action. Impulsive actions can make matters worse and can make your child reluctant to talk to you.
Make a plan of action to deal with it, such as meeting the school or contacting the website host. Seek professional support and guidance as necessary.
Depending on your child’s age, talk through with them what actions they can take to protect themselves or to stop the bullying, such as keeping away from their tormentors, being assertive in response to taunts or talking to teachers. Be wary of thinking children can solve the problem themselves. Most children need the support of an adult.
Remember to support the child’s friendship with children who are kind to them. Encourge their involvement in healthy, enjoyable pursuits that provide respite and another source of support to them.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD IS A BULLY
Take a report that your child might be bullying seriously. Don’t under-react by dismissing the suggestion – “my child would never do such a thing” – nor over-react by being very punitive towards your child.
The key is to intervene early to stop the pattern and to help your child to learn better ways to communicate or to fit in with a group.
Present the information directly to your child and listen carefully to their account of what is happening as well as their feelings.
Focus on the alleged behaviour you want to stop and not your child’s “being a bully”. Help him or her to think of the impact of the behaviour on the other child and to imagine how he or she might feel in the same situation. Emphasise the importance of respecting, accepting and including others.
Explore actions your child can take to move forward, such as apologising if appropriate, or communication skills he or she can use to stop the bullying. For example, if it occurs in a group, explore what your child might say or do to stop it, for example by addressing the person who is starting it with, “Come on, don’t be stupid, leave John alone.”
Hold them accountable for their behaviour and warn them of consequences, such as loss of privileges, if they don’t stop.
Monitor the situation carefully and make sure to check with your child how things are going.
Work co-operatively with the school or whoever made the report to sort things out.
HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP
Schools have a particular responsibility to address bullying by having proactive positive-behaviour and anti-bullying policies, with a preventative component such as educating children about the dangers of bullying, and teaching face to face and social-media communication skills.
The silence surrounding bullying means schools need to encourage children to report bullying incidents. Some schools are creative, conducting frequent anonymous surveys with pupils about bullying incidents and, most importantly, following these up.
Schools need to act quickly following reports, including skilled interviewing of the alleged bully (see above), school sanctions and skilled classroom interventions.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.