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Monday, December 20, 2010

Help! My child is being bullied!

This is a long post, but it's an important subject, so bear with me!
Bullying isn't just about dreadful tabloid news reports of teenagers doing themselves harm.  It occurs at all levels of our society, from day care to the office.  It's a fact of life.  Stopping it from ever happening is impossible.  The best we can do is to arm ourselves and our children with a strong sense of self and good information on what to do if it happens to them.
Believe me, I feel your pain. I suffered at the hands of bullies at three different stages of my schooling, for no other reason than that I was a quiet, pretty, talented child who was a constant 'teacher's pet' without even trying. And my son was tormented and finally physically attacked in primary school by a child who seemed to take his advanced vocabulary as a personal affront. I wish I'd known then what I'm telling you now, but back then I was much younger, much busier and much less experienced. 
My son and I both survived, mostly because we both have a very strong sense of self-worth. You can build that strength into your child, too.

Baby bullies
Very small children are experimenting with cause and effect. A toddler who constantly hits or bites other children is not a bully, because he or she has no idea that the other child has a point of view- the other child is just a thing to play with, like the other toys in the room. The train of thought is something like this: 'Oooh, if I push/bite this it makes a noise/lets go of the toy I want.'  Think of this child as a little scientist who needs a nudge in a different direction, not as a bully.
If your baby is constantly picked on by another baby at day care, request that staff provide closer supervision and immediate redirection of the little scientist before he experiments on your child any more ('redirection' means distracting a child with a more attractive activity when they're doing something undesirable).
Try teaching your child to hold up their hand and say 'STOP' loudly when they don't like what's happening to them. I've been able to get some 18-month-olds to do this. Cuddle them if they've been 'experimented on', and choose your volley of comforting words carefully- try to express for them what they can't say themselves, but without turning the little scientist into a monster. 'Poor darling, that hurt! Billie wanted your toy. It's your toy, isn't it? Billie can't have it. He grabbed, he didn't say please. We won't play with Billie, he's not being kind to you today. Let's play over here...'
And if your baby is identified as a 'bully', object strenuously to the labelling and ask staff for exactly the same as if your child was the supposed 'victim'- better supervision and immediate redirection.  When you see your child doing something undesirable, a firm 'NO' or 'STOP, you're hurting the baby' is all the 'punishment' that's required before you distract him or her with something more interesting in a different part of the room. Professional carers should try to provide at least two of the most popular toys, and step in to offer the second copy of the toy to a strong-willed baby before he starts using his newly-learned understanding of cause and effect to get the first copy from another child.
Bullying in early childhood
Older preschoolers and very young school children who bully others are usually acting out something they have seen or have had inflicted on them; most still lack sufficient awareness of other children's feelings and rights (compared to their own growing awareness of what makes them feel strong and accepted) to really understand what they're doing.
One little bully I observed- let's call him Johnny- had been taunted and rejected by a group of 5-year-old boys, whose group he desperately wanted to join, for the whole previous year. Now that Johnny was the 'senior' boy in the room and a new and younger boy, Tom, wanted join his friendship group, Johnny copied exactly the behaviour which had been inflicted on him and made Tom's life a misery, daring him to do forbidden things and inflicting the occasional sly physical assault.  Tom confided in his mother, who did exactly the right thing by sharing her concerns with me, relating what Tom had told her without adding any colouring of her own other than to say that Tom always seemed sad and suddenly didn't want to come to school.
If I hadn't been a witness to the way Johnny had been treated the previous year (and the way that year's room staff had ignored or failed to notice the problem), I might have decided this child was just a bad egg.  Instead I took him aside with his mother and talked about what I'd seen the year before, acknowledging that it must have made Johnny sad and angry, but stressing that copying mean  behaviour was a bad idea that would get him in  lots of trouble at 'big school'.  I also pointed out that Johnny was a very clever boy who I hoped would do very well at school- all this to Mum in his hearing- but if he was in trouble all the time for being mean to other boys or copying bad behaviour, he would have little chance of being as brilliant as I felt he could be (not too much of an exaggeration). Mum, who had been very defensive at the start, was now definitely on my side, and Johnny was quick to follow once he realised that I understood his feelings and wanted what was good for him, rather than just wanting to throw the book at him for what happened last week.
This created a dramatic improvement in the situation from Johnny's end, and while he continued to reject Tom's social advances, there were fewer taunts and no more physical incidents. Acknowledgement of his own suffering and anger had relieved his need to act it out again in the position of power, and some strong positive reinforcement had made it possible for mum to leave her defensive fortress and feel we were on the same side.
A particularly interesting facet of this story, however, was Tom's perspective. He was a gifted child who had been promoted to the 'big room' earlier than is usual according to age.  Like many gifted children (particularly boys), his social skills were somewhat behind his intellectual ability; he was also very small for his age, yet his vocabulary was more like that of a 6-year-old. All these 'differences' made him a target.  Children can be very cruel if left to their own devices (see 'Lord of the Flies'!), and Johnny's group of hangers-on (who had their own agendas of acceptance as Big Boys) were quick to find his weaknesses, jeering at Tom and calling him a 'baby' when his legs were too short to ride the centre bike and he tried out one of the toddlers' push toys instead. Tom saw that this was terribly unfair and became very angry, hitting one of the other boys hard enough to make him cry. Tom's responses to the bullying were usually very physical, and often he was the one who got into trouble- which only made him angrier.  At home, this translated to tears and school refusal.
Despite my taking Tom aside and encouraging him to leave Johnny alone and play with other children, because 'he keeps hurting you, so he's not your friend', Tom persisted with his attempts to force his way into the older group, even trying to be the leader himself and boss the big boys around. With his advanced cognitive skills, he was often able to see problems in the logic of their games and suggest better ways to do things- but of course his input was not accepted because he was an 'outsider', and highly self-opinionated with it. Like many gifted children, he was convinced that he could make things be how they should  be by sheer force of will, and so he tended to ignore good advice from me (as well as the opinions of the older boys). Tom was only 'saved' from himself when a group of even younger children were promoted to the room, and he was able to take a leadership position in their games.
Like so much bullying in this age group, the problem was much more complex than 'bully' and 'victim'; Johnny was acting out a regrettable history which hadn't been dealt with, and Tom had developmental issues of his own and was compounding the problem by taking inappropriate action in response.  The best we can do as teachers and parents with these little ones is to try to understand what is really going on, instead of making instant value judgements about whose fault the situation might be, and deal with the causes rather than the outcomes. Many, many things can cause a child to 'act out'- violence, abuse or an angry split-up at home are repeat offenders- and there are many 'differences' that can cause a child to become a target, ranging as widely as special needs, giftedness, shyness, racial and body image factors and poor hygiene.
Bullying in older children
In older children, bullying situations which may have begun as 'acting out' versus 'being different' can become life-threatening. In my view it's a little too late by now for parents and teachers without counsellor training to try to 'heal' the most serious wounds of either the bully or the victim, and expert help is often needed.
Parents of bullied children who actually realise what's going on usually become either furious or very anxious; neither state is a good platform for affirmative action. We need to focus on how to help our child deal with the problem, not on our own anger and anxiety; stepping in with fists raised towards the bully or their parent is the worst possible response, as that doesn't equip the bullied child to deal with further repercussions or the root causes of the problem, and just increases their anxiety.
That doesn't mean we do nothing, but we act carefully and correctly. The best we can do for older school-age children is to insist on their protection from physical harm (including calling the police if they have already been seriously injured, or changing schools and even localities if no action is forthcoming on threats of harm)  and to empower them by including them in the process of bringing the bullying into the light, while personally addressing the issues that caused them to become a target in the first place.
Remember that spineless 21-year-old I mentioned in my blog on homework? Her mother had tried so hard to protect her from uncomfortable situations that she had completely disempowered her. This is what we must avoid; to 'take over' and rush to the child's defence, especially when they are begging us not to, is to make them feel even more helpless, useless and powerless.
How do we include a child in the process? First go and punch a pillow if you're furious, then take a deep breath and go get the laptop or some paper and a pen.  It's mightier than the sword, remember?
I am a big fan of committing everything to writing and involving the child in writing a letter, to whatever extent the child is capable. A primary school child is capable of telling you what happened so you can write it down in their words; a secondary school child can probably write a letter themselves if you help them with some very clear guidelines. I have watched a bullied 14-year-old girl flower into confidence as she sat at the computer and I helped her write a letter like this.
You need to talk to your child about writing the letter before you start.  Tell them the choices: the bullying can go on and you can just put up with it till you get seriously hurt; or we can go and punch the bully and end up being in trouble ourselves;  or we can write a letter together and ask that something gets done about it, and if that doesn't work we'll move to the next step so you don't get hurt.  These actually are pretty much the only choices, so be frank.  Tell them why the first two choices, doing nothing or responding with violence, are not options for you.  Tell them your job as a parent doesn't allow you to leave them in danger or to escalate the violence of the situation (bullies have a talent for picking on children who are unlikely to strike back physically or who are obviously smaller or weaker, so teaching or encouraging fisticuffs is a bad idea for the child's safety as well).
The option of writing everything down gives your child a sense of control, whereas the promise of an angry parent walking into the school doesn't-  you might lose their cool and say almost anything.  It's such a touchy subject that you could be forgiven for doing your block, but that might leave your child in an even worse position. Your child can look over the letter when it's done, see his concerns in writing and feel there's some concrete evidence that it really happened and isn't all in his head, and that it's been presented HIS way.

Writing everything down also defuses anger.  You may find that once you've done this, your child feels a bit better and doesn't want to actually deliver the letter.  LISTEN to what they say; it's their issue, not yours.  It's okay to hold onto what you've written together while you take time to think calmly about the way forward. Hopefully you will also feel better for having helped with something.  Don't feel obliged to keep rushing ahead, unless you really feel your child is in immediate danger; the letter will keep if you want to sit and think awhile (and there's much to be said for sleeping on issues like this).
How do you and your child write an effective letter about bullying?
First, send it to the right people. Who deals with discipline in the school? The class teacher or form mistress? The deputy headmaster? Send a copy to the person you think is appropriate (if in doubt ring the school and ask), and address the main copy to the headmaster or mistress. Bullying is a serious problem with a high public profile- go straight to the top if your child is in danger.  You may decide to contact a class or form teacher first, if the problem bears more resemblance to teasing than to threats of violence; discuss this with your child.
Open with a brief sentence that makes it clear that this letter is about a specific instance of bullying.
In the next paragraph, write the facts of what happened, when it happened, who did it (if you know) or who you suspect and why,  and what proof if any you have that it happened (saved texts, witnesses, bruising). (Prompt: Okay darling, let's write down exactly what happened... you tell me and I'll write... When was it?....Who was there?....  Who said that to you?... Have you still got the text/ bruise? Show me and we'll take a photo...)
In the next paragraph, write how the bullying is affecting the bullied person. Is their work suffering? Do they not want to go to school? Are they having nightmares? Are they afraid of worse repercussions now that they've told on the bully? and so on. Try not to be melodramatic; we want clear facts that can't be argued with. (Prompt: How does it make you feel when he/she does that? What do you think about? What does it make you feel inside your body?  Do you feel it in your tummy? What do you think they'll do to you next? What are you most afraid of happening?)  Remember not to 'lead the witness'- you can remind them of things they've said to you before, but don't put words in their mouth or you're taking the power away from them. And it's not about you.  Your feelings don't get a guernsey here.  It's all about the effect on your child. Butt out!
In the next paragraph, write what your child wants to be done about the bullying. If someone has actually injured your child, it may be reasonable to request that the perpetrator be suspended or removed from the school (and depending on the seriousness you may choose to address one of your copies of the letter to the police), but be realistic- if the problem is based on threats and harassment, it is more reasonable just to say that you want the bullying to come out in the open and be dealt with by the senior staff according to the school's bullying policy (and yes, all schools are required to have a bullying policy).  Obviously you also say that it must stop. (Prompt: What do you want to happen next? Is there anything you can think of that the teachers could do to make it stop?) If your child is overwhelmed by helplessness here, you can start to make some suggestions. (Do you think so-and-so's mum and dad know what they're doing to you? Should we ask the school to tell them? What do the school rules say about bullying?)
If you want to play hard ball, a parent of a young child can also add a note to the effect that the school is in breach of their duty of care and their own policy if the bullying is allowed to continue after the staff have been notified.  An older child can point this out themselves.
In the last paragraph, you request a response in writing by a given (and not too distant) date and thank the headmaster/headmistress for taking the time to attend to your problem.
Your child writes or signs their name first.  You write your name beneath that, writing 'witnessed by' or 'dictated to' (your name) and then signing.   Note at the bottom under the signatures who you've sent copies to, eg cc Mr Smith, so the Headmaster/mistress knows who else has the information.
Make sure the letter is dated, and always keep a copy for yourself.
If you and your child decide to go ahead and deliver the letter, do it by hand- no point sitting waiting and wondering if it got lost in the mail.  (Note that you can't deliver an email by hand; emails are easy to overlook and I would always recommend delivering a written letter if the matter is important, because they are somewhat rarer and more likely to be noticed!) 

If there is no response by the date you gave, it's important that you follow up- ring up and request an appointment with the headmaster/headmistress about the letter. Try to control any anger, because it won't help. You don't have to put your child through telling their tale again in a face-to-face interview with the headmaster, especially if they're reluctant (remember that you have everything they had to say in the letter in your hand), but do ask them if they would like to go with you, as the headmaster might have other questions to ask (like, are these people bullying anyone else that you know of?!). 
If the school stonewalls you, do some more thinking.  Is this the right place for your child?  One option is to withdraw them and find another school.  Your child may prefer this, rather than you making a fuss and raising their profile with the 'authorities', and perhaps getting them labelled as a troublemaker. Yes, the school is wrong, but consider your child's needs first.

Another option is to land on the school's doorstep and don't go home till you've spoken to someone about the letter (which you take with you of course) and the school bullying policy.  No response? You can ring DoCS and report the school for failing in their duty of care.  You may still need to relocate your child; be aware that they may end up copping the brunt of the school's annoyance if you make a nuisance of yourself, however justified you may be in doing so.
But why is my child being picked on?
Probably because there's something special or different about them.  Are they a quiet, thoughtful, book-loving observer, an artist or a poet, who's stuck in a sports-mad school? Maybe it's time to change to a school that's more in tune with your child's interests- and be up-front with the new school about the problems your child has encountered.  Don't feel ashamed, don't be secretive- your child's very life could be at risk.
Is nobody at the school dealing properly with their special need or their giftedness? Bring it to the counsellor's attention. 
Is your child very overweight or not very clean? Deal with it; those are health issues on multiple fronts. 
Is he or she gay, or of a different religion, in an unsympathetic environment? They need your acceptance first, then they need a safe environment. 
Have you inflicted some rules of appearance or behaviour on them which keep them out of step with their peers, which might need to be modified? Maybe it's time to take a good hard look at who they are and what their needs are, and see how you can make their life better or make them feel more accepted.  That doesn't mean you have to let them stay out alone dangerously late, drink under-age or buy them the latest mobile phone or iPod because 'everyone else has it/does it'. But it might mean you need to do some serious talking and reach some compromises. The generation gap is real, and the parent generation is always horrified by things which the child generation sees as normal; at least try to see their point of view.
Does your child need a stronger sense of who they are- are they drifting, trying to follow peers who are nothing like them, totally dependent on the electronic media for acceptance and a sense of worth?  You might need to help them identify the characteristics of a friend- friends don't base their relationships on who has the best gear- and help them at least identify some negative aspects of peer pressure if they're getting pushed along without particularly wanting to, yet still are not accepted by the group. Are you encouraging their off-line interests, spending time taking them where they want to go to follow those interests and giving them a sense of ownership of their life, a feeling of being loved by you at least, for their own 'different' personality?
Having a child who's being bullied doesn't mean you're a bad parent. There are kids out there whose problems have been 'let go', who behave outrageously towards children like yours as a result.  But it could mean you have some work to do on building your child's confidence and interests, and teaching them how to survive socially without being a sheep- that might mean finding some good counselling and support services. Or with luck, it might just mean giving them the tools to feel in control of their fate by helping them deal with a one-off bullying situation.

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