My daughter isn’t the typical candidate for bullying. She’s loud, funny and so confident that she doesn’t just walk into a room, she bursts in announcing her arrival. She started school this year, taking it in her stride by thriving on the social interaction and soaking up all her lessons. (Except maths: “Mum, maths is so booooring”. Wait until you get to algebra one day…) She runs into the school ground and comes home happy.
Until one day that scenario changed.
Suddenly she was clinging to my leg at school, begging me not to leave. She was coming home upset but – being only five – she was unable to voice why, instead melting down in a way that’s unlike her. I tried putting it down to tiredness but still, there was something that didn’t quite add up.
Then she started making a few comments about two of her friends. “They were running off on me again today.” Again? Another day, “They told me I’m dumb.” And so it went. I became more observant, watching at school drop-off as she changed from someone who’d run straight to give her friends a cuddle to a kid who hesitated and then chose to wait by herself or with me.
The changes were subtle to everyone but me. When I mentioned it to her teacher, he was surprised and said it’s normal for a preppy to be clingy to her mum. “Not for her,” I said. “She’s never been like this in her life.” That’s when he sat up and took notice, realising that with the signs I’d mentioned this might have been going on for the best part of a term. He’d watch out for her, he assured me.
One day while helping in the classroom, I heard some exchanges between the two girls in question as they talked to and about my daughter. Their comments were nasty and targeted directly at her and my heart ached as I realised my girl knew something wasn’t right but she didn’t really know that something was wrong, either. She’d told me about a couple of obvious mean taunts before, but this sneaky stuff wasn’t in her radar. That day I spoke to her teacher with more confidence than before: “I want her away from them,” I said. He moved her seat and started helping her make friends with other girls in the class, and he took her aside for some discussions about it all.
The experience has taught me a lot about bullying…
Kids need to know what to look out for – and it’s not just physical. A lot of discussions around bullying are focused on the physicality of it: it isn’t okay for someone to hit or kick you. But emotional bullying is sneakier: it’s a series of ongoing tactics designed to eat away at you. As in the case of my daughter, when the verbal interactions are happening in the playground and in a noisy classroom, it goes unnoticed. It’s often so subtle that the person being taunted is left unsure as to whether it’s even just happened or not. I’m now focusing on teaching my child the difficult difference between a friend who’s just said something while upset, and ongoing nastiness, and what to do about it.
Ignoring it isn’t a strategy. I was bullied as a kid and the standard response was, “Just ignore them.” While that might work in some situations, my experience tells me it’s not a strategy in itself. Certainly when it comes to emotional and verbal taunts, I’m now trying to arm my daughter with the skills to speak up and say that she won’t be treated that way. And if she doesn’t feel able to do that to her bullies, she should feel comfortable to speak up to me and a teacher she trusts. The problem with these types of issues is that it might seem petty to say the kids laughed at you in class, or whatever it is – but anything that hurts you isn’t to be ignored.
It’s their friends who are in the perfect position to bully. I don’t think my daughter would put up with this behaviour from people she didn’t know very well. Something tells me she’d walk away, simply because it would feel wrong and she’d have nothing to lose. But the kids in question have been her friends for a couple of years and she’s learnt to rely on and trust them, making it harder for her to understand that they’d want to hurt her. I’m certainly not suggesting that all friends will turn on her – not by a long shot – but it opened my eyes to where problems can arise.
Expect this to change the dynamics between parents. The other question you’re faced with when your child in this situation is whether to tell the bullies’ parents. As the families in question were our friends I decided honesty was best, although I did so as tactfully as I could. “The girls don’t seem to be getting along and my daughter’s feeling a bit left out,” I said, “so I’m asking her to play with some other kids so they all have some space.” I thought the situation might cause some awkwardness between us parents for a short time, but I naively didn’t expect what actually happened: it blew up and I lost friends over it. Still, I’d do the same thing if I had my time again because ultimately I’m doing what’s right for my child, and I still believe that the parents should be aware of it.
Children can’t always solve problems alone. Some people have cautioned me to let my daughter solve her own friendship problems, and to just let kids be kids. And if we were talking about the usual day-to-day quarrels, I’d agree wholeheartedly. But when the situation became an ongoing thing that affected my child’s behaviour and confidence, it became my responsibility to step in. If I’d let the situation go on to where I fear it might if left unaided, I’m sure most would back up my decision to make some noise about it, but I wasn’t willing to wait that long. Kids are so capable of handling many situations, but as their parents our role is to guide them and stand up for them when needed.
Always, always follow your instinct. You know your children and what’s normal for them. If something changes, become a detective, find out what it is, and help them through it.
The writer wishes to remain anonymous as friendship dynamics are difficult both at school and at times with other parents. I believe that children need to know that any type of bullying is not acceptable. Working with younger children I’ve observed that at times they don’t realise how much their words or actions are upsetting another child. Speaking at home and at school to children about what bullying is, should be talked about daily. How their words and actions can hurt very much on the inside. I promote Kind Eyes.
Have you experienced a similar situation? Please share what you did to resolve the matter