What one mum has learnt about emotional bullying

Emotional BullyingMy 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


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Nathalie Brown

Child Behaviour Consultant at Easy Peasy Kids
Child Behaviourist and researcher. Creator of "Less tantrums. More smiles". I look at the bigger picture and think outside the box when working with children and their behaviour. Their world is different. As adults we sometimes forget this. Happiness Creator in my spare time. Eater of chocolate and cake.

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  1. Such a sensitive subject that requires so much tact and diplomacy – yet the lioness in me would be ready to pounce too. Sounds like the author managed a tricky situation well…
    Kate recently posted…Glow Festival – ExxopolisMy Profile

  2. I can understand why the parents blew up. Hopefully over time they’ll calm down and get some perspective on it. In the meantime well done for speaking up and I’m glad the teacher was able to take a constructive approach.

    I do remember at our primary school growing up there was terrible bullying and the teachers didn’t seem to know what to do about it. Simple requests from parents like moving desks were ignored (the “good” kids were actually purposely sat with groups of bullies “so their good behaviour would rub off”). Two kids parents ended up moving schools because of it – I think in the long run they made the right call. Hopefully these days there’s a bit more awareness and information about appropriate strategies.
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  3. Some really sensible tips here.
    Kelly recently posted…Father’s Day Photo Gift Ideas (+ Giveaway)My Profile

  4. I read this dreading for the day that I’m in that situation. Most children will go through that situation at some stage of their life though. I loved how you helped support her. I agree, ignoring it really isn’t a strategy, it still eats away at you. I think you dealt with the situation well and I’m sorry that you lost friends over it. Thank you for sharing such a sensitive topic.
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  5. Carla Armytage says

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    I was recently approached by the mum of a friend of my 6 year old daughter who told me that her daughter had been upset after school as my daughter had been mean to her. I was horrified about my daughter’s behaviour but also extremely thankful that the other mum told me about it. My daughter gives me no information about what happens at school despite my numerous different ways of trying to get her to tell me. I had the tiniest of inkling that she may have been mean to someone but I had spoken to the teacher about it and had been told that my daughter had been on the receiving end of emotional bullying and that she had only heard my daughter once say something mean to another child.
    I would love some advice on what to do as the mother of the child who is being mean! There’s lots of advice out there if your child is being bullied but not much for talking to the child her is being mean. I don’t believe that my daughter has been doing this often and believe it was a one off, but I’d still like to get on top of it ASAP.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated !

    • Hi Carla, I suggest when you are reading to her, talking about how the characters in the books may be feeling. Are they happy, sad or angry. What makes her sad? Discuss things that make you sad. Explain that our words can hurt others. If stuck just give me call x

  6. Such an emotional and difficult subject. The advice at the end about always trusting your instincts is so important and yet it isn’t always the easiest thing to remember.
    Ness – One Perfect Day recently posted…What Do You See? Creative Thinking Challenge for KidsMy Profile

  7. Thank you for this

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