Bullying: How to spot it, stop it and deal with its damaging effects
“We firmly believe that if we don’t all take a common sense approach to bullying and that if we don’t empower children and young people to address the issue, we’ll never resolve it,” says Patricia Kennedy, social entrepreneur and founder of the anti-bullying programme Sticks and Stones.
Patricia's award-winning initiative has helped thousands of students, parents and teachers around Ireland.
“One of the questions I get asked a lot of the time is whether it’s worse than when we, as parents, were in school,” she says. “I generally say ‘no’. In fact, I think things are an awful lot better. Back then, we didn’t really have an understanding of bullying. Nowadays, children themselves are better at identifying bullying and speaking up. We would hear from schools that children are coming and telling, either for themselves, or on behalf of another child. There’s much greater awareness and schools are much more proactive. It is still a case, though, of lots done, but more to do. It’s still a work in progress.”
With a wealth of experience in the area, here’s Patricia’s expert advice for parents:
1. Be a good role model
“There’s no point in telling a child not to fight with friends in school, if you get on the phone to your sister and have a big barny with her,” Patricia says. “The child will take on board what they see you doing, not what you tell them. Parents have a big role to play. If you’re on the phone in the car having a bitching session about someone, the child in the backseat will be taking that in.”
2. Know the signs
Patricia advises watching out for the signs that a child could be being bullied: “The biggest sign is a change in the child’s behaviour. A child who was happy to go to school might now be reluctant to go. There might be headaches and tummy upsets on Sunday night. Watch out too for deterioration in schoolwork. That might be caused when a child just can’t concentrate in class because they’re worried.
“A change in friends is another possible sign. A child might suddenly stop talking about friends they used to mention all the time. It may be that those children are leaving your child out, or it could be the other way around. “Damage to a child’s belongings could be another indicator and there may also be more aggression towards siblings. None of these signs, on its own, is definitive, but together they may show up a pattern of behaviour that tells you something isn’t quite right.”
3. Make space to listen
“Create a space where you can talk and listen to the child,” Patricia advises. “That’s good practice for life. We’re all very time-poor and family life is busy, but ideally there should be quiet time to be with your children. If you have a number of children, it can be hard to get time with each of them, but often a child won’t raise a difficult issue with their siblings there. Try to find something that you can do with the individual child - whether it’s washing the car or getting out in the garden. Interrogating the child across the table doesn’t help to create open communication, avoid that.”
4. Don’t overreact
“The biggest barrier for a child in approaching their parents or teacher about bullying is that adults will overreact,” Patricia says. “That’s what children are telling us. What they don’t want is to have a parent arrive at the school with all guns blazing. While it’s very difficult for a parent to park their anger and frustration, you need to focus instead on your child and what’s best for them. Often, the child wants the bullying to stop and to go back to normal. Sometimes that’s possible, sometimes it’s not. One of the things that can make that impossible is when the parents themselves start fighting. We hear that a lot from children and from the schools.”
5. Tease out the issue
Patricia advises taking time to listen to your child and figure out what’s really going on: “Look at both sides of the story. It’s hard when you feel your child has been unfairly treated. Sometimes, though, if a child is being left out, it may be that they’re playing roughly or that they want to be the boss of every game. Tease that out with them. It could be the case that your child needs some support in improving their social skills.”
6. Deal with the school calmly
“Once you have established that bullying is going on, talk to the school in a calm and rational way,” Patricia advises. “Remember that teachers are only human. A situation may have been going on for some time and your visit may be the very first the teachers have heard. The school will need time to look into the issue and sometimes parents expect instant results. Do keep in regular contact with the school until the situation is resolved.”
7. Role play solutions
“Keep talking to your child about what they want to happen,” Patricia says. “Sometimes parents will give solutions and tell the child what to do or say. Often, that won’t work. Role-playing with the child can help them to come up with their own solutions. It’s particularly useful with younger children. The parent pretends to be the child and the child acts in the role of the bully. That way the parent gets a greater insight into what’s happening and can work with the child on things that they might say or do. Then swap roles again and let the child practise saying and doing those things. Try out a few different approaches.”
8. Set social media rules
“Set good ground rules on online social media,” Patricia advises. “Cyber safety is a huge issue. Children can get online on so many devices and it’s essential to set the rules early in a child’s digital life. Remember that while the child knows how to use the phone or device, you know how to parent. You often need to be the parent who says ‘no’. Basic rules like ‘no phones after bedtime’ are important.
“Monitoring software and apps that let you see what your child is doing online are also very useful when children are younger. Another ground rule is that, if the child has a concern about their online experiences that they come and tell you. Let them know that if they are being bullied they come and tell you. If they do something stupid themselves online – and children and teens will – they should also know that they should come and tell you and that you will support them.”
Sticks and Stones Anti-bullying Programme™ is an award winning anti-bullying programme for schools, offering a three strand approach for the whole school community involving students, teachers and parents. The organisation also works with a range of community and youth groups.