When you think of bullying at school, I bet you picture a mid-teens rogue pinning a sweaty nerd against a brick wall and robbing him of his lunch money.
The sad truth is, however, that bullying can start years before this: as far back as pre-school nursery and reception years.
Bullying can take a number of forms. At one end of the spectrum, it consists of teasing - perhaps a little intimidation. At the other, you can find verbal abuse and physical attacks. But every parent should look out for the tell-tale signs that their child is being subjected to bullying.
"If you notice anything that concerns you or appears odd, either physically, mentally or emotionally, your child could be the victim of bullying." says Judy Reith, mother of three, author, and parent coach at parentingpeople.co.uk. "Physical signs might be cuts, bruising, or damaged possessions. Emotional signs may be that your child is tearful, moody, lacking interest or withdrawn." Other children may become clingy, some developing sudden 'tummy aches' which they hope will get them out of attending school.
Any parent who discovers that their child is a victim of bullying will react in much the same way: upset and angry, perhaps a feeling of helplessness. The temptation may be to march to the school and vent your rage at the teachers.
This would, of course, solve nothing, but talking to the teachers is a vital step to take. "Teachers don't see everything, so raising it might increase their efforts to look out for your child, and that might do the trick." advises Judy, who also suggests finding out the school's policy on bullying.
Many nursery teachers will act straight away to eradicate any bullying within the school, but some are not quite so helpful. Helen's daughter was verbally and physically bullied in preschool, and so she arranged a meeting with the teacher, only to discover that the abuse had already been noted. "The teacher told me that she had been aware of this child picking on my daughter previously," she recalls. "I was very unhappy, as I had not been informed." Fortunately, the bullying ceased shortly after the meeting, but Helen was on the brink of taking her daughter out of the school if something had not happened quickly.
Another parent - who wishes to remain anonymous - also remembers an incident when the teacher was non-plussed about the bullying going on within the school walls. Her daughter has just turned 4, and was slapped by two of her classmates, who had also called her names. "I have always told her to tell her teachers straight away," she states, "which they seem to hate, and think she's just over emotional. One day she told the teacher, who told her she was making it up. My daughter was so much more upset about what the teacher said than the boy hitting her!"
Fortunately, incidents such as these are few and far between. In both cases, though, the victims had been taught by their parents to tell them if bullying occurred, and mums and dads can continue this empowerment by helping their child to know what to do if they are picked on.
"Explain that they need to tell you if they are being bullied so you can help them." says Judy. "They might find it easier to draw you a picture. Role playing can also help, as well as teaching your child a simple three-step process: ask the bully to stop, tell the bully to stop, tell a teacher."
Bullies, of course, are often the victims of bullying themselves, and passing on this abuse is the only thing they know how to do. The combination of teaching your child how to stand up to a bully while you work closely with teachers to stop any bullying that occurs will often result in an improvement, meaning that your child is happier and more confident in his ability to solve a problem by himself.
There is one more thing you could do. Judy proposes that parents of bullied children could take the bull by the horns, and ask the bully over to play with your child outside school time. "It could make their relationship improve immediately." she suggests. You never know: in some cases, the worst of enemies could become the best of friends.
You can find help and advice at www.bullying.co.uk.
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