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Does Back to School Equal Back to Bullying?

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If you're a parent whose child has just completed their first weeks at secondary school, your son or daughter is beginning a journey through one of the most formative periods of their life.

You're probably excited about what lies ahead for them, but perhaps also a little apprehensive. They'll be confronting many challenges that come with moving from the confines of their local primary school into the far bigger, more intimidating world of high school.

Sadly, one of the challenges they may face is bullying, and we know this is something parents worry about. It's something that many of us have witnessed in one form or another, so it may not surprise you to hear that around a third of all children will suffer some form of bullying whilst at school.

Bullying behaviour has changed over the years, particularly with the rise of mobile phones and social media. However, the basic definition remain and it's generally considered to be a one sided and unwanted exchange of verbal or physical abuse usually, but not always, over a sustained period of time.

For counsellors at ChildLine, a confidential counselling service for young people, it's one of the most common subjects that young people talk about. And the stats say it all: during the 12 months up to April 2012, a whopping 31,599 counselling sessions were provided to children who were worried about bullying. That's 10% of all the calls and online messages to ChildLine last year.

And bullying appears to be affecting children more at a younger age than previously, it's now cited as the main cause for concern for children aged between 7 and 11.

While the impact of bullying remains the same, the opportunities for bullies to assert themselves have grown in the digital age. They're no longer restricted to hurling an insult or two out from behind the bike shed.

With the proliferation of mobile and internet technology through all our lives, young and old, cyber bullying has become a common form of making someone else's life difficult, making up 8% of all bullying-related calls to ChildLine. Photos shared online, emails and exchanges on social media can be especially pernicious as the bully can hide behind the anonymity of a number or internet profile. Plus the bully can follow a young person wherever they go and affect them at home, after school and at the weekend; escaping cyber bullying is not easy.

So why do children bully? The reasons for a bully to pick on someone appear to be endless; from their big, clumpy glasses, to wearing unfashionable clothes, from making comments about a physical or mental disability, racially motivated bullying, or a young person's sexual orientation.

Clearly it's a complex issue but there seem to be three key reasons:

• Bullies use it as a form of social bonding, by picking out a weaker or different child to reinforce the bonds between them and their peer group.
• They use it to pass on harm or suffering being done to them, perhaps at home.
• They do it because it gets them the attention and approval of other young people.

But it's not all doom and gloom. While the number of bullying calls we receive at ChildLine is still high, they've more than halved since 2007, dropping from 23% to 10% in 2012.

And as a concerned parent, there's a lot that you and your child can do to reduce the likelihood or the impact of bullying. We've pulled together a few top tips that might help:

1. Large groups make a poor target for bullies. Encourage your child to keep good company and stick with his or her friends where possible.
2. If you suspect bullying is happening encourage your son or daughter speak out - it's a message as old as the hills bullying will often have to be reported before anything can be done.
3. Teachers and schools are clearly hugely important when it comes to preventing bullying. Don't be afraid to speak with your school if you think a problem is getting out of hand. If you don't think they're taking it seriously enough, ask to meet with the head. And ask your child if they want to come to the meeting.
4. If your child is suffering from some form of cyber bullying they should avoid responding to abusive emails, texts, online messages and always tell an adult. You can contact your mobile or internet service provider for advice on how to block calls and messages if necessary. If they use a social networking site there should be ways to block and report anyone who is using these services to bully and harass - especially as doing so is likely to be breaking the site's terms of service.

It's really important that a young person feels they have a support network if they are being bullied. The effects of bullying can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, poor educational results, self-harm or even worse. And they might be scared to talk about the issue, either as a result of threats from the bully, or - as is often the case with boys - the perception that 'telling' is weak.

You can look out for signs of bullying. Is your son or daughter trying to avoid going to school (more so than normal)? Has their mood drastically changed in recent months? Have their sleep patterns changed for the worse?

Encourage your child to talk about how they feel. If they don't feel comfortable talking to you - entirely normal for a teenager, you might say - they may prefer to speak with ChildLine. This can be an effective way for the young person to express how the bullying is affecting them and deal with the consequences in a more positive way. Sometimes, it will help them figure out how to deal with the problem themselves without the involvement of teachers or parents, which can be very empowering.

So as a parent of a child starting secondary school, if you are worried, there's plenty out there that you can do if your son or daughter is having a tough time in the new school.

Young people up to the age of 18 can contact ChildLine on 0800 1111 or through the website, where they can find more information about bullying.