Even after many years of working with children, a bullying issue will grab me by the heart. I think I've heard it all, but then a mother will call, frantic that her daughter is self-harming, or a newspaper will ring for a comment on the death of a ten-year-old, who has hanged himself after repeated bullying incidents. I comfort myself that Kidscape provides help for bullied children and their families, support that will in most cases allow them to overcome their difficulties. But I remain struck by the violence and threats that many face, often alone and in silence, and concerned for the long-term effects on their well-being and mental health.
I remember when reports of bullying were greeted with a shrug, judged as just part of growing up. We all can recall the children deemed "weird" or different, who were teased mercilessly over their clothing, their accent, their interests, their awkwardness. I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering being targeted; in my case, as a native French speaker for my "froggie" accent. Robust children can shrug such treatment off, but others may withdraw, or be so scarred that the bullying affects them for life. Some, then as now, can self-harm or end a life that felt too painful.
We have come to better understand bullying, not least the links with mental health issues, and increasingly we see schools and communities try to block it. But as someone who sees the consequences of bullying every day, I know that the first, and long-lasting, lessons should occur in the home. Bully-proofing a child begins in the high chair, and needs constant reinforcement.
From toddlerhood, parents and carers need to emphasise that hitting, and name-calling are not acceptable behaviours. We know that it isn't easy to separate age-appropriate egocentric behaviour from unkind and anti-social actions, but many studies show that bullying behaviour is present even in preschools.
Protective behaviours leading to resilience can be taught to very young children by encouraging them to stand up straight, to look people in the eye, to speak up. Our experience shows that even in the early years bullies target peers who look timid and passive. A child who demonstrates self-respect, even if he isn't feeling it, may never be bullied. I believe that acting brave can really turn into believing in your own courage.
It's never too early to teach assertive behaviour. That means standing up for yourself, without attacking others. When we work with severely bullied children, we teach them the social skills they need to survive, from posture and tone of voice to the confident use of a toolbox of skills that help to avoid or diffuse bullying situations. Parents/carers may need to look at their own body language and speech. Children learn from what's around them.
It is an old adage that children who are "different" are bullied, but sadly I know that happens. I've met young people who are bullied because they have red hair, use a wheelchair, are very talented or have learning issues. I am shocked by the venom unleashed against those least able to help themselves. Children benefit greatly from learning from an early age that everyone differs in some way, and many of our strengths grow out of just that.
It makes me sad or even angry that after years of awareness-raising and the creation of numerous anti-bullying strategies the chief impediment to helping a bullied child is actually learning that he or she is under attack. Someone may be threatening them with more harm. They may feel as if no one will understand, or support them. They may adjust to their situation, however hard, and fear any intervention will make it worse. It is so helpful for parents to create the habit of a chat at the end of the day, perhaps as part of a night time routine. This builds trust and confidence for the time when they are needed.
If children are being bullied through an online platform they will often keep silent in case their parents restrict their mobile phone or computer usage. Parents must be a part of their child's online life and need to close the gap between their knowledge and that of young people whose lives are dominated by technology. Recent research shows us that too many parents are either unaware of, or are ignoring online dangers by allowing their children to use Facebook as well as a variety of social media sites well in advance of the recommended age limits.
There have been a huge number of studies concerning bullying both in the real world and online - most recently showing that 43% of young people have been bullied off- line and 24% have experienced cyberbullying. It is important for all those responsible for the welfare of children to be aware of the signs and symptoms that may develop if a child is being targeted.
Prevention is the key so through Kidscape's work with primary schools we endeavour to empower children to develop resilience, confidence and self-esteem by equipping them with assertiveness and conflict-resolution skills though a whole school approach.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important it is for us all to work together to combat the damaging and long-lasting impact that bullying can have on the mental health of children and young people who experience it.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email firstname.lastname@example.org