Got a parenting problem? Parentdish's agony aunt Liat Hughes Joshi and author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, plus her panel of experts from child psychologists to nutritionists, can help.
Q: My daughter is 10 and is being bullied at school by a group of girls who appear on the surface to be lovely but when there are no adults present, their behaviour is malicious and spiteful. Do I speak to the teacher, as this is happening in school time, or do I tackle the parents? My daughter doesn't want me to say anything to anyone as she says it will make it worse.
A: Schools are much more pro-active in trying to prevent bullying these days, but, as someone who was badly bullied as a child, I was sad to read Government data, showing a quarter of pupils are still on the receiving end of such behaviour at some stage during their primary years.
The problem is that, despite the anti-bullying assemblies and workshops many primaries now run, schools can only do so much. They might not even be fully aware of what's going on, especially if the victim doesn't want to draw their attention to the situation, for fear of making things worse.
Should you tackle the parents?
Whilst I fully understand the temptation to approach the parents, it is very unlikely to make much difference for your daughter and could backfire badly. Many mums and dads of bullies will believe their child is far too angelic to do such a thing, so you might simply create tension between you and them, which will not help your daughter.
Even if the parents are sympathetic, at this age, they probably won't have much power over what their children do at school anyway. Worse still, their own actions as parents could be the root cause of the bullying behaviour. This might make them turn defensive or aggressive on you or get them encouraging their children to lay into your daughter further.
The single biggest thing you can do to help her
Speaking from personal, as well as professional experience here, the single biggest thing I wish I had known as a victim of bullies, was to never, ever show them I was bothered.
If these children don't get a reaction, they will almost certainly stop sooner or later. I know this will be hard for your daughter, as she might well be torn apart by something they say or do, but she needs to try and hide her feelings from them. (Not from you or herself – I'm not suggesting bottling things up altogether – it might be that she rounds a corner, or hides in the loo for a few minutes, and has a good cry). This will take away the bullies' 'weapon'.
Claude Knights, Director of anti-bullying charity Kidscape, agrees this is key: "The most effective way of dealing with bullies is to not give them the power they crave. They want to see us crying, angry, hurt, cowering or trying to gain their friendship, but through practice and role-play you can teach your daughter that body language (head up, shoulders back and looking them in the eye), calmness, and responses such as, 'that may be what you think, but I know that's not true' can deflect bullying."
Reassure her that 'it's not her, it's them'
Understanding why bullies behave the way they do will help your daughter to know this is not her fault. Again, Kidscape had useful advice on this:
"In cases where there is a group doing the bullying, there is usually a ring leader. This is the main bully, she will be the one who is feeling inadequate in some way about her own life and is usually jealous of her target. So she calls her names, which are the opposite of the truth, and tries to make her feel bad. This gives the bully a feeling of power and well-being, almost like a drug. Other people in the group jump on the bullying bandwagon to ensure it doesn't happen to them as well, but the result of this is that it reinforces the belief that what the main bully says is true, causing the target to lose self-esteem."
Dealing with school
Some schools make the right noises about bullying but when it comes to it, deny it's actually happening on their patch. They might sweep it under the carpet and even blame the 'victim' with claims that he or she is over-sensitive. Or they might say it's all just normal 'girls being girls' behaviour.
If staff question the bullies, unsurprisingly the children concerned will probably deny everything and then, sadly, take it out on their target even more afterwards. This, plus the fact teachers can't listen to every single conversation all day, makes it very difficult to tackle bullying effectively but Kidscape advise that the school has a duty of care to keep your daughter safe and should, by law, have an anti-bullying policy. Ask for a copy - you are entitled to see it. You could compare this to the guidelines for schools Kidscape has on their website and discuss any shortfalls with the headteacher. If you're not happy with the way the teachers and head are dealing with your daughter's situation, you could approach the school governors.
Should you change school?
In very persistent and severe cases of bullying, a last resort can be moving schools - allowing children a fresh start. At 10, your daughter is nearing the end of primary, so you will probably not feel it is worth the upheaval now.
However, she might find it somewhat comforting to be reminded that she only has to get through three more terms - a long time when you're 10, I know, but it's not forever. This will also highlight to her that she will have opportunities to make new friends in secondary school.
What else can you do?
Beyond this, be there for your daughter when she wants to talk about it, but also accept that sometimes she might not want to go into the details of what's gone on.
If you find your daughter doesn't want to discuss the situation with you at all, think about whether there is a sympathetic and wise relative or family friend she might open up to. If they have been bullied themselves as children, this could let her see it won't always be this way and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
If she doesn't already do so, encourage her to join some out-of-school activities - Brownies, a sports club, whatever fits her interests. It should be somewhere no-one from this group of girls goes, so she can be herself without being judged and might make new friends. This won't solve the problems at school but will help bolster her self-esteem.
Advice about bullying is available at www.kidscape.org.uk.
See some of Liat's previous advice columns here.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.
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