Is This Bullying?

"Sally won't let me play with her group of friends at playtime."

"Mummy, why does Billy always tease me about how I can't say certain words?"

"I wish Amber wouldn't keep telling me I'm not invited to her party."

Sound familiar? Then you probably have a child in reception, year one or year two. For parents, hearing such comments from their offspring can be uncomfortable, even upsetting, yet it's a real challenge to know what to do.

"At least a couple of nights a week, my six-year-old daughter can't get to sleep because she worries about a particular girl in her class," one mum told me when I said I was writing this article.

"My five-year-old daughter often looks sad when she gets to the school gates in the morning because of two other girls," said another. Similar comments have since poured in.

Dieter Wolke, professor of developmental psychology and individual differences, says the most important thing for parents is to make the distinction between general conflict and bullying.

Conflict, he explains, may involve kids running into each other, even hitting each other, or not wanting to be friends. Bullying, on the other hand, has two key components – firstly, the intention to harm another person and secondly, it is done repeatedly over time.

"You might, for example, get a child who is autistic or who has ADHD repeatedly upsetting a child, but there is no intention to hurt. They just can't help it. That's not bullying. Or you might get an instance of a child with no special needs upsetting a child one day to the extent that they don't want to come to school the next day, but it doesn't happen again. That's not bullying either," explains Wolke.

The problem is, he says, that parents of kids in this age group often wave the red flag regardless. "There are many highly protective parents out there, many of whom are going through their first experience of the education system, who panic the moment their child complain about being upset by another child or children at school. These are the parents that march down to the school or call the other parent straight away."

To be fair, these mums and dads aren't helped by the fact that children often mis-use the word bullying themselves, says Luke Roberts, national co-ordinator for the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

"I've seen many instances where a kid comes home saying they've been bullied and you end up with the two parents having a ding dong in the playground. But the next minute the kids have forgotten all about it and are playing nicely again."

Not all such parents take such strong action. Many internalise their concerns instead. So instead of talking to the teachers or other parents, they constantly worry and fuss with constant questions like, "Was Jack nice to you today? Did he do anything to upset you?" "Are you sure Olivia is being kind to you?"

But this kind of micromanaging isn't helpful either since it can transfer your worries onto your child, planting seeds of angst that might not otherwise exist.

No wonder research has found that children often avoid telling their parents when another child is harsh to them, says Roberts. "For many of these children, they just want to tell you they're upset so that you can help them deal with it. What they don't want is for you to become obsessed about it and take over."

The irony is, he explains, that by taking control of the situation too quickly, which is many parents' gut reaction, they risk disempowering their child and actually increasing their vulnerability. "Your focus should be to help your child develop strategies to manage challenging situations. Otherwise, how will they cope when you're not there?"

After all, points out Fiona Pienaar, head of service management at children's mental health charity Place2Be, they're going to experience challenges with interpersonal relationships throughout their lives. "See this as an opportunity to teach some really valuable skills around negotiating, challenging, listening and responding," she advises.

Even if the behaviour towards your child could be described as bullying, your first reaction should be to help them solve the problem, she says.

"Discuss with them helpful ways of reacting to the other child's behaviour and if you do feel you need to step in, keep them in the driving seat, saying something like, 'I'm thinking of talking to Susie's mum. What do you think?' Or 'How about me having a quiet word with the teacher?' You might also want to find out about the school's anti-bullying policy and talk it through with your child."

Work particularly hard on modelling ways of handling difficult situations, including in any conversations you have with other parents or teachers. "Don't go in full of blame and aggression because your child will think that's an appropriate way to respond in life. In any case, it will just escalate the situation. Instead, remember there are two sides to a story and suggest you want to talk about what's going in with both your children so that they can get on better."

Consider ways your child can take control away from their tormentor, advises educational psychologist Susan Lee-Kelland. "One thing that can be particularly successful in this age group is for the child to take something along to school that everyone can play with – some new marbles or a skipping rope, for instance. Sometimes even the suggestion of a brand new game that doesn't require toys is enough to instantly break up the old groups, where the tormentor might currently be top dog."

Role play can work wonders, she says. "Get your child to pretend to be the tormentor and say the things to you that their tormentor says to them. Meanwhile, you think of helpful, empowered things to say back – ideally with a smile since children who are the most popular are those who smile a lot."

Bullying is a behaviour, not an identity, she points out, and it can therefore be changed. The good news about this age group is that it's easier to change than at any other time in life.

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