Parents' Playground Bullying

Young woman whispering in friend's ear, looking at young woman
Young woman whispering in friend's ear, looking at young woman

The news that Birmingham mother Lucy Weir has been banned from the school playground for fighting with another parent in front of pupils has been met with shock and horror. "Utterly shameful," said the first of the online remarks about the case. "Disgusting, vile behaviour - no wonder she was banned," said another.

Yet a surprising number of mums report being on the receiving end of bullying by other parents in the school playground, often on a daily basis.

"Just last week, another mother purposefully and aggressively banged her buggy into mine," reports mum Kate James.

"She then proceeded to tell another mother I'm lucky she didn't' rip my f***ing head off'. It shocked me to the core. All the other mums are civilised."

Meanwhile, another mother Sally Morgan says, "It hasn't got physical, but the verbal abuse that one particular mother subjects me to is awful. She either mutters something horrible like, 'It's school drop-off, not a disco!' or she sniggers about me to other parents.

"Admittedly, these other parents don't look comfortable about it, but they don't seem to challenge her and more often than not, I leave the playground tearful."

In some cases, it seems to come out of nowhere. "The mother took an instant dislike to me for no apparent reason," says Kate. "The times she's been verbally confrontational, I have said I'm sorry if I've ever done anything to offend her and I never retaliate, all in the hope that it will diffuse things, but she just carries on."

In other cases, the mothers started off liking each other. "We were friends, but then she started spreading rumours about me," said Lucy Weir, the Birmingham mother who has not been allowed into the grounds of Yenton Primary School in Erdington since the brawl with another mother last year, an incident for which she was fined £215 by magistrates, while the other parent involved was fined £400.

"I saw her in the playground that day and asked her to stop talking about me behind my back. She threatened to 'mash my face up', which she'd threatened to do before, but this time I thought she was serious so I pushed her," says Weir.

Similarly, Judy Bryan had been close friends with another mother, Caroline, before she started experiencing unpleasantness in the playground. "Our daughters were in the same class and we were best friends," she explained in an article she wrote for Parentdish. "We enjoyed a good chat in the playground every day – until I changed my career and bought a new car in the same month."

At first, Caroline started sniping about her car and then it turned into full-blown nastiness, with Caroline cutting both her and her daughter off and then spreading lies and rumours. Judy became increasingly distressed at not knowing what was being said about her, yet she did nothing.

"I was embarrassed at being bullied in my thirties and I didn't want to appear to be a trouble-maker, asking mums to 'take sides'," she explains.

Eventually, she confided in a friend 30 miles away, who admitted a similar thing happened to her. Together, they talked to other mums and were horrified to hear stories that women had kept to themselves. One had a son with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome and after months of spiteful comments and criticisms, she ended up on anti-depressants. Another mum was pilloried for working part-time, explains Bryan, who has since written a light-hearted novel, Playground Politics, for cathartic purposes.

Dr Lucy Atcheson, a chartered counselling psychologist, says that while mums expect the playground to be a friendly place where they can catch up with other women for a chat or support, for some mums the twice-daily routine can be a nightmare.

"There's a lot going on psychologically on a subconscious level for mums in the playground that can make it a very political zone and in some cases, bullying is sadly the result," she explains.

Atcheson points out that when parents take their children to primary school (and it is generally primary school, not secondary school, where it happens), it's usually the first time they've spent time in a playground since their own childhood.

"This, coupled with the fact that they are desperate for their own child to be OK and happy, can make them feel insecure and fearful. When people are insecure, they can become either defensive and aggressive or defensive and passive. And when people feel fearful, they often psychologically regress."

It's also relevant that when women feel insecure and fearful, they often form cliques. "Cliques are also particularly likely because there is this desire to fit in because you so much want your child to fit in too."

It all combines to be a recipe for disaster, she says, and it's made even more emotionally charged by the fact that there's this intense joining of egos with mother and child.

Amanda Jackson reports, "When I used to pick up my son Theo from school, the married mothers used to all huddle in the playground and completely ignore me, looking down their noses as I am an unmarried single mum. But it was actually even worse with the non-working single mums, who used to think I was arrogant and when one of their children hit my son in the face and I intervened, I actually got threatened by one of the mothers.

"She threatened to kick me in the head and so I had to get the school involved, the result of which that I was 'allowed' to drop Theo off 15 minutes before everyone else to avoid running into her."

The only reason Amanda doesn't have this problem now is that she works full-time, she says. "So Theo is dropped off in the morning and he has an after-school club in the evenings. However, at school plays like tonight, I will be ignored. The prejudice even goes so far as that out of a whole year of 60 children, only two turned up to Theo's party and no parent actually even let me know. They just don't care."

Many mothers, including, Angela Grant, say it feels worse than bullying at school. "Whatever humiliation other pupils inflicted upon me as a child, nothing compares to the parental viciousness that exists in the suburban playground – the sniggers, the eye rolls and the build up of petty accusations. My child is affected too because he is no longer invited round to people's houses and it's not as if I can call a teacher to intervene. Truth be told, I'm at a loss about what to do."

Atcheson believes it's important to stay assertive and to try to remain pleasant and calm at all times. "Smiling and almost embarrassing people out of the behaviour can work, particularly if the bullying comes from a clique," she explains. "Hopefully, you will appeal to people's more reasonable and empathetic nature. At all times, remember you're an adult, not a child."

Chartered psychologist Sheila Keegan adds that support from other parents can help. "You can usually find one of two other parents who you can walk in with. There's safety in numbers."

The sad truth is that you're always going to get people who seek dominance in any area of life, be it work or the playground, points out chartered psychologist Nadine Field.

"It can be painful and difficult to be on the receiving end, particularly if you see these people daily. But my advice is do not waver and or take on the victim status because bullies pounce on signs of cowering and weakness. Instead, be strong, be nice and remember this is your territory too."

Of course, all this is easier said than done, but if Lucy Weir's case shows one thing, it's that if it gets really bad, schools do have the power to get involved.