I met a pal for coffee over the school holidays and asked the proverbial: “How are things?”
She looked downcast momentarily, and then leaned in. “The school holidays are now about essential respite for us. School is a total nightmare at the minute,” she confided.
It transpired her teen daughter comes home from school and bawls her eyes out every single day. “Mum, I’m so lonely at school. Nobody speaks to me all day.”
Her daughter has encountered the devastating “wall of silence” that girls so very often employ to ruinous effect. Her teenager, formerly a popular girl with a large group of friends, had fallen foul of the leader of the group. No reason was given, but a sudden silence descended from this one individual and her sidekick.
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Like all sensible parents, she advised: “Look, these things happen. Nobody is obliged to speak with you or be your friend, even if you were besties last year.”
“Move on,” the mother advised. “Cultivate some of the other girls in the group.”
A plan was hatched and the mother went back to fretting about work, the cost of living and other lofty matters.
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I knew what happened next. As a parent who has “survived” the school system with my own daughter, I was familiar with this playbook. One by one each girl migrates to the group being managed by the “leader”. Nothing is said, but soon an impenetrable wall of silence prevails.
No chats in the locker room, nobody to sit with at lunch or break time. “Patricia no mates” is now a fully fledged social pariah who is looked upon pitifully, but with indifference.
The perception is that nothing untoward has taken place here. However, one young person is suffering deeply, within earshot of those cackling away at the in-house jokes that she is no longer included in.
It may not seem important, but, to the teenager, it can be a devastating place to be. And a dangerous one.
This behaviour is, of course, bullying – although I far prefer the term “emotional abuse”. Why? Because it is much closer to describing what is taking place. Schools are often baffled by this problem and it is a tricky one to deal with.
As we spoke, my friend said: “I cannot understand why the rest of the group would abandon her too.” And the reason of course is that they did so as they quickly figured out that they could be next in line for the silent treatment. Self-preservation/group-think at play.
Adolescents tend to be pack animals and approval within the peer group is very important to their wellbeing and social standing. I pointed out to my pal that the friends in the extended group probably saw themselves as innocent bystanders. Her eyes widened. Except that there is no such thing as an “innocent” bystander. If you turn your head away to wrong-doing, even if you did not initiate it, you are also culpable. The bystander inevitably becomes a collaborator.
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We know that those most at risk of bullying behaviour are those who are “different”, including children with a different skin colour, who are small or big, as well as those with different or exceptional talents or abilities.
“The child you see at home is not the child we see at school,” said a school principal. You may well have a chatty, confident know-it-all at home but that same child may never have put their hand up to answer a single question in their entire school career. Equally you may have a lovely caring, fun teenager at home, but yet your girl – and it is mostly girls who engage in this behaviour – can morph into a mean girl and a bully in the school environment, with devastating consequences for another child.
The standard justification is of course: “She decided to leave the group herself”. However, if you have been silenced or cancelled, your departure amounts to constructive dismissal.
We as parents must teach our children that there is nothing normal about one child being sidelined and ostracised. This goes beyond the classroom. While Minister for Education Norma Foley is in the process of introducing a new anti-bullying policy for schools called “Cineáltas” or kindness, the issue of bullying and ostracisation is also very much a parental responsibility. Hashtag kindness or telling a child to be respectful to all is meaningless, unless the full context of what being unkind can do to another human is clearly and fully explored.
We all need to emphasise to our offspring that they have the power to do good and to take a stand when they witness something untoward happening. If they see a child alone, ask them to speak with that person and include them. Ask them to look out for those who are left on the sidelines, never picked for the team. This is not the sole responsibility of the school.
My friend and I parted and went our separate ways. She thanked me for listening, but I could see the anxiety etched on her face as the prospect of another school term beckons and how it may impact her girl.