Shame, helplessness and fear of reprisals can stop children from telling their parents about being the target of bullying. Here, the director of engagement at Dublin City University’s Anti-Bullying Centre, Darran Heaney, advises on what to look out for and what to do.
What exactly constitutes “bullying”?
Bullying can take many forms. It does not have to be physical to be considered bullying. More subtle forms, such as social exclusion, teasing and name calling, are often difficult to spot but can have a lasting negative effect on the target.
The Department of Education’s latest action plan on bullying, Cineáltas, which was launched last December, has a carefully worded definition:
“Bullying is targeted behaviour, online or offline, that causes harm. The harm caused can be physical, social and/or emotional in nature. Bullying behaviour is repeated over time and involves an imbalance of power in relationships between two people or groups of people in society.”
Online or “cyberbullying”, which is increasingly common and continuously evolving, does not necessarily have to be repeated to constitute bullying. For example, somebody’s once-off act of sharing an image, which is then seen by multiple people, could be regarded as bullying.
Is there an age group when bullying among children tends to be more prevalent?
Ireland is experiencing a heightened focus on bullying and online safety issues. This focus is justified when we consider that a 2021 Government study found that 17 per cent of nine to17 year olds reported that they had experienced some form of bullying, either online or offline, in the past year. The highest number of reports came from 13-14 year olds, 22 per cent of whom report having been bullied in the past year.
Furthermore, 11 per cent of all children say they have experienced cyberbullying in the past 12 months with 18 per cent of 13-14 year olds reporting the highest levels of being cyberbullied. The data suggests that girls are more prone to being bullied and experiencing online safety issues.
Among primary school children, what are the most common forms?
There are different forms of bullying which are prevalent among primary school children. Verbal bullying is where a student is called mean names, has hurtful things said to them/about them or has rumours spread about them. This can often be linked to their physical appearance, race and identity. Physical bullying can also take place in primary school. This is more traditional and involves physical contact intended to hurt the target, such as kicking or punching.
Exclusion, where a child is regularly left out of activities or lunchtime groups or friendship circles, can have a devastating and lasting impact on a young person’s confidence and self-esteem. Use of devices among nine to 13 year olds has also led to an increase in cyberbullying.
Does that change in the teen years?
As children move from primary school to secondary school, the bullying may emerge in an online form. A recent study in Ireland found that while a quarter of 9-10 year olds use social media, this rises to nearly 90 per cent for 15-17 year olds.
Navigating the online world can be challenging for young people. Hurtful and mean content can spread quickly online and is often difficult to contain. Parents might feel helpless when it comes to online bullying, because they are in different spaces to their child. It is vital that parents keep an open line of communication with their children about their online activity. Encouraging honest and open discussion with your child will help them to speak about any negative experiences they may encounter online.
What signs might suggest my child is being bullied?
You may notice a change in your child’s mood or behaviour. They may appear down or sad after spending time at school, with friends or online. They may display signs of anxiety but refuse to explain what is wrong. Changes in their eating habits or sleep pattern could also indicate that they are experiencing negative, unwanted behaviour. You may notice your child’s ability to concentrate on their schoolwork is affected, leading to decreased academic performance.
In the case of physical bullying, watch out for unexplained bruises or cuts, damaged clothes or belongings. Your child may complain of illness to avoid attending school or sports training and their mood could change and become more withdrawn or frustrated.
How do I help them if they refuse to talk about it?
Try to remain calm. Getting frustrated or angry about it will only lead to your child disengaging from the conversation. Your child needs to feel confident that you will deal with this without getting angry or possibly making the situation worse. You want them to feel comfortable to tell you what they are experiencing, so creating a trusting space for this to happen is important. If they are refusing to talk about it and you suspect something is wrong, talk to parents of their friends or other family members, or go directly to the school.
Encourage your child to speak to another family member, friend or their teacher if they refuse to talk to you. It is important that they tell someone so help can be provided and reinforce this to them whenever possible. Remind them that once someone knows about it, they can support them through the experience and deal with it to get it resolved.
Removing your child’s device/mobile phone might feel like the quickest way to stop the bullying and protect them, however in doing this you are cutting your child off from their friends, leaving them with no way to communicate. Maintain communication and trust with your child at all times. Also, talk to their school if you believe the bullying is happening there.
How should I approach it with the school and what sort of action can I expect?
It is important to stay calm and approach school staff in a non-confrontational way. First check the school website for a copy of its anti-bullying policy, which all schools are required to have within the framework of their overall code of behaviour. This will guide you in asking the school for help.
The Department of Education Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post Primary Schools outline the responsibility of the school, not only to prevent and address school-based bullying behaviour but also to deal with any negative impact within school of bullying behaviour that occurs elsewhere. Everyone should have the best outcome and resolution for the children involved as their priority. Research has shown that this can happen efficiently if parents and school staff work as a team.
[ ‘My 12-year-old son told me people were threatening him on Snapchat and calling him a racist’ ]
Your child’s school may have an anti-bullying co-ordinator or relevant teacher who is responsible for dealing with this issue. Explain the situation calmly and clearly, giving as much information as possible including times, dates, nature of bullying. Ask for advice from the teacher/principal on how they will manage this within the school.
What can I do at home to support my child through this?
Listen to your child and talk to them about how they are feeling. Encourage them to stay in a group or with friends they trust during school time if they have concerns about being targeted when alone. Reassure your child that it is not their fault. Explain to them that the bullying behaviour is the responsibility of the person bullying and that it is not personal. Seek professional support for your child, such as counselling, if you feel it is needed.
Are there parenting techniques that might lessen the chances of my child being bullied?
Research shows that some parenting styles are less helpful than others and are even a predictor of a child being a target for bullying – overly controlling and/or punitive approaches should be avoided, equally a totally hands-off approach is not very helpful.
Parents should convey that they are in charge and can be relied on to help when things get tough, but they should not take total control away from their child either. Tackling bullying is a team effort; parent, student and school can do it altogether.
I have heard there is a danger that bullied children can in turn become the aggressors, how can that be prevented?
In some cases children who are targeted for bullying can cope with this by acting out bullying behaviour on someone else. These “bully-victims” can be emotionally very stressed and need plenty of support and reassurance, while at the same time showing them that bullying behaviour is always wrong.
DCU’s Anti-Bullying Centre offers a programme called Fuse free to primary and secondary schools. Registration on antibullyingcentre.ie