Subscriber OnlyYour Family

Bullying: School days can be the best days of your life – but what about when they’re not?

In a new series, we’ll be looking at how bullying affects people, the lasting impacts and asking how we can best support those affected

There’s lots of things we’d like to think we’ve learned from the past and lots of things we’d love to have left behind but bullying still affects the lives of many people, casting its dark shadow and leaving impacts that can last years beyond the initial experience.

In this new series, we’ll be looking at how bullying affects different people, the different ways it can happen, the lasting impacts and asking how we can best manage it and support those affected.

School days are the best days of your life, they say.

But what about when they’re not?


For parents of primary school-aged children, knowing how to identify bullying can be difficult.

“Bullying between children manifests in a variety of ways including exclusion, name calling, online bullying, physical hurt, damage to school work/belongings,” explains Bethan O’Riordan, psychotherapist and founder of the Calm Parenting Club. “And bullying from teacher to student is the adult using their power to abuse a situation and where their personal feelings towards a child/family plays out by being domineering and curtailing a child’s rights through the use of fear.”

The impact of bullying on this young age group shouldn’t be dismissed, O’Riordan says. “Children very quickly learn messaging about themselves from a young age, which means that the inner dialogue that comes from being bullied can start a seed of self-doubt and critical thinking that can grow very quickly.”

Proper physical threat

Eleven-year-old Seán has experienced bullying in primary school, his mum, Joanne, says.

The first time was by a teacher.

Seán has dyspraxia and struggles with handwriting, Joanne explains. “He writes slowly and his hand gets sore. I discovered that this teacher was rubbing out his work and making him write it again. This was happening a few times. She would give out to him about his writing and was keeping him in at lunch to finish work.”

Her son became distressed and Joanne says she had terrible difficulties trying to get him into school each day. She says she had several discussions with Seán’s teacher but it was only after he was finished with her that Joanne heard more stories about her being “mean” to her son from other children and from the parents of classmates whose children had told them of their concerns.

The teacher denied the behaviours when Joanne approached the principal. “It was his word against the teacher’s.”

Seán is in a different class now but, unfortunately, his mother explains, he’s experiencing bullying again, only this time from another child in the school.

There’s an added complication, Joanne says, in that the child who is bullying has a violent history. “He’s started staying to Seán: ‘Give me that or I’m going to kick the sh*t out of you. Give me this or I’m going to beat the sh*t out of you.’ He’s terrified again, going in.

“I got on to the principal and she’s being very proactive. They’re trying to make sure there’s always someone on the corridor with him. And, if something happens, Seán can go in and put something on the teacher’s desk and the teacher knows to ask him afterwards if everything is okay.

“It’s not just kids picking on each other or name calling – though I know that’s horrible too. This is a proper physical threat.”

Joanne, or a relative, had to collect Seán from the school door every day until the summer holidays.

A bit of hell

Clare’s nine-year-old daughter, Molly, has experienced bullying. Clare’s partner is not Molly’s biological father. Molly is mixed race and because both her mother and her mother’s partner are white, “children in school put two and two together and said, ‘He’s not your dad because he’s not brown.’

“[Clare’s partner has] been her dad since she was two. She’s known nobody else,” Clare explains. “She was picked on for being different. We had to give her an age-appropriate birds and bees talk, explaining that I didn’t meet my partner until she was two.”

Clare also had to explain to Molly, who was quite young at the time, that her biological father wasn’t ready to be a dad and that her partner chose to be her dad and he loved her. “We had to have a conversation in a way that she could understand, especially with her having autism,” Clare says.

Molly started being bullied two years ago, her mum says. “There were a few instances by different children, mostly girls. They got a new kid in the class who came in all guns blazing to make Molly’s life a bit of hell. She pushed her, making her fall head first into a brick wall and then told the teacher Molly just fell.

“The teacher that year was instrumental to the bullying. She never once listened to Molly. This girl and the teacher caused so much anxiety and stress she started wetting the bed, having panic attacks and stopped eating.”

Exclusion is the challenge Molly is dealing with now, her mother explains.

Laughing at him

Mark says his son John’s experience of bullying two years ago has left him constantly worrying that it could happen again. John is “very timid”, he says. “He has loads of friends but in his class, there’s a gang.

“He was coming home from school – and he’s always been a very happy kid – and it was noticeable that there were these little issues. He wasn’t going out to play with his friends on the road. He wasn’t as happy. I must have asked him a million times, ‘Is everything okay in school?’ He was telling us everything was fine.

“It got to the point where he wasn’t wanting to go to school. I was in work and I was getting phone calls from my wife telling me, ‘It’s gone bad again this morning. He won’t go in.’ He was crying. You don’t know what to do. I was cross. I was sad and he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with him.”

Mark and his wife went to see the principal but the principal “literally wasn’t seeing it,” Mark says. “And if it wasn’t visible to him, it wasn’t happening.”

By chance one day, after having been in to see the principal again, Mark’s wife witnessed, as she was leaving, a number of children in the yard going over to her son and pushing him and laughing at him as he got upset. The principal was with Mark’s wife and saw the incident too. “To be fair, once he saw it, he nipped it in the bud,” Mark says.

“The killing thing from our point of view is that was when he was in third class. He’s now going into sixth class and I, still to this day, am paranoid that if he comes home from school in a bad mood, I’m worrying there’s something up.

“I know it has put him off joining football clubs in town because all that gang are in the club so he doesn’t want to play football because it’s enough for him to have to deal with them in school. He doesn’t want to have to deal with them outside of school.”

Nipped in the bud

Sarah’s son Paul was accused of bullying when he was in first class. “It was nipped in the bud very quickly so it didn’t become an ongoing thing,” she says.

“My first class boy was involved in a circle of friends chanting and they went around a little girl and were kind of oblivious to her not really liking it. We were called in, as were all the parents of the kids making the circle.

“It also turned out, as well, that she had an SNA (special needs assistant). Obviously, I don’t know why but I’d say that identified that she may have been less able to cope with what some might say was ‘stupid playground banter’.

“To be clear, I think they were absolutely right to take it seriously as an incident and teach sensitivity to the kids involved, that not everyone will want to be made part of their game – even if another kid might have been totally fine with being circled around in that manner.

“I can see how an incident like that could be ignored, passed off. I’m really glad my child’s school didn’t and that he’s an empathetic, far more mature, fourth class kid now.”

Listen and use empathy

Parents have a vital role to play in supporting children, bullying psychotherapist, Bethan O’Riordan, explains. “The way to support a child is to ask open questions, listen, hold your fear and use empathy to show you get – or are trying to understand – what’s going on for your child.

“Parents need to manage that black cloud that can linger after bullying so that it doesn’t take over and this happens when parents have a place to offload their fears, worries and sadness. Parents can make their child’s inner world safe by relieving a child of that heaviness by making themselves emotionally available, not focusing on the other child(ren) involved, recognising their own child’s hurt and making home a place of secure relationships.”

While parents can, understandably, have very strong reactions to learning their child has been bullied, O’Riordan says it’s important parents manage their response.

“Keeping the child safe is the most important part of this. You don’t want your child going through life as a victim or feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Listen to your child’s stories, believe them and take some form of action. Trauma happens when we are alone with the feelings.”

“Children need the adults around them to be strong enough to manage what’s going on. Teenagers often report to me that the worst part of a situation was seeing how upset their parents were. Now, this isn’t to say parents aren’t allowed to have emotions but getting support for yours so that you can support your child is essential. You must separate how you feel so that you don’t dilute your child’s feelings and healing.”

“For children who are being bullied, empower them by identifying their safe people. This is especially important for when children aren’t with their caregiver so make sure they know who is safe in school – who is their safe peer and safe adult.”

O’Riordan says the parents of a child who has been accused of bullying should “get all the facts”.

“Being accused of bullying can mean so many things. It might be that your child is looking for more skills to navigate a difficult situation, that they don’t have the words to express something that’s hard. I’ve met many families whose children have been wrongly accused of bullying because there’s a grey area between not liking someone and that being bullying”

She reminds parents to look at their own behaviour too. “What do you say and do at home when your child disagrees with you? Well, they will mirror this in their social circles too. Home is the training ground for life.”

We must, as a society, move away from language such as bold, bad or good. It doesn’t help children understand the complexities of relationships and life at all. Children need adults to show them how to navigate social situations.

“A question I ask parents is, ‘What do you do or say when someone says something you disagree with? How do you act when you see someone you don’t like? What do you say when you’re in a group and someone undermines someone else?’ These are not easy to answer for adults, which makes them even trickier for children to understand too.”

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family