How to recognise the signs of bullying and what to do about it

In her two-part blog , expert Sally O' Reilly helps parents to deal with this difficult situation

It can bea scary time for some little (and not so little) people who've been going to a place, every day, where they don't feel safe.
Every day. Imagine.
It's often that at this time of year that roles like 'Bully' and 'Victim' start to take hold. And that's why we have October designated Anti-Bullying month.
How do I know if my child is being bullied? 
Kids are excellent at hiding things, but maybe you’ve had a niggle. In twenty years of experience I’ve observed time and time again that parents usually know when something’s up, but feel that they’re not ‘expert’ enough.
But you are an expert when it comes to your child actually, you just don’t realise it.
So there's the instinct piece - is that enough? 
I guess no, it's not. But there are more concrete things we can look for. First let's understand what we are looking for:
Bullying is the persistent and deliberate ill-treatment of another.
This is my personal definition. We tend 'over-diagnose bullying'. If a kid is cruel to another kid: aggressive, hurtful, or generally horrible, that doesn’t immediately qualify as bullying. It certainly is a flag, a reason to watch, to listen more carefully. It won't be helpful at this point to jump in with accusations and threatening litigation! (Or worse...)
If, however, you notice a pattern developing over a few days or weeks, then you have probable bullying.
What to listen out for:
Even if a child is determined to hide their pain or struggle from you, you may still hear warning signs when they talk about their day to you, to your friends or to their friends. There are things to listen out for that may signal trouble. Or you might see them messaging their friends about school events. Being vigilant can be a powerful protector.
The most common bullying behaviours, regardless of age, are
  • Name calling
  • Not being invited to parties or days/evenings out
  • Being invited but being given the wrong address/ time etc
  • Being excluded from conversation
  • Being taunted about physical appearance
  • Being taunted about lack of social/sporting/academic skills
  • Being mocked for an accent
  • Being mocked for developing sexually before / later than peers
  • Racial slurs
  • Being wrongly accused of rumour spreading or other wrongdoings that result in shame, social disapproval or exclusion.
What to notice at home:
  • If he/she says “I’m being bullied”
  • If she/he says “No-one likes me”
  • A change in mood before and after school that lifts at weekends and on holidays
  • A rise in anxiety on school nights.
  • A change in appetite and sleeping patterns
  • Return of older anxiety patterns in younger kids (bed wetting, old toys being sought, old bedclothes etc)
  • Withdrawal from you
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Changing peer group
  • Poor engagement with after school activities where the bully might also be in attendance (particularly if the child previously loved the activity)
  • More crying than usual
  • More power - seeking, anger or aggression than usual, particularly with younger siblings or with you.
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Losing money / phone / clothing items that are precious and would normally be looked after well.
  • Self-harming
  • Openly self -loathing
  • Leaving laptops/ tablets / phones with messages or sites visible that are about self-harm or bullying.
  • Reduced confidence
  • Drug and alcohol use
A lot of these are also “symptoms” of normal adolescence. But they also serve as possible warning signs of something sinister when they occur out of the blue and concurrently. If your child is very pre-adolescent, then these are certainly red flags. Fire engine red.
Should we intervene?
It's one of the most common questions I am asked -  and yes,  if the child cannot deal with this effectively by themselves then it's important to intervene.
Getting your child to talk:
It's tempting to try and soothe by saying things like:
That Laura, I know her, she’s a brat.
Ah well, Peter comes from a weird home, don’t pay any attention to him, he’s not loved like you are.
What did you do to make her mad at you?
Why didn’t you ignore him/ tell him to stop?
Ah they're only jealous!
Be strong now, she’s not worth it.
Stop crying now he’ll get bored and leave you alone eventually. We all go through it.
You don’t mean that – of course you don’t want her to die / to kill yourself.
Don’t say stuff like that, it upsets me / us / your mother/ father
Do these sound familiar? I think most of us have heard this or similar at some stage in our lives.But how helpful was it?
I'm going to suggest alternatives and the reason I'm doing so is because all the above statements and questions could be experienced as either blame or dismissiveness by an upset child. A bullied person sees the world through a different lens - threat and 'proof' of their perceived unimportance is everywhere.
Instead try 'open enquiry', where your child is invited to tell their story and where you make yourself available to listen. Open enquiry is a style of questioning which invites information - rather than 'yes' or 'no'. It's a helpful way of eliciting more information.
It might go like this:
You: What's happening at school?
Your child: Rachel’s being really mean like all the time.
You: Sarah? The girl I met last week at the gate to school/ shop/ wherever? She’s being mean to you?
Child: Ya that one.
You: What’s Sarah doing that feels mean?
Child: She’s saying stuff, y’know.
You: What is she saying?
Child: She’s calling me fat and said bad things about me on Facebook
You: Yes that’s mean. Hurtful too I think. How do you feel?/ You look upset/ You look angry
Child: I’m really angry. I wish she’d die
You: Yes, I get why you feel like that. I would too. We all feel angry when we’re sad. It’s because you’re hurt and you’re not being treated the way you deserve. We’ll find a way to deal with this. What ideas do you have yourself?
Now you are teaching your child that their feeling is appropriate, they are indeed being poorly treated. You are teaching them that you are there to listen and that you’ve picked up on what they’re not saying by noticing how they look. You are teaching them they are normal and are reacting normally to an abnormal situation. You are teaching them that you believe they deserve better, you respect them, that you are in it with them (by using the word ‘we’). You are showing that you are confident that there is a way to deal with the problem. You are teaching them that you believe they can provide part of the solution, even though they’re devastated. 
Sally O’Reilly is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ full time experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site or on Twitter @psychosal or FB Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.

Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

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