We are apt to think that the hurt and misery of children being bullied at school is experienced solely by the targets or victims and that the solution, at least potentially, lies entirely in the hands of teachers and school counselors. If so, we are mistaken. We forget or fail to acknowledge the deep hurt and misery experienced by the parents of victimized children, their anger, despair and frustration as they learn about how their children are being maliciously treated by their peers and do not know what to do.
Over the last ten years I have received many emails and letters from distraught parents of children who were being victimized repeatedly by their peers. Some of these I have incorporated in a book (1). Here, for instance, is a mother telling of her discovery that her 10-year-old daughter was being bullied at school:
My 10-year-old daughter went through hell due to being bullied, and as for people to say it does children no harm is absolutely pathetic. I am totally disgusted in them for even thinking that.
The mother goes on to describe the pain she felt when she became aware of what the bullying was doing to her daughter:
She did not tell me she was being bullied but asked me a question which will haunt me for the rest of my life. The question was: mummy how do parents know that when children kill themselves that they did it because of bullying? I just said they leave a letter, not thinking that she was talking about herself. Two days later I got a phone call from my friend whilst I was at work to tell me my [own] daughter had just been battered and had her head rammed in a wall by 6 girls; then it dawned on me my daughter wanted to kill herself. … I went home and checked her room where I found the letters to say she was sorry and that she loved us. Luckily I found out in time. I had to hide all tablets and medicines, can you imagine how that feels? And then as we were taking her and another girl for a trip to a holiday resort, she asked me to put a song in for her, one I had not heard before, called ‘The happiest day of my life is the day that I die.’’
I talked to the school who did nothing. So I changed schools for her and I have since found out that the [previous] school has been under investigation for bullying. Thank God I found out in time. … I always advise parents to waste no time and get the bullying sorted out asap - because you never know what a child is thinking.
We know from research into what children say that approximately half the children who report that they have been bullied have never told their parents about having been bullied (2). Often such children are too ashamed of themselves to tell anyone; sometimes they feel that no-one can help, not even their parents.
Can parents help and if so, how ? Currently the outcomes reported by children who have told their parents suggest that it is not easy for parents to help. A study based on responses from English schoolchildren has shown that nearly half the children who reported telling family members about it experienced no improvement in their situation, and a minority (13%) reported that matters got worse (2). These are not good odds. Clearly many parents need to know how they can help their children when they discover that they are being bullied at school.
Of course, it would be best of all if children could be ‘parented’ in such a way that they would never become involved in bully/victim problems at school, either as a victim or as a bully or as the child who is bullied but also bullies others. Research does in fact suggest ways in which the risk of such involvement can be reduced.
Long before a child goes to school, early childhood experiences can help a child to be less vulnerable:
- Becoming securely attached to a caregiver during infancy can instill feelings of confidence that protect a child from being a ready target for bullies (3). The overuse of inadequate child care centers can have long term negative and disturbing consequences for the social development of some children (4).
- Hence parents should examine closely the quality of care being provided by particular centers, for instance whether they have fully trained staff and an acceptable child:caregiver ratio. (A widely accepted standard is not more than 4 children per staff member). Care should be taken not to place their children in care at too early an age or for excessively long periods during the day. We now know that how parents relate to their children after infancy can help them to develop a confident, outgoing manner that enables them to relate positively to their peers.
- On the other hand, dominating and frustrating children in a cold, authoritarian way can lead them to bully their peers at school (5). This is not to say that parents should not seek to control their children’s undesirable or anti-social behavior; in fact, failing to do so can also contribute to them bullying others. It is when parents continually demand instant obedience without providing explanations that the most harm is done.
- ‘Overprotecting’ a child and restricting a child’s contacts with others to a close knit family can result in a child failing to develop social skills that are needed to cope effectively with ‘different’ sorts of children at school (6).
In general, then, positive parenting can reduce the risk of a child’s involvement in bullying, but it cannot guarantee it. Under some circumstances anybody can be bullied.
What then are parents to do if their child tells them that they are being bullied?
- First, listen; gauge the seriousness of the incident and whether there is a history of such bullying
- Then find out what has been tried and with the child work out options – such as being more assertive, avoiding people and places, and seeking help.
- It is tempting to confront the bully’s parents or even the bully. Don’t. It seldom pays and commonly makes matters worse.
- When help is needed, call on the school. It has the prime responsibility for keeping their students safe. Schools can help, especially if parents work closely with them. If we are to significantly reduce bullying, it will be done through effective parent-educator collaboration.
Bullying in schools is now recognized as a serious social problem that concerns the entire community. Over the last 15 years or so a great deal of research has been done to understand its causes and consequences and how it can be most effectively addressed. This body of knowledge is becoming increasingly accessible to educators and parents. It needs to be read and digested by everyone who cares about the safety and wellbeing of children. Much of it is summarized at www.kenrigby.net where references can be found to major contributions in this field.
- Rigby, K (2008) Children and Bullying: How parents and educators can reduce the risk of bullying in schools Boston: Blackwell.Wiley.
- Smith, P.K & Shu S (2000) What good schools can do about bullying. Childhood 7, 193-212.
- Troy, M. & Sroufe, L. A. (1987). Victimization among preschoolers: Role of attachment relationship history. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 26, 166-172.
- Manne, A. (2005). Motherhood: How should we care for our children? Allen & Unwin.
- Baldry, A.C & Farrington D.P (1998) Parenting Influences on Bullying and Victimisation Journal of Legal and Criminological Psychology, 32 pp. 237-254.
- Bowers, L. Smith, P. K & Binney, V. (1992). Cohesion and power in the families of children involved in bully/victim problems at school. Journal of Family Therapy, 14, 371-387.
- Rigby, K. (1993) School children's perceptions of their families and parents as a function of peer relations. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 154(4), 501-514.