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What parents can do about bullying in schools

Bullying is every child’s - and parent’s – nightmare, and can cause serious mental health problems.

A YouGov poll for the Diana Award found that four in ten children are so badly picked on at school it has affected their grades and left them frightened of putting their hands up in class.

Despite laws being in place to stop bullying, it remains a common experience for children.

What is the best way to respond as a parent?

Young children

Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, says; “If a parent is concerned about a child, it is important to help the child feel it is safe to talk to you. With a young child, I would start with telling them a story of someone being bullied, how it is wrong and how in the story the child got help and it all stopped.  This can lead on to a parent asking the child if anything in the story is similar to events happening to them in school.

“If a young child is being bullied I would ask to meet with the class teacher and the head of pastoral care.  It never helps to go in ‘on the attack’ but it is better to go in with questions, such as ‘Do you think my child could be being bullied?’  ‘Does she have friends she plays with at break times?’  ‘Do you have a bullying policy?’  ‘Do you think any part of your policy might help my child?’”

She urged parents to be alert to changes in their child’s behaviour. “If a young child is being bullied, they ‘live in the moment’, so are likely to show signs of distress as they reach the school environment.

Older children

Dr van Zwanenberg, who treats children at the Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, says: “With an older child I would be more open with them that you are concerned as there is a change in their behaviour. Reassure them that if they communicate any issues with you, you will check with them what they want you to do about it (so they know you will not over-react or do anything that in their eyes will make their situation worse). This reassurance often helps a young person open up, but the adult must honour what they have said.

“I would suggest an older child is involved in deciding how the situation is addressed.  It might be they are happy for you to communicate with the school over email but they do not want you going in. They may prefer to go to a teacher they trust directly to raise the issue.  They may ask that they are kept anonymous in the actions taken by the school. If the bullying continues, and the school does not appear to be taking appropriate action, I would suggest you consider discussing the matter as a safeguarding issue with the school, using the ‘safeguarding’ term, and if this is not effective, report the bullying to safeguarding within your local social services.

“If the bullying involves harassment or an illegal act, involve the police.  On many occasions I have heard in my clinic that the police talking to a perpetrator as a warning ends the bullying swiftly.

“Older children may lose self-esteem rapidly and may isolate themselves more and become irritable at home.  They’ll worry about the bullying much of the time. Adolescents often find their sleep is affected as they lie awake worrying about the next day. If you are worried about the young person being at risk of harming themselves, explain to them that you want to support them in a way they feel comfortable with. Think what you can put in place to give them things to look forward to.

“It is worth discussing a risk communication system with them, perhaps a traffic light system; asking them if they can, either verbally or through text, signify a colour that represents their risk morning and evening.

“If they are red, what would that mean? How would they like you to react? It might be that they want you to sit with them and not leave them alone until they are amber.

“Amber might mean they are feeling low but not at risk of harming themselves, while green might be they are having a good day and they should be allowed out with their friends on their own.”

The importance of talking about bullying

Dr Trudie Rossouw, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory’s North London Hospital, says: “Bullying is a serious matter and linked with distinct, adverse effects later on. There is a significant increase in young people that we see in mental health services who suffered harm mentally as a consequence of bullying.

“Bullying nowadays is no longer limited to the school playground as it continues online, leaving young people feeling unsafe even when they are in their own bedrooms.  It is essential that it is picked up early and addressed early in order to prevent emotional damage taking place.

“Frequently young people do not report bullying as they fear that they will not be believed or that the school will do nothing or, the worst case scenario they will be exposed and targeted even more.

“The secret about managing bullying is by having robust policies in place, creating a culture of safety where people can report bullying and safeguarding those who have made disclosures.”

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding young people's mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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