When a new girl joined our primary school in the final year, the other girls found her highly annoying: she’d barge into games, order us around and try to split up friendships. With hindsight, of course, she was just nervous and trying to fit in. But what did we do? A group of us picked the longest nettles we could find from the school field, then we pinned her against the wall and tormented her with our stingers. In class we hid her pens and paper-bombed her when the teacher’s back was turned.
When we were all hauled up in front of the head a week later, no one really knew whose idea it had been or why we had done something so cruel and unfair. Retribution was swift; there were apologies and tears. We never tried anything like it again.
Back then, the B-word was never mentioned but our behaviour was clearly bullying as defined by psychologists – it was intentional, harmful, repetitive and involved an imbalance of power.
Still a feature of school life today, such behaviour is now discussed more openly. But attention is focused – quite understandably – on the victims and their families. What to do if it’s your child who’s terrorising the playground is a question that rarely gets asked, yet in a recent survey of 1,000 parents, a third admitted that they suspect their child may be guilty of bullying. Some do it just once in a mad power-grabbing moment (as we did), while for others that taste of power becomes a way of life. Whatever the circumstances, parents are confronted with a problem.
“It can happen in any family,” says bullying expert Dieter Wolke, professor of psychology at the University of Warwick. “We often assume this is a problem of poor children from troubled homes, but you find bullies in every social class.”
So how can you tell if your child is a bully? Professor Wolke warns that he or she will often start on siblings. Watch out, too, if your son or daughter frequently speaks disrespectfully about other children, says Luke Roberts, national co-ordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance. He says that Year 7, the first year of secondary school, is a key time for bullying, as children try to work out where they fit into their new, larger peer group.
Intimidation doesn’t have to be physical, either. Once children get to secondary school, there tends to be a gender split: boys bully with their fists while girls use psychological tactics – socially isolating victims and spreading rumours – which makes the problem that much harder to spot.
Luke Roberts has worked with girls’ schools where teachers have strenuously denied that bullying was taking place. “The school would say, ‘We don’t have bullying here.’ No, maybe not physical, but there was a lot of emotional violence going on – who was in the group, who was invited to which party, who was being left out.”
Parents, too, are often very reluctant to listen to accusations. “It can be very unsettling because of what it implies about your parenting,” adds Roberts. “It’s no wonder that parents often say, ‘It can’t be my child.’ But allegations should never be dismissed out of hand.”
Former teacher Márianna Csóti, author of How to Stop Bullying, advises any parent in this situation to question their child closely. “If your child steadfastly denies bullying, check the story with other sources and find out who witnessed the incident,” she says. “If you still can’t get a clear picture, tell your child to leave the victim well alone, and that if there is any further complaint you will have to take the other child’s side.”
Csóti suggests informing the other parents what you have said to your child, and asking for their child to keep his or her distance too. Then advise the school, so it doesn’t become a battle between two sets of parents.
If your child admits to bullying, explain the devastating impact this can have on another child. Talk also about friendships and what it takes to be a good friend.
To solve the problem long-term, you need to understand what is causing it – and that may mean some soul-searching. Parents shouldn’t necessarily blame themselves, says Csóti, but it is worth looking into your family for any underlying causes.
“If parents are overly strict, there can be a sense of powerlessness that children find hard to accept. They need some control in their lives so they find it elsewhere,” says Karen Sullivan, author of Bullying. “Alternatively, some children of very busy parents seek attention in other ways.”
Whatever happens, you shouldn’t feel that you’ve raised a monster, especially if it’s an isolated episode. “Many bullies are just normal children who are undergoing a period of stress, perhaps from exams or family difficulties,” adds Sullivan.
If there seems to be a problem, make sure your child has the opportunity to talk and express their feelings at home. Give them a few responsibilities – such as looking after a pet – so they can shine at something and lift their self-esteem, says Sullivan. Allow them to make some decisions about their lives and encourage empathy and kindness by demonstrating it yourself. Also check that your academic expectations aren’t too high. If anger is a problem, find better ways for your child to release all that emotional energy – through sport, perhaps. If your child is a ringleader, channel their leadership skills in more productive ways, maybe through an organisation such as Sea Scouts or Air Cadets.
“It’s never nice to admit your child is a bully, but we shouldn’t feel struck down by guilt,” says Sullivan. “Talking it through with your child and having the courage to get everyone in the family to make changes can make all the difference.”