What should parents do if their child is bullied at school?
HAVING your child bullied at school is one of the greatest fears of parents - and research shows this fear is well founded. School bullying has been described as the single most important threat to the mental health of children and adolescents.
Well-controlled studies show that being bullied in primary school increases the risk of serious mental health problems into adolescence and ongoing depression leading well into adulthood.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't?
So when parents find out their child is being bullied, they are right to be concerned. But what exactly should they do about it? Should they tell the school, approach the parents of the other child, or just let their child deal with it?
It can be difficult to weigh up the sometimes conflicting advice given to parents. Parents desperately want to help their child, but if they jump in too quickly to protect their child they can be labelled as over-protective or over-indulgent.
School authorities often recommend parents leave the school to handle it. This is fine if the school is successful in stopping the bullying. However, this is not always the case. Most school programs to address bullying make only modest improvements, leaving some children to continue to be bullied.
This could be why we often hear of parents taking matters into their own hands. This can lead to uncertain legal ground if parents reprimand other children and to ugly arguments between parents. Clearly none of these approaches is ideal.
New research on how parents can help their children
We now know that parenting specifically affects children's risk of being bullied at school. A meta-analysis in 2013 concluded that warm, supportive parenting is a protective factor and negative parenting is a risk factor for children being bullied at school.
Another large well-controlled study from the UK showed that having warm supportive family relationships also helps buffer children against the adverse emotional consequences of being bullied.
This means that when children feel supported by their parents, they are less likely to attract bullying. They also have someone to turn to at home when things are not going well at school, which helps them cope.
Research has identified two additional ways parents can make a positive difference to children's relationships with peers: parents can coach children in social skills and they can actively support their children's friendships.
Parents see children every day so are in an ideal position to help children find ways to deal with peer problems. Parents can improve children's social skills, which can help children become better accepted by peers, and support children's friendships by organising play-dates and other activities that help children develop close friendships with children at school. Having good friends at school helps protect children against bullying.
A program at the University of Queensland called "Resilience Triple P" teaches parents to support their child, support their child's friendships, coach their child in social and emotional skills, and communicate effectively with the school and other adults.
A total of 111 families were randomly allocated to either receiving the program or not, and monitored over nine months. Schools of both intervention and control families were informed that parents had a concern about bullying.
Compared with families in the control condition, children whose families received Resilience Triple P showed greater reductions in victimisation, distress and depression. Teachers reported children became better accepted by peers. Children reported liking school more.
Resilience Triple P involves parents in helping children deal effectively with peer problems. However, if the child's efforts do not work, or if the child is in danger, the parents step up as advocates for their children.
How parents can help children cope
If your child talks to you about problems with other children at school, this is good news. Very often children don't tell anyone about being bullied; they might feel ashamed or worried how their parents will respond. It is important that when children approach parents with a problem, parents stop and listen. If parents become emotional or over-react, this may discourage children from confiding further.
If a child is not communicating, there are signs that indicate they could be being bullied at school. These signs include trying to avoid school or social situations, greater sensitivity and mood swings, changes in eating and sleeping, and unexplained physical symptoms. If children are demonstrating any of these patterns, parents could gently ask children how things are going in various areas of their lives.
Whether or not a child is being bullied, it is important for parents to support their children's friendships, as an investment in children's ongoing mental health and well-being. This means making time for children to catch up with friends and getting to know other parents as a way of supporting your child's relationships.
When children are upset by other children's behaviour, parents can provide a valuable sounding board. They can help children interpret situations and decide what to do.
Very often problems can be solved if the child can stand up for themselves calmly. Parents can help children practise how to do this.
Parents might also help children learn how to ignore minor issues, strengthen friendships with kind children, resolve ongoing conflicts and get help from a teacher when needed.
Approaching the school and other adults
If a child is unable to deal with a distressing issue by themselves, it is important that the parent communicates for the child. If the child is experiencing problems at school, parents should first contact the child's school. This would involve approaching the child's teacher if the issue is with another child in the class, or perhaps the school management if the issue is broader.
It is important when approaching the school for parents to plan carefully what they want to say. Schools can easily become defensive about the issue of bullying. It is important parents stay calm and explain exactly what happened and how their child was affected. The parent can request help in improving the situation and then check how this goes over time.
There are other adults who may be supervising children when bullying occurs. Parents may need to have conversations with out-of-school-hours care staff, sporting coaches, scout leaders and dance teachers.
The situation is a bit more sensitive if the problems occur when your child is being supervised by friends or family members. The same principles apply though - you need to calmly request the other adult's help without blaming them or putting their child down. Sometimes this can start by acknowledging the children are having problems - and suggesting you could work together to help them.
Generally it is a risky move to approach parents of another child at school bullying your child, if you don't already have a good relationship with them. Your approach is unlikely to improve things and may result in heated conflict. This may worsen the relationship between the children, making it more difficult for the school to resolve the issue.
What if nothing works?
Sometimes, despite parents' best efforts to support their child and seek help from the school, the bullying continues. Ongoing bullying poses an unacceptable risk to any child.
If your child is experiencing ongoing distress from bullying, and the school doesn't address it despite your requests, consider other options - including going to higher education authorities and reporting cases of physical assault or cyber-bullying to police.
Parents should also consider whether another school might provide a better option for their child, but it's important to involve the child in this decision.
- Karyn Healy is Program Coordinator (Psychologist), Resilience Triple P program Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland