The help desk: My daughter is being bullied at school - what can I do?


Q. For the past few years my 10-year-old daughter has suffered bullying at school. It mainly takes the form of exclusion and constant undermining. The bullies are ostensibly her friendship group, but they constantly mock and undermine her with cruelty that is sometimes astounding. I have had endless meetings with her teachers and the head. They are sympathetic and talk the talk, but will never do the one thing that would surely help: talk to the parents of the bullies.

There are two girls in particular who are clearly the ringleaders. One teacher seemed to take the problem seriously and came down hard on these two, but I heard other parents saying she was 'over-involved'. My daughter is a really kind and sensitive girl. It breaks my heart to see her so sad and confused. I'm at a loss to understand why she is always a target (this is her second school, because we moved house, but the problem moved with her) and why it is the nasty girls who are so popular.

A. First of all, do let's define "popular". In the Lord-of-the-Flies world of school playgrounds, this is not about being liked but being dominant. In the US, where high-school culture seems to hold such a grip on the nation's psyche, they have a better understanding of this. The website Urban Dictionary defines "popular girls" thus: "Popular girls are the people who make you feel like yor [sic] worthless."

Why do children bully? It's always said that bullies have been bullied themselves – to which I say, what rot. But given that bullying behaviour is about the need to test the limits of your control over people, it seems likely that bullies are compensating for feelings of powerlessness in other areas of their lives.

Well, poor old them. But what you want to know is why it is your daughter they pick on. The answer is that as a kind and sensitive type, she simply makes the perfect victim. Primary schools are claustrophobic places. Both my daughters were bullied, too, and the same kind of psychological sadism is probably taking place all around the country. Boys often use violence instead, which is at least tangible, so teachers are more inclined to step in.

I don't know why schools are so reluctant to confront actual cases of bullying when they all trumpet their "anti-bullying policies". I am regretful, and still rather baffled, that I never squared up to the bullies' parents myself, and I see from your letter that you have not done so either. But there is something about the parallel claustrophobia of the school-gate that makes this almost impossible. One mother I know had the brilliant wheeze of contacting all the parents in the class, repeatedly. Genius! No one is singled out, but all are given pause to consider that their children might be involved.

It's less likely than you may think that the problem will follow her to secondary school, where cliques will be diluted. My daughters emerged sensitive, perspicacious, and, rather poignantly, wise beyond their years. Or were those the traits that led them to be bullied in the first place? I'm still not sure, but they are qualities that are worth having.

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