The bully is traditionally a figure from school and adolescence, but bullying is something none of us ever escape - at work, in the home, even in sport, where it's called motivation and is supposed to be good for you. What's certain is that more of it's about, to judge from the number of anti-bullying organisations being formed around Britain. Lesley Gerard reports on the politics of despair. Portraits by Harriett Logan
Every year there are tragedies of children who have killed themselves because they were bullied. Esther Rantzen, campaigning for Childline, has estimated that there were about 10 suicides a year and many more who are severely traumatised by verbal and physical abuse at school.

More than one in four children counselled by Childline on a special bullying line reported being hit, kicked or otherwise physically attacked by other children. A disturbing amount of bullying seems to go on under the very eye of teachers, particularly in secondary schools - 54 per cent of children taking part in a Childline survey from comprehensives said that the classroom was where they were bullied.

More schools now employ anti-bullying policies, but children still suffer in silence. What was once commonly dismissed as part of growing up, or even lauded as character-building, is now recognised as a complicated issue of control. It takes many forms and extends beyond the classroom or playground into adulthood and the workplace.

The Institute of Personnel Development says, for example, that two million employees are bullied at work every year, resulting in mental and physical illness and loss of confidence. And a separate survey by Unison, Britain's biggest trade union, has revealed that two-thirds of its members had either experienced or witnessed bullying.

More surprising is the number of parents now complaining of abuse by their own children, which has been under-reported till now. Anne Davidson, a counsellor at the London-based First Step Centre, which helps victims of all types of domestic abuse, says that parents are ashamed of what is happening to them. "They become convinced they are bad parents, and are terrified that, if they seek help, their children will be taken away.

"Sometimes the child has lived in an environment of violence. If they've seen their father beating their mother, they may, in their confusion, repeat that behaviour and abuse the mother, too. For some children, especially teenagers, resorting to abuse is their way of asserting their own independence and control."

Whether it be it the school bully, the bullying boss, neighbour victimising neighbour or children intimidating their parents, common themes emerge. Psychologist Peter Randall, who lectures at Hull University, defines bullying as behaviour which is "intentional, aggressive and intended to cause psychological or physical distress. It is also the product of an imbalance of power. You don't get small children bullying tall, athletic children - at least, not physically. In one way or another, bullies are powerful people, either in school, the factory or the workplace. In the workplace, they are often people who enjoy inflicting pain and distress, or they're doing it to advance themselves."

Psychologists are now debating whether school bullies grow up to be bullies at work, although Charlotte Raynor, of Staffordshire University, stresses academics are wary of suggesting once a bully, always a bully: "I'd hate to condemn a child by saying it could never escape the cycle of victim or bully. We can all change."

At present, she says, aggressive bosses who force staff to quit through illness or to seek legal redress are costing the country an estimated pounds 4 billion a year. Tight deadlines, job insecurity and the vulnerability of short-term contracts create an atmosphere in which these bullies flourish, as do rumours and social isolation. The bully sends a colleague to Coventry and the rest of the workers follow suit because they're frightened of similar treatment. "The bully is someone who works out what your crumple button is," she explains, "and presses it again and again and again."

Suicidal at six

In the winter of 1991, Maureen Booth-Martin, a 37-year-old single mother living in Cardiff, found her six-year-old son preparing to put his head in a noose. Jonathan had always been withdrawn, had nightmares and wet the bed. The reason, she eventually discovered, was bullying at school. But what she also found was that the school, like many others throughout Britain, was slow to react.

Children are generally too embarrassed to discuss being bullied, and Jonathan always denied her suggestions. But in March 1992, he came home from school so pale that she thought he'd collapse. She tried to talk to him, but he stomped upstairs and slept. When his nightmares gradually returned, she phoned his father, who spoke to him for over two hours and finally got the truth.

"I remember running him a bath after they'd talked, and he seemed to come back, this child I'd lost, just through telling someone about his anxiety," she says. It was also the moment when she realised why he never undressed in front of her. "There wasn't a part of his body without a bite mark, a blister or bruising. I screamed hysterically."

A year later, when she removed him from the school, his lack of confidence seemed beyond restoring. She spent the next four years unsuccessfully corresponding with various authorities, from the board of governors through to the Welsh Office, fighting for acknowledgment that her child had been at risk within the school and that her fears had been ignored.

Gethin Lewis, the head teacher of Jonathan's primary school for 17 years, still disputes her claims. All allegations, he says, were properly investigated by the teachers, the governing body, the local education authority and the Welsh Office. "In my experience," he says, "bullying is no longer a major problem anywhere. I'm certain all schools look very carefully at their pupils to ensure this situation remains. Recently, it seems to have become the `in thing' to blame schools whenever children have problems."

A recent study by Sheffield University reveals that most bullying occurs in primary schools, while Kidscape, the national children's charity, estimates that one in seven children are bullied at any one time. Angela Glaser, a counsellor for Kidscape, recalls the story of a bullied six-year-old who asked his mother: "Do you think if I wish it, God will make me go to sleep forever?" She says that only a third of schools in Great Britain have a successful anti-bullying strategy.

"My main regret is that I used the word `bullying' rather than `assault'," says Maureen. "If I'd given my child the pain he received in school, the social services would have labelled it assault and protected him." Adding to the pressure of her battle were her literacy problems, stemming from a hearing impediment. The first hand-written letter she wrote to the head teacher was, she admits, illegible.

"I'd neglected any written correspondence until then, but the realisation of how bad I'd become spurred me on to learn to read and write properly. Sign language brought me on, and my daughters taught me spelling. It still takes me a week to learn a new word, but I can't believe how far I've come."

It was to be one of many lessons from a tragic story. Another was when several of those she believed to have been responsible for the bullying were also found to have been abused. "Until then, I'd really despised these children," she admits. "It taught me that bullies need help, too."

Then, ironically, her 10-year-old daughter, Andrea, confided that she, too, was being harassed by children at the same school. "I'd been so caught up with Jonathan's problems - which were far more explicit - that I completely missed Andrea's distress." Maureen had already volunteered to be a parent co-ordinator for Kidscape. Last May, in consequence, she set up CURB (Children Under Risk from Bullying), a Welsh helpline for parents in similar circumstances. In the past year, she has had over 1,200 calls.

Her involvement with CURB has helped her to come to terms with the most shocking event of this story. In June 1993, Jonathan was hit by a car, leaving him brain-damaged and in need of constant care. "I hardly recognise the person I was five years ago. It's strange because, above all, I've learned to like myself and what I do." She's smiling, but her anger isn't far beneath the surface. "I'm the nicest person you can meet," she adds, "but I'm your worst enemy if a child's welfare is on the line."

Part of her work now involves talking to schools. Recently, she paraded two pupils at a Cardiff primary school before their class. One had been made-up to look bruised, but the class was told that both had been bullied.

Which of these children, Booth-Martin asked, would the class rather be? "The one who's not hurt," shouted a girl. Maureen enlightened them: "What you don't realise is that the other one is being verbally bullied. She lives day after day in fear and torment. That torment could be the build-up to the bruising. Bruising only lasts a few days. Mental abuse might last a few months."

Booth-Martin has found that it's beyond children to stop existing bullying. All you can do is teach them its effects. So it becomes the responsibility of adults. When parents learn that their child is being bullied, they usually freak out, she says. "And then the children - who are generally riddled with shame and embarrassment, and not wanting to upset their parents - wish they hadn't said anything. We support mum and dad so that they can support the children."

CURB's main purpose is to allow parents to talk about their own distress and encourage them to improve their child's self-esteem, while also ensuring that steps are taken to make the school stop the bullying. This involves sending the right letters to the right people, organising meetings and investigations, and implementing standards of acceptable behaviour. The phones are always red hot during the first week of term.

The organisation is due to become a registered charity early next year, with the promise of additional funding to help parents of deaf children and those, like Maureen Booth-Martin, with literacy problems. She feels it is the adults who really need educating. "While so many treat children as less than human beings, how can we ever expect young people to respect others?" Kate Hilpern

This boy's life

Nicky Hudson was 10 when he suffered a mental breakdown after being bullied. Now 15, he hasn't been to school since. His mother, Linda, set up a support group last year for parents and bullied children. Nicky is still plucking up courage to attend.

It started when I was eight. There was one main bully and the others just picked on me occasionally - kicking, punching, name-calling, I don't know which was worse. As I got older, it got harder, and when it was time for school, I had to run away to get away from the bullies.

When I was 10, I ran off in my pyjamas. My Grandad Hudson found me. It was cold, I get asthma, and I couldn't think straight I was so scared. I begged Grandad to talk to Mum and stop her from sending me to school, but the head came and took me and my mum to school in his car.

One day, in the playground, I was pushed around by the bullies until I landed on a bench. I was cut down below, bleeding, and Mum came and took me to the doctor, who told her to let me have a couple of days off. But Mum kept making me go. I couldn't understand why she was sending me to school to be bullied. So I stopped telling her or anyone else how I felt.

In fact, I felt desperate. I wanted to commit suicide. My life didn't seem worth living. I know I got ill, but I can't remember anything about that time. Mum says I had a mental breakdown, that I was on Valium, and that it took about eight months for me to get better. But, to me, it's just a blank.

When I was 11, I made up my own mind to go to secondary school. No one believed I'd go, but I wanted to be with other kids my age. I wanted a life. But after a couple of weeks, I got bullied again. It was some of the boys from my old school - and some new ones with them. Mum went to the deputy head, who said it wouldn't happen again, but it had already made me feel really scared.

One of the teachers was really kind and let me sit in a small room next to his classroom, but I didn't want school to be part of my life any more. I can remember not wanting to talk to anyone, not even my doctor, about it. I felt better keeping things to myself.

And I haven't been to school now since I was 11. I've had different tutors at home. Even now my mum and dad and sister are worried about me. I don't know what I would've done without them.

I don't really feel anything about the future because I've not been to school and haven't passed any exams - I don't know who'd want to give me a job. Sometimes, I dream of playing football for Manchester United. If I could have a future, that would be it.

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire education authority said: "Our foremost priority is to make sure that Nicky receives the best possible education. We would like to see him return to mainstream education when he is deemed medically fit, but are happy in the meantime to provide home tuition. The authority does not dispute that Nicky was bullied at school. The nervous breakdown is also accepted, we have medical evidence for that."

I stabbed my Mum

Jacky Glenister, 33, from Luton, is divorced with a two-year-old son named Aaron. Her relationship with her mother, Irene Bishop, became hostile when she was eight and her father left home.

I was eight when my dad left home. No one had warned us my parents were splitting. My brothers and sisters and I came home from school, asked where Dad was, and Mum said, "Gone." I was devastated because I was a total daddy's girl. My dad was a womaniser, and that's why they broke up, but I knew nothing about that at the time. I blamed her for his leaving.

I think it was that day that I started to hate her. I had two older sisters, and, as the youngest, I'd always be wearing hand-me-downs. I remember at school being teased about my scruffy old uniform. So I felt my mum was always picking on me more than the others.

I was a very angry child - perhaps that's why I became a school bully. I formed a gang, was always getting into fights. By the time I was 12, I was a teenager from hell. Mum tried to control me. She used to hit me when we rowed.

One day, we were arguing because I'd forgotten to prepare the vegetables for Sunday lunch, and I thought, "I don't have to take this any more. I can fight back." I was in a frenzy, and I grabbed a brass ceremonial knife off the living-room wall and stabbed her twice in the arm.

From then on, I became impossible. I was stronger than her, and I regularly beat her up. I've literally had my hands around her throat. I had throw my Jackie annuals down the stairs, aiming at her head. I hated her so much it scared me.

When I was 14, I threw a wooden sandal and it split her lip, so I went to the social services and begged them to take me into care because I was frightened I'd kill her. I knew I was capable of it. They let me stay with a friend for a few days, then sent me home.

Mum was always in and out of the doctors, getting treatment for her injuries, and the doctor told her to have me put away. She said she couldn't do that because I was her flesh and blood. Then she married again and my stepfather tried to control me, and I fought with him, too, because I thought he was trying to take my father's place.

By the time I was 16, my mum said she'd had enough. Her new husband had told her she had to choose, and she wanted me to move out. She said she'd found me a bedsit. I got myself a job as a care assistant in a nursing home and, quite frankly, I never wanted to see my mum again.

But she kept phoning, asking to see me, and, in the end, my boss said, "Go, because we're sick of her phoning." I remember I met her in a pub - she was there with a friend. The friend and I went to the toilet, and we didn't realise that mum was already in one of the cubicles. I told the friend: "I don't know why I'm here - I hate her. I'm here out of duress because she keeps pestering me at work. She's never loved me or been there for me the way she has for all the others."

So my mother comes out of the toilet and says, "What do you mean I don't love you?" I said, "You don't. Since I was eight, you've never said you loved me." But she said she did love me. And I said: "That's all I wanted to hear." I think that my mother was angry with me because I was so close to my dad - hurting me was the next best thing to hurting him. Now we're friends, but I think all children need to know they're loved. I'm going to tell my little Aaron that I love him every single day.

My daughter stabbed me

Jacky's mother is Irene Bishop (above), 58, twice divorced and now living in Nottinghamshire.

Jacky had been incredibly spoilt by her father because she was the youngest of three girls. She wasn't used to being chastised - Daddy didn't do that to her. When he left, I had to keep a curb on her, but she thought she was being picked on.

She started being violent with me from the age of nine. She'd run away in her nightdress, trying to get to her father, and she'd kick and fight when we tried to bring her back. She's got a temper, and we were both stubborn, so neither of us was going to give in. She would slap me in the face sometimes, but she was building up to something bigger.

She eventually attacked me with a brass knife which I kept as an ornament. She ran into the bathroom, and I was so angry I followed her, grabbed her, and was about to flush her head down the toilet when my oldest daughter stopped me. She said if I did that she'd report me to the authorities.

But I had to hit her sometimes to stop her, though I knew she could hurt me. It was a living hell. The doctor said, "Send her away." But I felt, "she's done without her father - it could make her feel even worse." I don't think she understood why she was so angry with me, but I'd say, "I can't afford to spoil you like your dad did."

Then she got a job doing nursing training, and that seemed to really calm her down. And when I got married in 1981, when she was 17 or 18, Jackie didn't seem to have any problems with him.

I couldn't understand how she didn't know I loved her. Why would I have put up with all the tantrums and beatings if I hadn't? I didn't treat her any differently from the other children. She dotes on me now, and I know she regrets the past. She even let me choose Aaron's name: Aaron, after Elvis Presley.

Hard at work

Susan Cochran, 39, is divorced with two young daughters. She has won a case for wrongful dismissal from her pounds 30,000-a-year job as a marketing executive. She is now pursuing a personal injury claim for psychological damage from her old firm.

I'd been with my company for two years. Good at my job, and I loved the work. I was even told I'd be made marketing director. I couldn't have been happier. Then our sales director was made MD. She was my boss. I truly believed we would make a good team. I couldn't have been more wrong.

From the minute she became MD, she wouldn't meet with me - even though her office was just a few feet away. At first, I didn't worry because I thought she was busy. But then we both had to go to London for a meeting. When we were on the train, we talked only of business, nothing out of the ordinary, all very civilised. But as we arrived, she suddenly said, "If you ever do anything without my permission or authority, you'll be out of a job." I was shocked into silence.

A couple of weeks later, at another meeting, things got worse. In her briefing, she mentioned the work of every member of her team except me. Then another colleague was due to give his speech, and he stood up and presented my work. I was left with nothing to say.

On the way home, a senior colleague told me I should allow her time to settle in and not worry. But it was one thing after another. First, I discovered she'd asked another colleague in another department to duplicate a project I'd been set to work on. Then, when no one was around, she said some people were simply not successful because of the way they looked and that I was too small, that people were not interested in what I had to say.

The situation began to affect my health. I found myself suffering from throat infections and flu, and had trouble sleeping. I became completely obsessed with work. I felt she was trying to show me up. But I wasn't going to let her. I'd take work home and often work all through the night, then go into work the next day without having been to bed.

When my youngest wanted to go roller-skating on a Saturday, just for an hour, I felt I didn't even have an hour to spare. I'd come home and rant and rave and cry, off-loading it all onto the girls. I still feel guilty and tearful when I think back.

And the attacks about my appearance affected my confidence. I started to avoid social events, lost my ability to communicate. I thought that, if she thought I was so ugly and stupid, then others must, too. I'd have a sentence in my head and it would come out as a burble.

Some people might wonder how I let it get to me, or ask why I didn't just quit. I think it was because I was overworked and exhausted. And, as a single mother, I was frantic not to lose my job. I had nightmares over how the mortgage would be paid if I was sacked. I was trapped. Personnel tried to mediate, but my boss had me officially disciplined, saying I'd been uncooperative and accusing me of inability to do my job.

After six months, I was at the end of my tether. One day, I heard my boss say to a colleague, "Hopefully, we'll only have to have one more day of her." I became so stressed and exhausted I could no longer work. The doctor signed me off sick for six weeks, and during that time the firm sacked me.

I decided to fight, and I've won my case for unfair and wrongful dismissal. The company settled out of court, paying me nearly pounds 20,000. I've now got another job, but I'm still seeing a counsellor.

I've spent hours and hours trying to understand why my boss singled me out. The only thing I can come up with is that I was good at my job, well-qualified, and that she saw me as some sort of threat. I wasn't.

Helplines and contacts

The Anti Bullying Campaign: 0171 378 1446

Kidscape 0171-730 3300. The First Step Centre helps victims of abuse, including parents abused by their own children. 0171 267 1917. For a fact sheet about workplace bullying, write to: The Andrea Adams Trust, Shalimar House, 24 Derek Avenue, Hove, East Sussex BN3 4PF