Bullying: 'She was in tears every day'

Bullying is a common problem, but parents can take action to help their children, says Amy McLellan

One mother recalls her horror at finding out her eight-year-old daughter was being bullied at school. "She came home every day in tears. The school seemed to think that this was just part of growing up. It only stopped when we moved her to a new school."

Bullying is a widespread problem in schools. A survey by Childline (www.childline.org.uk) found that half of all primary children and more than one in four secondary pupils had been bullied in the previous year. Last year the charity received more than 31,000 calls from victims of bullying, many of whom had kept it secret from their parents, for fear that they would make it worse, or worry.

Parents need to watch for the warning signs. If your child is anxious about going back to school, have a chat with them, then take a deep breath. Your instincts may be to storm up to the school or, the bully's house, but you need to give your child time to talk. Solutions are likely to involve the school, so get your child's permission to talk to a teacher.

The response from schools can vary. They are required to have an anti-bullying policy and it's worth asking for a copy to make sure they are following their own guidelines, says Liz Carnell of Bullying Online.

The charity's website (www.bullying.co.uk) contains a step-by-step guide for parents on how to approach the school.

"If it's a primary school, ask the teacher if they've spotted anything," says Carnell. "Primary teachers can limit contact with the bully in the classroom or step up supervision in the playground." Secondary school bullying is harder to crack as it's much more difficult for teachers to build up a picture of what's going on.

"Don't let the school brush you off because the bullying happens outside school," says Carnell. "Teachers have the power to act on bullying in the vicinity of the school."

Encourage your child to keep a diary of incidents and save abusive emails or text messages as evidence to put before the school. If your first approach doesn't work, write a letter to the head. If that fails, contact the governors and the LEA.

All of this takes time, during which your child may be going through hell. Speaking to a counsellor, either on the phone or online, can help them cope, as can assertiveness exercises. Never advise your child to hit back, though: it leaves them open to allegations of assault and may escalate the violence.

Hilary Wilce, author of Help Your Child Succeed at School (Piatkus), says short-term solutions can include working out a different route home, picking your child up, or even buying a different pair of trainers.

Try not to let the problem dominate at home. "Find outside interests,so they can make a different friends," says Wilce.

The most important thing is to act. Don't let teachers dismiss your concerns. Wilce says, "You know your child best and if you think there's something wrong there usually is."

It's not just the short-term symptoms of anxiety and poor school work; there are also long-term problems, from self-harm to severe depression.

"Bullying doesn't just stop," says Carnell of Bullying Online. "It doesn't usually get resolved unless children confide in an adult and the adult takes it seriously."

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