`I'm too scared to go to school today'

Home Help: No.7 Friends And Bullies; In the last of a series showing parents how to help their children at school, we look at the problem of bullying.
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If your child comes home from school moody or tearful, the likelihood is that something has gone wrong with his or her friends. Secure, enjoyable friendships are a prime force in children's readiness to go to school every day. If a child has difficulty making friends, falls out with existing friends, or is being teased or intimidated, school quickly becomes an undesirable place to be.

Some children will be happy to have one or two special friends, or to be part of a close-knit group, while others thrive on being friends with everybody. But when friendships break apart, children can feel isolated, lacking in confidence, and powerless to do anything about it. They will be reassured, however, to hear from their parents that they, too, have experienced friendships that did not stay the course, and that when it has happened they have moved on and made new friends.

The small ways in which children hurt each other - such as the girl at school disliking another child's blue jumper - may seem trivial in adult eyes. But whatever the issue, parents must take it seriously, listen to the child's account and acknowledge the distress caused.

If your child feels that others are excluding her, it will not help to say, "you don't need people like that as friends", since these are the children she wants to be with. Equally, if someone at school has been unpleasant, don't rush in with a judgement on your child: "I wonder what you did to provoke that?"

What children need most from their parents is acknowledgement, support and reassurance that a difficult situation can be put right. Parents may then be able to help children look at why another child is behaving in a hurtful way. This depersonalises the situation, so that your child feels less picked on.

Parents can then encourage children to find practical strategies for coping - such as saying "no" to a bullying child and walking away; trying not to look frightened; staying with a group where possible. When a child is feeling vulnerable, parents also need to boost their self-confidence. The charity Kidscape (0171-730 3300; www.kidscape.org.uk/kidscape) has useful leaflets on bullying problems.

Schools have become more sensitive to different forms of bullying in the last decade, and better at responding. If you believe that your child is being bullied, it is vital to enlist the support of the teacher (or, in a secondary school, the head of year), and to resist the temptation to tackle the bully or his or her parents yourself. Also, get your child's agreement before approaching a teacher. A teacher may then talk to the other children and parents involved; they may, in primary schools, introduce the topic of bullying for discussion in "circle time" sessions; or, with older children, secure the support of the peer group in putting a stop to offensive behaviour.

If the school fails to respond adequately, parents should ask to see the school's anti-bullying policy, and perhaps complain to the governing body. Beyond this, parents may need to approach the local authority, or seek help from a child guidance centre.

If you discover that it is your child doing the bullying, try to stay calm, rather than becoming angry or defensive. Talk to teachers and playground supervisors; talk to your child to find out whether something is troubling them, and help them find ways of changing their behaviour and making amends for the bullying. Set goals - with rewards when these are met; praise them whenever you can; reassure them that you still love them.

Primary school children

Children often chop and change in their early friendships, but even one that is short-lived will be a serious matter to them. Try to keep up to date with who the child's friends are. If a child has problems making or keeping friends, get them to think about the qualities they are looking for in a friend, and to consider how they themselves might come across. Unobtrusive observation of your child playing with others may give some insights - are they, for instance, overly bossy, or quick to take offence? Role-play games, with you as the friend, can help.

Secondary school children

Parents are not always approving of their children's friends, particularly as they enter adolescence. But if your child seems to be getting in with a bad crowd, ask yourself what the attraction is. Maybe they've settled for one group because they feel excluded from another that they would prefer.

Teenagers drop friendships much less readily than younger children, and when things do break up, they feel more fraught. Stay in touch with what is going on; teenagers need the freedom to experiment and get things wrong, but they also need the boundaries adults provide. Sometimes the more they push you away, the more they need you. And when an important friendship fails, maintain their self-esteem by inviting someone else round instead.

This is the last in the Home Help series which has also covered homework, music practice, reading, writing, grammar, spelling and maths. For reprints, call 0171-510 6176. Next week we look at how individual families have helped their children do better