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Bullying: Putting the work into having students ‘who are upstanders, not bystanders’

Parental response crucial as ‘it’s about trying to work out a strategy that works for both the parent and the child’

Being the victim of bullying can be isolating and overwhelming — particularly, perhaps, for teenagers. But it can also be extremely difficult for a school, no matter how proactive they are to stamp out bullying, to combat it effectively.

Craig Petrie, principal at East Glendalough School in Co Wicklow, says “it’s really difficult” for schools to manage bullying, “because we often only get an idea that something is going on when something has gone badly wrong.

“Kids will hide it from their parents and even from their good friends for a little bit of time before it comes to the fore. We find it quite hard to trace back — and in particular, I’m talking about phones here — even trying to piece together the screenshots and find the timeline of what has happened is incredibly difficult. It’s very time consuming and sometimes it’s not even possible to do if there’s an anonymous account in there somewhere, or if there’s someone from outside the school involved. It can be very tricky to put things back in their box.

“I think there’s less trust between schools and home. I suppose everybody is much more aware of their rights now — and that’s a good thing … We question loads more things as a society than we used to. And one of them is the authority of the schools to say, ‘that child has been bullied and that child has been the bully’.


“What schools find is there’s so much more pushback now. The level of proof we need is higher and that makes things difficult as well, because there’s a little bit of trepidation about how we go into these conversations with parents.

“When you add in some of the subtle stuff, that a lot people wouldn’t look at and go ‘that’s definitely bullying’. The Andrew Tate stuff, the toxic masculinity, the unpleasant conversation, the jeering or the boorishness that comes with that — I’ve yet to talk to a principal who hasn’t dealt with that in some way at their school. That creates a climate in which the bullying can flourish.”

One of the challenges, sometimes, for the parents of a child who has been bullied is that they have to put their trust in the school. “Ultimately, when they hand over the information to us, we listen to them and we say, ‘we will deal with this as a school’. And they say, ‘how are you going to deal with it’? They don’t quite go as far as saying, ‘I want a head on a stick’, but it’s not a million miles away from it. Because there’s a tremendous need for justice among our young people that’s natural.”

The difficulty is parents “don’t get to know the other side of this. The family of the child who has been bullied can often feel that they’ve been left out of that part of the process, so where we can do the restorative thing, it’s so much better for everyone.”

When it comes to anti-bullying policies, Petrie says “every year we should be casting our eye over the things we’re doing to prevent it happening in the first place … most of the success for us is that you’re not reacting in a crisis but continuing to put the work into having students who are upstanders, not bystanders. That they know what that means. That from the day they set foot in the school in first year, that’s one of the first messages they hear — that we expect you to stand up and tell someone. That bullying isn’t going to be tolerated in our school.

“We’re looking at bringing in an award next year — a good citizen award — for when we catch someone doing something brilliant.” Petrie sees this as an award that might perhaps be given to someone who called out, or stopped bullying, which is not always an easy thing to do during the teen years in particular.

Bullying has a huge impact on teenagers’ “self-worth”, Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, explains. “They immediately get angry, but then they start to question themselves. Especially if it’s happening where there’s a group against you. Or if you’re outnumbered in terms of the people who are picking on you, versus the people who are on your side.

“That’s the biggest danger. When you start to question yourself or start to think there must be something wrong with you, or you deserve it. It’s an erosion of their self-worth, self-belief and self-value over time that’s massively problematic.”

In the absence of teenagers confiding in their parents, the signs of bullying can be difficult to spot, Noctor says. “If they’re very careful around not wanting you to see their phone. If they want to be dropped off away from the school — they don’t want you to observe them with their friends. Some of that’s normal, but they may want to keep you in the dark about what’s going on.

“They’ll oftentimes take it out on their younger siblings or at home be very cranky, very irritable and overly aggressive with siblings — because it’s just a displacement, they’re so frustrated that they take it out on whoever they can. Tummy aches, pains, refusal to go to school, reluctance to go to school, reluctance to go to activities all would be read flags.

“Social media didn’t invent bullying, but it made it much more difficult,” Noctor says “What has changed is the 24-hour pervasive nature of it. There’s no respite, no sanctuary. It has a clannish element to it, where you can get far more of a gallery in the social media context than you could have in real-life situations which inflate the impacts and the incidence of it. But for exclusion, social media has become hugely problematic.”

Traditionally, there would be some major differences between how boys and girls bully, Noctor explains. “Boys are much more public, it’s much more overt. It’s much more about taunting, robust banter, there’s a performative element to it. Whereas girls would be much more covert and it’s much more around exclusion or speaking behind people’s backs. There would be probably a more physical element to the boys’ side and a more psychological, emotional side to the girls, but that’s a bit of a generalisation,” cautions Noctor. “It’s important to point out [that] sometimes boys get bullied by girls and girls get bullied by boys. I think we have this idea that bullying is gender specific, it’s actually not and there’s plenty more boys, I see, being ridiculed by girls in their year, especially in secondary school and they find it very difficult to stand up to that.”

Parental response to bullying is “crucial”, Noctor says. “It’s about trying to work out a strategy that works for both the parent and the child. I think the overly aggressive, ‘I’m going to go into that school and I’ll sort them all out’; children are anxious about that. They don’t want a massive aggressive response and that can sometimes turn them off telling you about it. But saying to them, ‘it’ll pass over, let it go’ and doing nothing about it can be equally problematic. It’s about listening to what they have to say and trying to come up with a plan that works for both. But it’s not about giving up on it. If it’s not fixed, it’s not over.”

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Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family