Ask the expert: My son was bullied for a year before we knew
The other boy has left the school but our son still suffers from anxiety about going to school
Children who have experienced a trauma may not share all their feelings initially and will need to return to talk about it at various points. Photograph: Thinkstock
Q: Our 11-year-old son was bullied in school for over a year and it has affected him badly. Unfortunately, he was too scared to tell us but we found out eventually from his school. The bullying happened when my son was in fourth class. The other child was older, in sixth class, and is no longer in the school.
Though it has been over a year since it happened my son still suffers from anxiety about going to school. We talk things over with him and reassure him as best we can but he still suffers from low confidence and anxiety. We have been taking him to play therapy over the past few months. It is very upsetting to see him still anxious about going to school.
Do you have any suggestions as to how we can help him?
I think your question highlights the damaging effects that bullying can have on children and young people and how it can take a long time to recover and move on. It can be particularly hard for children, like your son, who suffer the bullying in silence for an extended period.
The fact that they are scared to tell anyone and are cut off from getting support adds to the negative impact. This often leaves them with an inappropriate sense that they were somehow at fault. That the child who did the bullying has left the school can be a relief, but it can also add to a sense of lack of closure, particularly if there was no opportunity to address what happened and for justice to be served.
While experiencing bullying can often dent a child’s confidence, there is a lot you can do to help them cope though it can take time and patience, and progress can be made only at your son’s pace.
Listening and acknowledging
It is vital that you keep the lines of communication open between you and your son, so he does not feel he has to hide any of his feelings from you and knows you are prepared to listen. Follow his pace in terms of when and how he wants to talk about what happened. Frequently, children who have experienced a trauma may not share all their feelings initially and will need to return to talk about it at various points in the future.
Continuing to listen and being empathic and reassuring is very important. Normalise what he is experiencing – “after what happened, lots of children would feel like you” – and express a positive belief about going forward – “don’t worry, we will sort it all out together”.
Play therapy can provide a helpful space for children to work out their upsets. Make sure you communicate closely with the therapist about your concerns so you are all working together to help your son.
When he says he is anxious about going to school, try to get him to specify what he is worried about. For example, if he says he is worried that the bullying will happen again, invite him to think this through by asking him gentle questions: What could he do next time if something similar happens? Who could he get support from? What is different now that makes it unlikely to happen?
The goal is to get him to move from his anxiety to identifying an action plan he could take in a similar situation. It is also useful to remind him of the resources he now has access to: he knows you will listen, the school are on board to help him, and so on.
Invite him to challenge his worries
Sometimes after a trauma a child is left with a more general lack of confidence that is not linked to a specific worry. This might leave him less trusting or more vigilant in a way that is holding him back. In these situations, it is important to address this directly and invite your child to challenge this.
For example, you might first acknowledge this – “You have been through a nasty experience that wasn’t your fault, and which has understandably dented your confidence”. Then you might invite him to think differently: “But don’t let what has happened hold you back . . . You can choose to move on from this . . . How can we help you?”
Gently ask him questions that focus him on moving forward and putting the lack of confidence in the past: How can you move on from this? What way do you want to be? What can you learn from what has happened? What would you say to help a friend who was upset like you?
In my own clinical practice, I found it useful to ask children who have been through a trauma or bullying to tell their story in a way that might help others.
They might make pictures and/or write down what happened in a way that also describes how they coped and which includes advice or tips for other children who might be dealing with a similar situation. This can be very therapeutic and liberating.
Work on positive goals
While you are supportive and reassuring when he raises worries or talks about the bullying, you don’t want to make this a defining feature of his life. Focus on developing other passions, talents and interests in his life that
will naturally build his confidence and help him move on. For example, what sports is he interested in? What friendships does he have that are good in his life? What hobbies or learning projects could he take up that could help?
As he engages in projects he enjoys, which use his talents and allow him to develop friendships, his confidence will grow.
Work closely with his school
As the bullying happened in the school, his teacher and and principal have a special responsibility to support your son and to explore ways to build his confidence. Work closely with them to explore options.
They might be able to provide him with individual time on special confidence- building projects and/or do whole class inputs that help the class work well together.
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Dr John Sharry is a mental health professional and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. His new book, Bringing up Happy, Confident Children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional well-being, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie for details