My 10-year-old has been bullied for two years by a girl in her class
She calls my daughter ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’ and ‘a cheat’ but the school principal has dismissed my concerns
“Bullying such as name-calling and put-downs can be hurtful to children and unfortunately damage children’s self-esteem over time when it is not addressed.” Photograph: iStock
Question: My 10-year-old has been bullied on an ongoing basis for more than two years by a girl in her class. I’m not sure how it started, but this girl singles her out for mean comments at yard time such as “you’re ugly” or “you’re stupid”, which really upsets my daughter, as you can imagine.
For example, the other day at lunchtime my daughter was two or three words into telling some news to a group of girls when this girl just says out loud, “who cares?” into her face, which just results in my daughter feeling so insignificant, inconsequential and worthless.
Other kids in the class seem to pretend not to see or hear these things, or provide objective witness . . . a few of them have apologised privately to my daughter from time to time, saying that if they said anything, they would end up receiving the same treatment.
The other girl makes negative comments about my daughter’s school work. For example, when she did a painting as part of a project, the other girl kept telling everyone “she had cheated” because her artwork was good. I have spoken at length with her teachers (three in total) about the situation over the two years. They have tried to monitor things and keep the girls apart, but as things usually happen at lunchtime, and routes to and from the classroom, it has never fully stopped.
I have escalated things and talked to the principal and she has dismissed my concerns as simply “two girls not getting on”. She did contact the other parent, who I understand was defensive and blamed my daughter somehow. What bothers me is the impact of the bullying and mean comments on my daughter – it is clearly affecting her self-esteem. She was worried of doing too well in her art in case the other girl would attack her, she is often anxious going into school and ruminates about the comments the other girl makes.
I would love to get her to a situation where she does not take these comments to heart. I tell her to just ignore the other girl and to walk away but this is not working as she keeps doing it and my daughter is so upset at home. What is the best way to help her respond and be more resilient? Is there anything more I can do with the school?
Answer: Your question highlights how relationship bullying such as name-calling and put-downs can be hurtful to children and unfortunately damage children’s self-esteem over time when it is not addressed. Sometimes, the put-downs can be very subtle and hard to pinpoint and frequently teachers can struggle to intervene effectively to stop the behaviour and to help the children get on.
Unfortunately, escalating complaints about the problems to include parents can sometimes make matters worse. When parents are informed, they can become defensive about their child’s behaviour without exploring their child’s role in the problems. In addition, principals may not have the skills to mediate or to help them move from this position. When children aren’t held to account for their behaviour or taught better communication skills, then unfortunately the behaviour can continue and escalate over time.
Support and listen to your daughter
As you are doing, the most important thing you can do is be there to support and listen to your daughter. It is important that you give her the message that she does not deserve to be treated like this, and that the name-calling and put-downs are not about her but about the other girl’s insecurities and issues. Helping her understand what is going on and putting things into perspective will help.
Explore what she can do to help herself
Think through with your daughter what she can do to help herself manage when any incident happens. While ignoring or walking away can work to a degree, they often can leave a person feeling bad after an incident. Silence can feel like collusion and that you somehow agree with the comments. The key is to help your daughter communicate assertively in these situations, which usually means her saying something assertively back to the other child with good body language and voice tone. Picking what to say requires a bit of thought and depends on each situation. The important thing is to help your daughter come across as assertive and not passive or aggressive. This is, of course, easier said than done and your daughter may need a lot of support to plan and rehearse how she might respond. There are several kids’ assertiveness and confidence classes and workbooks that can help if you search for these online.
Continue to work positively with the school
The school staff have a key role in helping your daughter so it is important that you keep communicating with the teacher and principal about what is happening. Like for your daughter, the goal is to communicate assertively with the school (and not defensively or passively). If the principal says the problem is simply, about the “two girls not getting on”, put it back to her and ask what she can do to help the girls resolve the problems. Explain the negative emotional impact the bullying behaviour is having on your daughter and ask the principal and teacher to come up with a plan to help her. There are lots of things the school can do to help, such as coaching the girls individually to deal with the situation or facilitating them to talk together to resolve things.
For example, there is a great solution-focused model called restorative practice that school staff can use with pupils as a means of addressing conflicts and repairing relationships. In addition, the school can organise whole-class teaching sessions on ‘anti-bullying’, good communication and friendship skills as well as encouraging other children who might be bystanders in the conflict to help. They can also monitor better yard time to avoid these flashpoint incidents.
Build your daughter’s self-esteem
As much as possible, it is important not to let this conflict dominate and to do as much as you can to help your daughter move on and focus on the other good things in her life. Support her other friendships and keep her involved in positive activities that she loves and is good at. This will provide a counterbalance to what she is dealing with in school as well as give her the capacity to cope better.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will deliver a number of parenting workshops on “Helping Children Overcome Anxiety” in Dublin and Cork in January, 2019. See solutiontalk.ie for details