Beating the bullies: Should parents take matters into their own hands?

This article originally appeared in Sunday Magazine and has been republished here with permission. By Beverley Hadgraft

Her seven-year-old daughter, Sienna*, had been bullied for three years, despite conferences with teachers and the bully’s parents. Now the tormentor had threatened to come to their home in the middle of the night and murder Sienna in her bed.

Annabel made another appointment with the school, telling them: “This needs to stop – my child is near breaking point.” As she walked home after meeting with Sienna’s teacher, she saw her daughter’s nine-year-old bully in the street. Without thinking, she went over to him. “If you speak to my daughter again, if you hurt her, I’m going to cut your heart out with a spoon,” she threatened.

“From that day on, he left Sienna alone,” she says. “It was a horrible thing to say to a child. I don’t know where it came from – I think I heard it in a film. I’d never have committed any sort of violence, but he was a thug and I’d lost belief in the school helping me.”

Bullying in schools

Bullying is endemic in Australia. Dr Ken Rigby, author of Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School, estimates up to 50 percent of Australian kids have been bullied, and as many as one in six experience it each week. Cyberbullying has exacerbated the issue, as have the endless reality TV shows that find ratings soar with every act of aggression.

Many parents expect schools to deal with the problem, but even successful anti-bullying strategies, such as the famous Olweus program, only achieve a 50 percent reduction. And one Canadian study shows the majority of cases don’t even meet the attention of teachers.

While being harassed is dreadful for the child involved, it’s also devastating for their often helpless parents. Annabel is thoughtful, articulate and well-spoken. She admits seeing her daughter tormented was the hardest thing she’s dealt with: “I was at a complete loss as to how to stop it.”

When Sienna, now 15, was bullied again recently, Annabel concluded direct ‘quit it’ action was the only option. “It escalated and became overwhelming,” she says. “When she suffered panic attacks, I called the school.”

Two days later, there was still no response. “I was furious – I can’t remember ever being so angry with anyone.” She marched down to the bus stop to confront the culprit. “I said, ‘I want to tell you how incredibly annoyed I get when people bully my daughter. Sienna has been bullied before and I’ll go to any lengths to protect her. If you touch her again, speak to her or look at her, I’m going to come down on you so hard, you won’t know where to put yourself. Got it?’ He said, ‘Got it’.

“The next day, I asked Sienna, ‘Anything?’ She replied, ‘Nope. He didn’t even look at me.’”

Annabel admits it’s been a learning curve. She was bullied herself at school and initially told Sienna the same things her parents had told her: “Those kids probably have horrible home lives”, “Just ignore them”, “Are you doing something that’s allowing this?”

Teaching children how to cope

Now she believes the best course of action is to empower your child. “It’s important to teach them it’s not acceptable to be bullied,” she says. “Sienna is fine now. If a problem occurs again – now or in the workplace in the future – I think she’ll tackle it directly. She’s learnt it’s rare for bullies to get called on, and when they do, they’re embarrassed.”

Rigby explains bullying can be physical, verbal and indirect – such as deliberately excluding people. Adults who were bullied as kids often have lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression. Indeed, it’s become such an issue that peddling anti-bullying strategies to schools has become a business. However, Wise Mothers: Raising Teenagers in the Social Media Era author, Sally Thibault says many of these strategies require highly skilled teachers to implement them.

Sally has three children, now aged 26, 24 and 18, and all of them have been bullied. At five, her son, David, had rocks thrown at him in the playground. At 15, he was permanently bruised from being punched. Being on the autistic spectrum, David was an easy target.

His mum would lay awake at night and weep for him. “He’d started to accept it was his lot in life,” Sally says. Eventually he told her, “I don’t understand the point of life”.

“That’s when we pulled him out of school,” Sally recalls. “Sometimes schools don’t know what to do – it’s become too hard for them.”

Over the next few years, Sally helped David rebuild his tattered self-esteem and put him through TAFE courses until he found a place at university.

Sally’s eldest daughter was excluded by her peers in Years 9 and 10, with one student slamming a door, hitting her in the face. Sally enrolled her in extracurricular activities to help her develop other groups of friends. When her other daughter was a victim of cyberbullying – classmates spread rumours about her online – Sally helped her to engage the bullies in a conversation, recorded it and took the recording to the school, where they had no choice but to take action.

“There’s a lack of empathy at the end of a keyboard,” Sally explains. “You press ‘send’ and you can’t see the recipient’s emotion.

I was really proud of my youngest; someone made comments about her on Facebook, so she picked up the phone and said, ‘I’m coming around to talk about this’.

“I think all my kids now recognise bullying for what it is: people taking their power away. All three of them are very confident.”

You never forget

But, for some, the pain of being bullied never goes away. Jenna, 19, can’t shake the memories of being harassed at school. As a child, she had a jaw condition that gave her a gummy smile. She was teased about her appearance from the age of eight. “If I looked like you, I’d kill myself,” was a common slur.

“We had to park around the corner from the school for 30 minutes before Jenna would get out of the car,” says Jenna’s mum, Roslyn. “She’d plead with me to take her home. It was heartbreaking for me.”
Driving away, Roslyn was as nervous as her daughter. “If the phone rang, my immediate thought was it would be the school telling me Jenna was sick and had to come home. She wouldn’t be ill; it was just her way out. It was hard for her, but it was also a nightmare for us. The whole family was on edge.”

Things became so bad, continues Roslyn, Jenna had to see a psychologist. “She’d started having panic attacks and anxiety issues, so she was prescribed medication. When you’re told you’re ugly on a daily basis, you lose your self-worth.”

“Every afternoon, I’d sprint outside the school and cry,” Jenna remembers. “I thought I’d be a failure and treated the same way for the rest of my life.”

Roslyn admits she was willing to let her daughter leave school in Year 10 if it would fix the problem, but Jenna was keen to try distance education. If the bullies wouldn’t quit, she’d quit the bullies. The teachers were supportive, and Roslyn was on hand with constant encouragement. As Jenna’s confidence soared, so did her grades. Today she’s studying journalism at university.

As pop icon Lady Gaga – who was teased as a child and called ‘ugly’ – points out in her anti-bullying campaign, bullying is no longer the domain of losers and misfits. It affects everyone, including parents.

National Buddy Day, an initiative to prevent bullying in Australian primary schools, is on June 1. Visit the site here.

How to deal with bullying

1. “Many children won’t admit they’re being bullied. Use your intuition; if there’s something different in their behaviour, investigate further,” says Sally.

2. “Help your child verbalise their emotions. Focus on them, not the bully’s behaviour,” advises Sally. “If they won’t talk to you, ask them to speak to a counsellor or teacher.”

3. “Talk to your kids about any problems they might be having online. Let them know they can report anything mean or block offenders,” says cybermum blogger Alex Merton-McCann.

4. “Discuss the appropriate use of social media and texting,” says Sally. “Teach them not to argue via SMS or online.”

5. “When meeting with the school, make sure all bullying incidents are documented and strategies are developed,” says Sally.