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The process of ‘growing up’ is something that we often remember as being incredibly awkward and a sometimes confusing journey to be on. So, it goes without saying that the same applies to our own children, who are themselves now trying to find their own way in this world and where they fit in their own social circles.

Kids are constantly experimenting and developing new friendships. But it’s at a school age that this whole process is turned up a notch. As they are socially finding their feet, there is always going to be an obstacle in the road that, as parents, we motivate, commiserate and guide them through. However, when this obstacle turns out to be bullying, that can really move things up a gear with emotions running hot.

It’s a serious issue because bullying can cause your child to suddenly feel scared and vulnerable. They’ll be ‘out of sorts’ for no obvious reason and it can cause your child to change their behaviour and their mood. Hopefully you’ll be able to spot the signs that something isn’t right, and they will look to you as the parent for support and a solution. How you approach this issue can impact how the child goes on to understand and manage relationships they forge in the future.

The face-to-face bully

Being bullied is an experience that we all may have been through at one time or another in our childhood; don’t forget it’s still a very real and distressing issue in adult lives for some. We know the effects of bullying can be widespread and long-lasting. And, if for us ‘grown-ups’ it can be a struggle, imagine how tough and challenging it can be for our young ones.

In its rawest, brutal form, bullying is categorised as ‘the infliction of physical and/or psychological harm onto another individual, causing them great suffering in the process’. It does not discriminate as to where or how it happens either, it appears to simply grow from one person’s poor treatment of another – this is simplistic I know, but if everyone just ‘got-on’ then bullies wouldn’t flourish, but naturally this can’t happen in real life. And so, it does mean your child could be being bullied at school, at an extra-curricular club or even by their close friend who they’ve known for years. It’s important to note however, that before jumping into the bullying problem you should establish properly what is going on – whether your child is being bullied or maybe has just been caught up in an argument – bullying is one-sided and it’s targeted, rather than being a clash between friends.

Both physical bullying and emotional bullying can leave children acting in a ‘certain way’ that seems unusual and different from their normal character. Your child may be a grade A student and a high achiever. There’s evidence that being bullied can cause them to lose sight and focus of the benefits of working hard, and could lead to academic self-sabotage; choosing to give up on aiming for good grades and educational status. If you notice a marked dip in standards, alongside other tell-tale signs such as anger, tantrums or being withdrawn with low self-confidence, it’s vital to take note and monitor the situation closely. It’s always best to inform and work with all professional out-of-home establishments, if possible, as sharing your concerns can help them keep an eye on your child when you can’t – being aware of what’s going on hopefully allows all concerned to ‘nip it in-the-bud’ before things escalate.

The important thing with any potential bullying issue is to not throw yourself instantly into the situation and blow it out of all proportion – although your first instinct as a parent is to protect your child from harm at any cost. A measured approach will always give you more options in the long run. Aim to guide your child rather than grab control. Allow them the room to make their own decisions about the situation too. Allow them time to speak and as your child gradually opens up about the situation, you can begin to formulate a plan. Once they’ve been heard and they know something can be done, they’ll begin to feel better.

There are a number of coping mechanisms to give your child some extra confidence. It may be giving a diary to write down things that happen or how they feel, or a simple technique to stay calm and collected when faced with a scary situation. Teaching them to take deep breath, step away from the bully, and state an adult has given them the control and power over the situation, in turn gives them the freedom to make choices and changes about their own personal space; this will start to create an environment for self-confidence to grow.

The hidden face of the cyberbully

We know bullying is nothing new, but what if it’s taken on a new face now, a new guise, something we just can’t come to terms with. Previously, as parents, we could learn, understand, and work to deal with the issue of child-on-child bullying. But now it’s important to realise that it does not just occur in the playground. It’s moved on, evolved. Today’s technological revolution and the growth of social media has created a simple and direct channel for a child to be bullied.

Twenty-first century bullying is now regularly associated with ‘cyberbullying’, where a child is emotionally hurt through messages and cruel posts online. This is a common problem now, as social media has now become a vital part of many a young person’s relationships – naturally, it can help your child gain and keep greater ties and friendships across the world. I am not ‘anti’ social media; I’m against it being used in an anti-social way because it can have dire consequences.

This is the first time we can’t leave the stresses of bullying behind; it can now follow your child wherever they may be even when they shut their own door at home. It’s a persistent and relentless form of bullying that can make your child feel vulnerable even in their own personal places, causing them to feel scared when they should be at their very safest – it can feel like there’s no hiding place from the cyberbully.

Facing up to cyberbullying

As children grow up, their desire for privacy at home and with friends can increase. The same applies in their virtual world and to their use of technology and social media. Have you noticed they have a constant and almost obsessive vice-like-grip on their phones or tablet? You may also notice that a child may seem irritable and closed-off in some way, certainly more than usual. This could be the first sign that something may be wrong. Try to monitor their use of technology over a period of a few days, take note of when they are repeatedly picking up and checking their phone, for example. Also judge their response to what they are seeing onscreen, a muted or ashen expression can say a lot to a parent. Instead of questioning them outright about cyberbullying concerns, it’s best to be subtle and discreet.

If their device use is becoming excessive and you’ve noticed other unusual signs such as a new lack of confidence, or lower interest levels in what they usually enjoy, that could be the time to approach and offer support and guidance.

Avoid an overreaction by taking away their technology completely; this not only serves to give them the impression they are in the wrong but further penalises them by removing something important to them.

Instead, try doing something they enjoy, such as crafts, or sports, and steer the conversation towards your concerns – not as a disciplinarian but as a source of help and understanding.

By allowing them to feel at ease, they will also feel they can open up more about the situation – don’t cajole them for answers but offer them the space to talk.

It’s important when it comes to your concerns about cyberbullying to take things slowly, with the awareness to be able to step in more readily if things do escalate.

Social media has become a part of normal life; instead of portraying it to your child as something to be afraid of, you should teach them the pitfalls, how to use it wisely and what you expect of them.

Face the future

If left unchecked, bullying can definitely be a major issue for a young person. It could undermine a pivotal moment in their understanding of social groups and their place within them. But, with the right support from you, relatives, friends and professional stake-holders, they may be able to process their experiences and reflect on them later in life. The more we know about people, the greater our understanding of ourselves. And when you understand you can get things changed. Always keep the conversation going with your kids and remain open to discussing their issues, concerns or fears. Look out for the tell-tale signs, be ready to take that extra step to ensure your child is bully-free – never forget that solid communication is always the key.

Russell Hemmings is a life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and author of The Mind Diet and Active Positive Parenting. Contact Russell on 055 286 7275 or russellhemmings.co.uk