Sunday 23 October 2016

'My daughter was bullied for three years and I had no clue'

Published 03/05/2016 | 02:30

'Sometimes children are afraid that if they tell their parents about bullying, their parents will be upset with them or will be critical of them'
'Sometimes children are afraid that if they tell their parents about bullying, their parents will be upset with them or will be critical of them'
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Advice from parenting expert David Coleman on how to deal with the aftermath of bullying and on whether it is right not to ever let a child watch television.

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Question: My 10-year-old daughter has been bullied for the last three years in school. We've only just found out following a meeting with her teacher and principal. I am distraught. The school discovered the bullying and say they have taken steps to stop it. But really, I just want to know why didn't my daughter tell us directly? We had no idea this was going on. I feel like I have really let her down. How did we miss all the signs and why didn't she tell before now? I also want to know what to do, as I don't want to mess things up now that we know.

David replies: I can only imagine what a shock it must be to have heard that your daughter has been bullied for the last three years. It is very upsetting to think that she must have been holding the hurt and distress to herself all this time.

It is important, though, that you don't let yourself fall into guilt and recrimination that you were blind to it until now. There are many reasons why children choose not to tell us that they are being bullied. Sometimes it is related to the nature of the bullying and sometimes not.

You don't describe the nature of the bullying, but it probably fell into one of two likely categories, teasing/mocking or exclusion or a mix of both.

Often the most significant, and common, reason that many children keep their experiences of bullying to themselves is because they are afraid that if they tell, the bullying will get worse.

Sometimes this can be part of the threat of the bully. Sometimes it is just the belief that exists, among children, while in the state of powerlessness they feel.

Sometimes children just don't see the point in telling if they have decided, for themselves, that no adult (neither a teacher nor parent) can help them anyway.

Sometimes children are afraid that if they tell their parents, their parents will be upset with them or will be critical of them. Perhaps such children fear that their parents will be cross that they are not 'standing up for themselves'.

In such situations a child may feel that it is better to try to cope alone rather than suffer the additional burden of disappointing their parents too.

A further reason for not telling, is that children do hold a belief that their parents automatically know what they are thinking and feeling. Sometimes they don't tell us things because they think we must already know or understand.

Naturally, this kind of thinking can lead to real disappointment and frustration, within children, because we don't seem to respond to their needs, even though they haven't actually communicated them to us. It is as if we are expected to be mind-readers!

Irrespective of the reason why your daughter didn't tell you, the most important thing now, as you recognise, is to engage with her about her experiences. Your goal now is to be as warm, understanding and supportive as you can.

Work hard not to appear critical or judgemental about the reasons why she didn't tell you. If it helps to try to understand this then do pursue it, gently, but be careful that you don't seek out her reasons for not telling just to apportion blame (to her or yourself).

Follow up with the school to ensure that, whatever the nature of the bullying, they are, in fact, now dealing with it. Now that your daughter has taken the step of telling, it is critical that the adults do step in to make sure the bullying stops.

Assuming that it does stop, your other task is to be alert to your daughter's self-esteem and to support it.

Depending on the nature of the bullying, it can significantly impact on a child's sense of being lovable (exclusion or isolation, for example, give a strong message to a child that other children don't like or want them). If they are being slagged or mocked then the bullying may have attacked their sense of being capable (if, for example, they are told that they are useless/clumsy/slow etc.)

If your daughter's self-esteem has taken a knock then you can help to rebuild it, once the bullying has stopped. It may be a slow process, but time, and feeling included and safe among her peers, should help her to regain her sense of self.

My sister insists we turn off the TV when her son  visits as she doesn't allow him to watch it. Is she right?

Question: My nephew, who is six, is not allowed to watch television. He regularly spends time in our house, with my sister, where no such rule exists for my kids (that said they aren't allowed to watch too much). My sister insists that we turn off the TV when she visits as otherwise she has to keep her son in the kitchen with me and her. Should I be enforcing a 'no TV' rule when he's over? Part of me thinks my sister is being a bit unreasonable, but her son always looks miserable so I do, usually, tell my kids to switch off the TV and play when he is here.

David replies: My short answer is 'no', you should not be enforcing a 'no TV' rule when he comes to visit. In many ways, this is an ironic answer for me to give, since I do, usually, encourage parents to reduce or limit their children's screentime.

However, the issue here, for me, is not the TV watching per se, but rather it is about whether we can make our own rules in our own house. I am a strong believer that we can and should. I also believe that it is okay to hold other people's children to our rules if they are in our house.

Consequently, I think it is completely up to you to decide on what, or how much, TV gets viewed in your house. Presumably, since you do comment that your own children aren't allowed to watch 'too much' TV, you and your husband are making a conscious decision about what those TV limits are.

Your sister and her husband have also, it seems, made a clear decision for themselves about what they believe to be right and healthy. But, to my mind, it is only fair that their decision be imposed in their own house.

Perhaps it is my own frustration with her, apparently, dogmatic approach to parenting that leads me to feel less warm towards her and her probable desire to simply do the best by her son.

Indeed, I think it is the way that you describe your sister "insisting" that you turn off your TV just to facilitate her parenting choices that annoys me. It seems like she is being both selfish and intolerant.

That said, I wonder if you have spoken with her about the issue? Do you ever challenge her insistence? Do you try to argue for your own right to make your own choices in your own house? Has your sister ever just asked you to turn off the TV rather than insisting? If so, how have those discussions gone? I could imagine that a robust debate about the issue of TV watching could be a very good thing. Perhaps your sister needs to become more pragmatic and accepting of the reality that she can't control every environment that her son is exposed to.

Perhaps you need to rethink your own family TV habits? Maybe your own children are watching more TV than you are conscious of. Perhaps they do indeed need some more limits to balance things out?

But the other issue for you and your sister to consider is the impact on the children when their relatives come over. If, for example, you were to impose a 'no TV' rule to satisfy the desire of your sister, then it might turn out to be a rule that causes unnecessary friction between your nephew and your children who may blame him for being denied any TV when he comes to visit. Under those circumstances I'd guess it wouldn't take long for your nephew to become an unpopular visitor.

From your nephew's perspective, I could imagine that part of the treat of coming to see his cousins, is the chance to watch some TV. While you'd hope that isn't all he likes about visiting, he may be very disappointed on the days when you accede to his mother's demands.

Either way, though, I still come back to my basic premise, which is that as adults, we get to choose what rules apply in our own homes. If others don't like them they can choose not to visit.

I wonder, if you were assertive with your sister, hearing her argument, but still determined that you will let the children watch whatever normal amount of TV you choose, what she would decide to do? I wonder would she like it or lump it?

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