Don't panic! That was one of Aine Lynch's top tips on what to do when your child is being bullied. Easier said than done. But, according to the CEO of the National Parents' Council Primary, which is running anti-bullying training workshops for parents, this is an important thing to remember when you first hear the news.
Our instinct, as parents, is to fix the problem immediately, and we interrogate our child with hundreds of questions. We need all the information we can get in as short a time as possible so we can plough ahead with solving this problem. After all, that's our job, isn't it? To solve problems, and protect our children.
We must fight that urge, says Aine Lynch, and focus on giving our child our full attention. Bullying is a disempowering position to be in, and when a child has told you the news, the last thing they need is for you to go on is a solo crusade; it's important to involve them in any decisions made on dealing with the situation. Sharing their story can also help them put it in perspective and maybe even help solve the issue. "The child has a unique and valuable knowledge of the situation, and is therefore in a better position to suggest what might and might not help", says Lynch, "it's our job as parents to teach and support our child to manage difficult situations in life - if parents take over the situation it is less likely that a child will learn coping skills in life that will help them deal with every difficult turn."
So, what if you've been told that it is your child that is doing the bullying? Don't panic, is the advice again. Listen to your child. Try and establish the cause of the behaviour rather than apportioning blame. "We are talking about children, at the end of the day, who need to learn appropriate behaviour", says Lynch.
"We need to set realistic and firm guidelines and rules to help your child control their behaviour".
Check your own behaviour at home - does it display abusive, cruel or aggressive actions? Children do what they see and experience, and this may be key to their behaviour.
Quite often, children who exhibit bullying behaviour have low self-esteem and it may be a reaction to an insecurity. Sometimes that insecurity may not be obvious to us as parents, and an educational psychologist or a GP could help decipher the underlying issues affecting the child. We often forget that the child who is bullying, also needs support and help. If the underlying causes of his/her behaviour are not addressed, then the chances are they will do it again.
It's vital that parents and the school community work together on addressing bullying. To help foster this cooperation, the Department of Education have issued new guidelines, and every school is required to have an anti-bullying policy. A new definition of bullying has also been issued, and this is crucial to solving any problem. After all, we all need to be talking about the same thing!
So, what is bullying exactly? It is "unwanted negative behaviour - either verbal, psychological or physical - conducted by an individual or group against another person (or persons) and which is repeated over time." The words 'repeated', and 'unwanted' are most important. Contrary to what many of us believe, bullying is not describing how severe something is, it's describing a behaviour. And if it's not repeated behaviour, it's not bullying.
'Parents as teachers' is a recurring theme of Lynch's talk, and preventing bullying is part of our role. It is never too early, we're told, to discuss the issue with our children, but we must do it in an age-appropriate way. She suggests when we are telling our three- or four-year old "to play nicely, and to share their toys", to also mention that those playing with them have to play nicely too! The message has to be balanced, children have a right to be treated fairly and kindly, and they need to be told that. We are also advised to get the message across at an early age that if someone is not being nice to them, they need to tell an adult.
Children with high self-esteem - i.e self-confidence and a strong inner resilience - are generally the children who are not bullied. In other words, a child's initial reaction to an aggressor can quite often dictate whether or not the behaviour is repeated. "The only way that children's self-esteem can grow is by having successes in their lives", says Lynch, "finding ways your child can have positive experiences and engage in relationships and activities that they succeed in will go a long way to building their self-confidence and empowering them". They don't have to win awards either. Telling your child once in a while that you've enjoyed spending time with them can give them a tremendous boost. And that also goes for the child who has been bullied or is being bullied. If they have successes in other areas of their lives - no matter how small - it will work wonders for their self-confidence and help them develop into independent young adults. And that's essentially our aim as parents, isn't it?
Roisin O'Hara is a broadcaster and mother of four