Sunday 19 August 2018

'One girl would actually ‘moo’ every time I passed her in the corridors' - mum-of-one on being bullied

They say your school days are the best days of your life, but for those who fall victim to bullying, it can be a nightmarish time that can have painful repercussions well into adulthood. Denise Smith talks to psychotherapist Stella O'Malley about how to cope when your child is being targeted.

Sarah Tyrrell, from Blackrock in Co Louth, was bullied in school. Photo: Fran Caffrey
Sarah Tyrrell, from Blackrock in Co Louth, was bullied in school. Photo: Fran Caffrey

Denise Smith

Not everyone enjoys care-free school days, for some children, their entire schooling experience can be plagued with adversity and conflict. For many, classrooms and school corridors can resemble an active war zone where they become accustomed to daily slurs and the threat of physical abuse.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley author of the ground-breaking new book, Bully-Proof Kids: Practical Tools to Help Your Child to Grow Up Confident, Assertive and Strong, explains how parents can help their children break the cycle.

“The child who has been bullied often feels deep down that they have been viewed, judged and then branded as not good enough and their trust in other people’s goodness is destroyed,” explains the public speaker and mum-of-two. “Each little kid who has been bullied thinks that this is their individual failure and they usually blame themselves.

“They may feel relieved and even vindicated 20 years later when they discover that it wasn’t their fault, nor were they alone in their experience, but the anguish of being abandoned and humiliated by their peers at a crucial stage of development often leaves many long-term scars.”

The celebrated author explains that the long-term impacts of bullying are varied and many.

“Feelings of inadequacy can follow people until they are 60 or 70. That self-loathing is the defining marker of someone who has been bullied. It is extremely damaging and can lead to addiction and depression.”

But why are certain children targeted in the first place?

“People who are targeted by bullies are often different, they are often gentle and stoical and some of them have no particular desire to be in the limelight. Added to this, they are often insecure about themselves.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Stella explains, “Bullies are often arrogant, hyper-competitive, quick to anger, incompetent at handling conflict and power-crazy. All too often, the targets are often much kinder people than bullies.”

Despite what parents may believe, bullying is not a unique phenomenon.

It is estimated that approximately 10pc-15pc of any given group of children repeatedly bully others while approximately 10pc-15pc of children are repeatedly targeted by bullies.

So what can parents do when they realise their child is being targeted?

“One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make when their child confides in them is promising a quick-fix. Assuring the child that they are going to solve the problem immediately is misleading because it will take time.

“It is unfair to the child to say ‘I am going to go see Mrs O’Connor and this will all be dealt with’, rather than explaining to the child, ‘This is a bomb, it has landed into our house and like a mental-health issue, it will take time. There will be problems when we try to fix it. It will require a lot of effort and there will be relapses, but we will fix it’.

“In primary school, the teacher wields a lot of power, but in secondary, school children have a different teacher every 45 minutes — it’s dismissive, and it’s magical thinking to think that a teacher will be able to resolve the issue completely. They cannot see everything. Everyone needs to involve themselves.”

Recognising if your child is vulnerable is key to protecting them from being victimised, adds the expert.

“If your child is gentle and passive, explain to them that there is power in their gentleness but someone may try to take advantage of that.

“It’s also important for your child to note who are the upstanders and who are the bystanders — who will stand up for them in their class?

“There will always be one or two kids who will stand up for a child who is being bullied. Ask the teachers in the school who these children are. Simple things like joining the parent committee and initiating anti-bullying programmes can also be hugely effective.”

The counsellor also explains the importance of gathering information.

“Parents need to chat subtly, sensitively and comprehensively with their child, with their children’s friends, with their children’s friends’ parents and with relevant teachers so as to ascertain the whole picture. It can also be helpful to chat with an aunt or someone who has known your child for a long time, so that they can add an objective perspective. 

“Dismissing the bullies as ‘pure evil’ is rarely helpful, nor is deciding that it is a simple case of racism or homophobia or jealousy, etc.

“There are usually other issues that need to be addressed, such as the school environment, the bully’s personality, the bystander effect and a culture of bullying. 

“Ask your child important questions: when did it first happen; why did it first happen; why did the bullying/teasing/hostility/behaviour continue after the first incident; who are the bystanders; are there any teacher who might be more helpful than others?’ 

“If your child is being bullied online, then the online environment needs to be analysed just as thoroughly as the school yard. This means that your child needs to open up about their online activities, so that you can help them explore the dynamics. 

“The most important thing for targets and parents of targets to do is to understand the bullying dynamic.

“The target needs to understand the bully’s motivations, weaknesses and strengths. If they can’t, in any way, fathom what is going on, then it is imperative for them to seek some support from counselling or friends so they can better understand the situation.”

For mum-of-one Sarah Tyrrell, her school days were blighted with emotional and psychological abuse which was so extreme, she contemplated suicide.

“My first memory of being labelled as ‘fat’ was when a boy in my class in primary school started shouting ‘Sarah’s a fat cow’ from the sideline of the pitch I was playing Gaelic football on. It sounds innocent enough, but 11-year-old me was mortified.

“In secondary school, not much changed. There was one girl who would actually ‘moo’ every time I passed her in the corridors,” says the Dundalk native.

“Most of the time, I’d respond by staying quiet and getting away from whichever bully it was, trying my best to escape before the tears started falling. But sometimes I’d lash out and scream profanity at them, only making them laugh even harder and getting me in trouble with teachers while the bully slunk off.

“It was incredibly painful, especially because what they were saying was true. I didn’t really see it as bullying at the time, because by the time I got to secondary school, my self-esteem had plummeted so low that I believed I deserved it. That’s why I never told my parents. I was fat, and to me, that meant worthless. I felt like it was my own fault for being fat. I even tried to be bulimic several times over the years, but my gag reflex wasn’t strong enough.

 “Those years had a really profound effect on me into my adult life. Throughout my 20s, the little self-worth I did have diminished more and more. Eventually, around Christmas 2015, I started to have suicidal thoughts, believing that the people I loved would be better off without me, including my five-year-old daughter.

“Thankfully, I got myself to the doctor, onto medication and into counselling. That was 18 months ago. Now, I’m off my antidepressants for over a year, finished with counselling and happier than I’ve ever been.”

The body-positive advocate set up her website (sarahtyrrell.com) to empower other women and teach self-love.

“Funnily enough, most of the people who bullied me as a kid now follow my Instagram account, and some of them have gotten in touch with me and apologised for the damage they caused. I found that touching. It’s not easy for any of us to admit to being in the wrong.

“And you know what, we’re all products of our environment, right? So if children are taught in their homes by their parents that our value as people is linked with the number on the scales, then of course they’re going to project that in the way they treat others.

“I think as parents, we need to work harder on teaching our children empathy and compassion. We need to teach body acceptance too, so that people of different shapes and sizes aren’t just seen as walking targets anymore. After all, why does being fat make anyone any less deserving of basic respect? It doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t. This is something I’m working hard to teach my daughter. I want her to know that her value as a human being is completely unrelated to what she looks like, no matter what anyone says.

“As a parent, I worry a lot about Rosie being bullied, of course I do. Maybe she’ll be bullied for having acne, or braces, or weird hair, or whatever. It’s impossible to protect children from that. It’s the world we live in. I think all that we can do is concentrate on building their sense of self worth,  so that it’s strong enough to withstand bullying.

Bully-Proof Kids: Practical Tools to Help Your Child to Grow Up Confident, Assertive and Strong by Stella O’Malley — published by Gill (€11.24) — is available now

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