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Padraig O'Morain: Phoebe tragedy must alert us to problem

Bullying matters. Children bullied at school can have their confidence badly shaken in their formative years. Their risk of depression increases. Their performance at school suffers.

Although child suicide as a result of bullying is unusual in Ireland, readers will have heard of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who moved from Clare to Massachusetts last year and who committed suicide in January because of school bullies.

Bullying must be taken seriously by schools and parents, but what can parents do if a child is bullied?

First, listen to your child. Suppress your natural anger long enough to hear what your child is saying. Second, give your child techniques for dealing with the bullies.

The following advice, from the Mayo Clinic in the US, strikes me as sound:

"Don't promote retaliation or fighting back against a bully. Instead, encourage your child to maintain his or her composure. He or she might say, 'I want you to stop now,' and then simply walk away. Suggest sticking with a friend or group of friends while on the bus, in the cafeteria or wherever the bullying seems to happen. Remind your child that he or she can ask teachers or other school officials for help."

Good advice, but if bullying persists, you need to talk to your child's teacher or the school principal. Make a note of times and dates of incidents and the names of those involved. If the school does nothing, keep going back.

Safeguard

If that doesn't work, consider a change of schools. In the real world, whether in school or the workplace, bullies sometimes win, and getting out of there may be necessary to safeguard physical and mental health.

To go back to that advice from the Mayo Clinic: Saying 'I want you to stop now' and walking away may not seem like a very robust response to a bully but it has a lot going for it'.

It means the child is taking charge of his or her own response to the taunts and threats. That is very important for the student's confidence.

Finally, remember that bullying is now often conducted via text, Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. The really scary thing is that very often children don't tell their parents about bullying.

For that reason, school programmes that create an anti-bullying culture must be encouraged by all of us.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy


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