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Bullying can be debilitating, challenging and often hidden. It can make you feel powerless to understand what is happening to you, or to your child. Read more about my own personal story and how it affected me as a mum……
When I was 11 we moved house, not down the road but to a whole different county. Away from my primary school friends I had grown up with, away from everything that was familiar.
I started secondary school knowing no-one, and I remember that first day more vividly than any other, randomly sitting down on an empty stool with a group of girls.
These were the girls I would spend the next 5 years of my school life with – I wish I knew then what I know now.
The girls I hung around with weren’t outwardly nasty and they weren’t physical.
But through my adult eyes I can see now how much they damaged me.
They would belittle, tease and ‘put down’. If you were positive about yourself, you were told you were ‘loving yourself’ and you were laughed at.
They would decide if they would speak to you or not depending on how well you were towing the line, how much you ‘sucked up’ to the ringleader, how much you agreed with her petty, unkind actions.
I didn’t recognise this as bullying, and if I did, where would I go and what would I do?
I felt ‘stuck’ in this security blanket that at the time I called a friendship group and did not really realise that what I thought was ‘being friends’ was actually closeted, powerful and debilitating bullying.
I started dreading going to school, Sunday nights were the worst time for me, I developed an issue with eating, all signs of acute anxiety and trying to cope with these people being my ‘friends’.
Why didn’t I tell my parents? Tell them what? They had as much clue about this stuff as I did, I was their eldest child and they desperately wanted me to be okay, to cope and thrive as we all adjusted to our new lives away from all which had become familiar.
It will not surprise you to know that these girls are no longer my friends, in fact I do not stay in touch with any of the people I met at secondary school, that was my coping mechanism.
I have issues with making friends now, I am quick to think that people don’t like me, or aren’t bothered about spending time with me, a lot of that came from being told I was ‘boring’ by these so called ‘friends’.
I wasn’t tormented or physically hurt but what happened to me really left it’s mark.
Years of analysis, hours of introspection and navel gazing and I now turn it round. These girls gave me my strength, my determination, my independence and my ability to go after what I want without caring what others think, most of the time. I can go to conferences, seminars, on my own and make friends there, I am not bound by other limitations or insecurities, I have learnt to love myself and who I am, not what others wanted me to be, a clone of insecurity and the hatred they were feeling inside.
Then I had children.
And they started school.
Those fears and anxieties came rushing back, especially as my oldest son, Joseph struggled at times to make friendships which resulted in playdates and party invites. The mums at the school gate were reacting in the same way they did during my school days. They were closing ranks and choosing their children’s friendships so that they felt safe, they felt their children were secure, even if these children were not their child’s choice of playmate. It was all breeding from their insecurity. And Joseph was not included.
And it triggered me massively as I watched him struggle to understand why he was excluded from things when he is a loving, kind and generous child.
The reason I know that is because he is so like me in almost every way, and that made me scared for him.
So, when he came home from school at the age of 8 years old and told me that children were calling him names, pulling the chair out from under him, tipping his pencil case on the floor which the teacher just termed ‘silly behaviour’ I knew that this needed to be dealt with, but I also knew I lacked perspective because I was in danger of reliving my own experience through my son and I did not want that.
My husband was a god send during this difficult period, but even he struggled when Joseph asked him to make it better and he couldn’t.
As a parent this was the first time we couldn’t stick a plaster on the problem and make it all go away with a hug and a kiss.
We recognised that we needed to give our son the tools to move through this, and I knew I needed outside support to get me through so I could help him. I was supported by the amazing Jennie Harrison who gave me and Joseph the understanding that we needed and helped protect him when he was at school. She helped me help him lower his stress levels and start to develop some come back to all the silly playground stuff which was going on.
I couldn’t go storming into school to make it okay, but I could challenge an ambivalent teacher’s attitude who did not understand what was happening or how to handle it, and show Joseph that me and my husband were listening, and supporting him.
We know that made a world of difference. We started to move him away from noticing all the challenging stuff in his day to finding the small good things, and celebrating them.
We did not spend our time criticising others, we showed him how amazing he was, kept encouraging, supporting and loving him, we acknowledged what was going on, but it did not define him, or us.
All this time this was happening there was that scared young girl inside me hating every minute, wanting to be that lioness rushing in to protect her cub.
But I knew this would not help him in the long run, and I wanted him to build his own resilience, his own capacity to cope.
I got angry, I got resentful, I still do at times but wow, did my boy come through last year with flying colours.
He has learnt to understand, and protect himself from others nastiness.
He has learnt that it is not about him, it is all about them.
He has the absolute respect of his teachers and class mates for being a loyal, caring and giving boy.
He has learnt to be proud of himself and his sensitivity.
I am so grateful that Joseph experienced this journey at an age where he was still open and expressive and we could show him our capacity to listen and care. To respond in a way which doesn’t belittle others or criticise the system, although in private I would express a few choice words about the children concerned and their parents – I am allowed to have my human moment.
The path to getting through this episode of bullying has not always been plain sailing but my own experience, whilst scaring me to bits when I realised that it was happening to my own child, helped me to realise what I needed to do, not to make a drama but not to take it lightly either, it was a lesson in taking action, respecting where Joseph was at and supporting him through this turbulent time with love and guidance as his parents. And for this experience I thank those girls who bullied me, you really taught me how I didn’t want to be and to be the best parent I can be to my son.