The other day my son told me that he’d been bullied throughout the course of two school years by a couple of boys in his form. It was the first time he had mentioned it and I was totally shocked as I had never had any inkling that anything had been amiss. It seems that the bullying was carried out by two particular boys who have a reputation for bring thoroughly unpleasant. Luckily for my son form time was a short affair and he did not have to endure these boys during lessons or at break times but it was clear that he had been through a terrible ordeal. When I asked him why he’d never said anything he replied that he was afraid things would be made worse, that he would gain a reputation for telling tales, that he would suffer retaliation. I am glad that finally he was able to speak out but I am mortified that it has taken so long to do.
I have failed him, totally and unequivocally. We talk about things in our family, we talk about world events, death, sex, drugs, alcohol, money, morals, ethics. I have tried never to shy away from any topic that has been brought up even if at times I have had to talk separately to older and younger children. So in a home where there is free and open discussion, why oh why was my son unable to talk about being bullied?
But I know that I mustn’t be too hard on myself. There were no signs that anything was wrong: he didn’t stay off school, he wasn’t quiet and withdrawn, his schoolwork didn’t seem to suffer, he didn’t come home with cuts and bruises or with torn clothes, he didn’t bully his siblings. We can only deal with problems if we know about them and sometimes people don’t want to share, perhaps because by saying it out loud it becomes real or they feel the problem is their fault or they want to protect other people from anxiety.
And I know that his school bears responsibility for failing to act. It seems that on one occasion the bullies were seen doing something to my son and all the boys were sent to see their Head of Year. My son went along with their version of events that it was a game for fear of reprisals but really his teacher should have realised that these boys were unlikely to be part of his social group and should have investigated the matter further or at least alerted me to the possibility that there may be something untoward going on.
We need to be aware that just because a school has a policy of zero tolerance where bullying is concerned this does not by itself eliminate bullying. Our children need to be told time and time again that they must not allow themselves to become victims and that they must report bullying whether it is against themselves or someone else. Children need to really understand what constitutes bullying; it is not simply physical violence but includes ‘teasing’, name calling, excluding children from games, spreading rumours, taking belongings. And we need to be on the lookout in case our own children are the ones who are being the bullies.
I wish I could turn back the clock and put things right but of course I can’t. All I can do is be even more vigilant with his brothers to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again and offer as much support to my son as possible as he deals with the aftermath of what happened to him: anxiety, feelings of low self esteem, fear. I wish I could take the hurt away and make him whole again but that is a slow process, he is a different person now than he would have been, less trusting, more wary but probably also with more compassion and more understanding of how easy it is to become a victim and how hard it is to forget.