Say No To Bullying

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imgres-1The 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 There were no signs that anything was wrong: he didn’t stay off school, he wasn’t quiet and withdrawn, his schoolwork didn’t seem to suffer, he didn’t come home with cuts and bruises or with torn clothes, he didn’t bully his siblings.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.


A bump in the road

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It always happens; family life is going smoothly, everyone seems happy and then, without warning, you hit a bump in the road. We had one last year when my then seventeen year old turned my feelings of complacency upside down. There had been signs that all was not right but nothing really that couldn’t be explained by normal teenage angst. Unwittingly we all started to walk on eggshells around him. He got to choose what we did, no-one contradicted him, we made life as easy as we could for him because after all he was doing exams, it was a stressful time for him. But then one summer’s night, the first day that everyone started their long holiday, all the anxiety that must have been bubbling under the surface suddenly came to a head. He was abusive, both verbally and physically, harmed himself, punched others, told his youngest brother he was leaving home, told people he had to get away or he’d kill himself. I don’t think we’ll ever really know what sparked all this off. Alcohol certainly added fuel to the fire but I think it was inevitable that the dam would burst at some stage. The repercussions were horrendous and shook the whole family to the core. He said some pretty hateful things to people and whether they were meant or not they certainly had a damaging effect. His youngest brothers were scared by both his venom and his physical strength, his other brothers felt angry with him for behaving in such a way but also protective of him and sad that the closeness that had always existed between them seemed to have disappeared. And me? I was utterly devastated. None of my children had ever used the ‘hate’ word to me before and I took it at face value. My confidence as a mother was shaken to the core and I felt that I had obviously failed completely as a parent. I totally blamed myself for making my child unhappy and believed that our family unit would never recover. I found it impossible to remind myself of all the other happy times we had had and could only think about this particular night, replaying the events over and over in my mind trying to make sense of what had happened. 

It was a tense summer to say the least. After a couple of weeks staying with his dad my son returned home and we all tried to move forward but it was difficult. We all felt wary of him, unsure what might trigger another outburst. And we all felt that he looked down on us, that ‘hate’ word was hard to shake off. Primarily though we were concerned for him; he was obviously suffering and was obviously scared himself. Anyone who has ever felt depressed will know that sometimes people can just feel awful all of the time without knowing why. As friends and family we tend to want to find solutions for them when really there are none; all we can really do is be there for them and follow their cues.

September came and with it a new school, a fresh start and very slowly we started to see him return to his former self. At the start it was a tentative journey to recovery but then one day we all realised that he had returned to us. Once more he is  becoming that lovely, thoughtful, generous young man who cares deeply about his family. Once more he is showing his love for his family in affectionate gestures and in his words. I think he still has anxiety issues but he is learning to acknowledge these to himself thereby learning to deal with them. 

I have always been proud of him but never more so than now when I see him working so hard to move forward in a positive fashion. It is so easy for people to hit a bump in the road and to allow the rest of their life to be defined by that event; it is so much harder to pick oneself up, shake oneself down and start again.And I have been so proud of his brothers who have stood by him, who have understood that we are there for each other no matter what, who never turned their backs on him but instead went out of their way to reconnect with him. The experience has changed us all; it has made us more aware of our own human frailty, more understanding of others’ frailty and more conscious of the fact that we must never take our family for granted.