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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 1 August, 2014

Column: Bullying is not just a ‘natural’ part of growing up

Forty per cent of 9-year-olds in Ireland have experienced bullying – and as Lisa Collins writes, more needs to be done to encourage children to speak out.

Lisa Collins

IMAGINE THIS: EVERY day of your life you wake up with a stomach ache, you wince when you look in the mirror, and desperately try to perfect an expression that might make you invisible, that might make them leave you alone for just one day. You feign a smile to your family; you don’t want to burden them with your worries. As you leave the house to go to school your heart sinks as the familiar text message tone alerts you to the first barrage of the day “See you soon ugly pig”, “you better stay off today or I’ll kick your head in”, “You’d be better off dead”.

What would you do? How would you feel? Is this a “natural part of growing up”?

The issue of bullying has certainly received a large amount of coverage in recent times, particularly with some shocking cases highlighting the extremely harmful and sometimes fatal effects of bullying on young lives. Names like Phoebe Prince & Leanne Wolfe resonate. These young people are no longer here to be heard, they no longer have the chance to tell their stories.

And yet all too often this coverage is met with exclamations of “Bullying is a natural part of growing up”; “Bullying is a rite of passage, happens to everyone”; “Just ignore it and it’ll go away” or indeed “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” These are the bullying myths; the mantra of those who are ignorant of the impact bullying can have on mental health and wellbeing. Perhaps not truly realising that it can be detrimental; victims of bullying often reporting depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in addition to living in a constant state of shame, fear and loneliness. This is not a natural part of growing up and certainly not something that can be ignored.

The idea that childhood is the best time of your life is a myth for many children in Ireland

How about this; “Childhood is the best time of your life”. This should absolutely be true and yet tens of thousands of children in Ireland would take exception to this saying; to them this is a myth. Children who dread waking up each morning, children who just want to grow up to get away from childhood bullies; bullies who harass threaten and berate them; who taunt them, steal their self worth and damage, in some cases irreparably, their self esteem and confidence.

The ISPCC’s range of support services, including the Childline service is in many ways at the frontline; hearing about the experiences of young people in Ireland and what is going on for them day to day. As a confidential listening service, young people feel they are able to open up and be honest with Childline about their thoughts and feelings. Those experiencing bullying tell us about the fear, the loneliness, the isolation, the low self-worth, and the hopeless feeling that nothing will ever change for them.

These quotes are all examples of what children have told Childline:

“I feel completely isolated and don’t know what to do”

“I just wish it would all stop”

“They sometimes spit at me when I walk past”

“It is all the time it never stops. The only way I can be sure to make it stop is to just not be here anymore”

“I want to tell my mam but she already is worried about lots of things. She’ll be too worried about me then too”

(Westlife singer Mark Feehily with sisters Millie (4) and Zoe Thompson (10) at the launch of ISPCC’s Anti Bullying Awareness week on Monday. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

The ISPCC is running an Anti-Bullying week all this week which focuses on speaking out; speaking about the issue, speaking about the impact it can have on lives and urging young people to speak out it if it is happening to them or someone they know. The courage to do this does not come easily. Like so many forms of abuse, bullying exists and proliferates in an environment of threats, fear and silence. We want young people to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, this is not through any fault of their own and they have the right to be themselves, to feel secure and to be happy.

Recent findings have suggested that many young people keep the experience of bullying to themselves, not telling an adult for fear of making things worse or feeling shame and embarrassment. This year the Growing Up in Ireland study reported that 40% of nine year-olds had experienced bullying with only 23% of mothers reporting their child had been bullied. Furthermore, last year the ISPCC’s National Children’s Consultation on children and internet surveyed 18,000 young people and found that 26% secondary aged school children had been bullied while over half of the young people said that they would not tell anyone about bullying for fear it would make it worse.

So what can we do?

Young people need to know that if they speak out, they will be believed and will get support. As adults, we must be there to provide this support; with services like Childline, help and guidance in schools and a listening ear at home. To tackle this issue in our society, in our homes and in our schools, young people must also be encouraged to think about how their words and actions can affect others, and to be more aware of the feelings of those around them; to have mutual respect and understanding as they move through childhood and into adulthood. Every child has the right to be safe and to be listened to, and no one person has the right to harm another.
If you are worried that your child is being bullied:

  • Ask him/her directly. Take bullying seriously and find out the facts when told about an incident of bullying. Don’t agree to keep the bullying a secret
  • You can help by providing lots of opportunities to talk with you in an open and honest way and to vent their feelings
  • It’s also important to respond in a positive and accepting manner. Let your child know it’s not his or her fault, and that he or she did the right thing by telling you
  • Ask your child what he or she thinks should be done
  • Look at what’s already been tried. What worked and what didn’t? Keep them involved in finding a solution and keep a written diary of all incidents

As the Department of Education, with the support of various other stakeholders move to tackle this prevalent issue, the ISPCC continues to support young people in Ireland who are dealing with this and many other issues. During this Anti-Bullying week we are asking people to wear an ISPCC blue shield to help protect children from bullying and abuse. Shield pins will be sold on the streets nationwide and available to buy in selected retail outlets. Wearing a shield will support the ISPCC in our ongoing work to make sure that young people are heard and supported.

Lisa Collins is Information and Policy Officer with the ISPCC.

For more information about the campaign, where to get a shield pin, or to get more support information on dealing with bullying see www.ispcc.ie For support for children and parents, free phone ISPCC’s dedicated Anti-Bullying helpline (operational 23rd-30th April) on 1800 66 66 77 (open 24 hours for the week)

For children, Childline is also there to listen:
Free phone 1800 66 66 66 (open 24 hours)
Free text “Talk” to 50101 (open 2pm-10pm daily)
Log on to www.childline.ie for One-to-One live web chat (open 2pm-10pm daily)

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