Bullying and toxic relationships at school.

Bullying and why the B-word can be counterproductive…

How leaping to diagnosis and judgment about bullying can get in the way.

In my work as a professional coach, I am often called upon by parents in extremis to help them advocate for and safeguard their child where bullying, teasing, excluding, or controlling behaviour is at stake.

What I bring to both my coaching and my training work in schools – is my experience, from the inside out, of school life. 

If you’re observing some dynamics in your child’s social scene at school that get your momma / poppa bear spider-senses tingling, and want some inside-track thinking on what works well, and what doesn’t, then read on….

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Having been a long-serving Deputy Head who frequently had to work with pupils and families through the good, bad, and ugly of peer-group life, as well as my experience in governance, supporting the school and the parents where conflict and complaints reached the highest levels, I am in a good position to help inform and equip parents with the structured approach they need to get the best collaboration and teamwork with the school.

I work closely with Heads of Year and school leaders, looking at their professional development in supporting and empowering children and teens to manage the highs and lows of their relationships.  I get to listen to how the work they do with parents on friendship can flourish, falter, and sometimes, fail.

As a parent of a 13-year-old myself, I know how heart-breaking and activating it can be when there is friction with friends, when your child feels they are on the outside. I also know from the inside out how it feels when your child is being subjected to unsettling and controlling behaviour.

If you feel you are at loggerheads with your child’s school, that your attempts to advocate for them are falling on unresponsive ears, that can be a very difficult place to be. For your child’s sake it is best for them when you feel confident that the school they are attending is a safe place, that you trust the teachers to look after them. But when the stakes are high, and opinions vary, it’s hard to be and feel that you’re authentically on the same side.

This is where it can be really helpful to have a one-off consultation to take a look at the dynamics afresh, and how to get more traction with what’s in the sphere of your control, and how to be more accepting of what’s outside of it so that you can use your much-needed energies strategically. And that is in support of strengthening your child on the field of ‘play’ at school, and not adding to the stress and anxiety of the situation – for them, or for you.

Rising up, rising strong…

I’ve divided up the content into three sections:

  • Managing your mindset – setting yourself up for success and how to watch out for pitfalls.
  • Who to contact and how to approach the topic – bearing in mind what is within your control, and what is beyond it.
  • Supporting your child.

Working together…the groundwork…

Manage your own material…aim for connection. Disentangle and work towards collaboration with traction…

Speaking out in high stakes situations
  • Recognise that this situation – of your child experiencing unpleasantness from another individual or group – especially where there’s an inbalance of power – is very activating.
  • Whatever is at stake – whether it’s direct nastiness, teasing, exclusion, rumour-spreading / discrediting – you’re likely to be in reaction. This means you’re wanting to move fast, and you’re wanting action in order to stop the unpleasantness.
  • You know we come with our own baggage around these situations. What were YOUR experiences like at school? How does your child’s experience resonate with experiences of your own? It is very helpful to disentangle ‘our stuff’ from ‘their stuff’ in order to stay in parent mode.
  • If your kiddo is a teen, then it’s more than likely that you will come to this EVEN MORE on the back foot – because their job is to try and work things out for themselves, and to want more privacy in doing so. So they tend to hold on to their struggles for a lot longer. Making it a HELL of a lot more upsetting for us when we realise eg that they’ve had lunch in the toilets this whole past term…
  • When we experience spikes of anxiety as a parent, we can get hijacked by black and white thinking, and be over-identified with the narrative from our child and therefore have a funnelled view of what should happen.
  • Remember that you have only heard one side of the story. It’s a significant side -yes. But there will be other perspectives and agendas to take on board. Your job is to advocate for your child and to enable them to feel able to learn and grow at school and out of this experience.
  • Detach yourself from a fixed outcome. It’s very easy, very tempting to get drawn into the drama triangle – where your child is the victim, you are the rescuer, and the other child or children are the persecutors. And of course, if the school don’t follow your script, they become persecutors also. This approach has several limitations, and some of these build into unhelpful narratives that will leave imprints on your child’s unfolding autobiographical memory – eg your child’s victimhood and entitlement to justice. The former, at worst, can have a disempowering impact. The latter can contribute to a fixed mindset that is not helpful for the imperfect world we live in…That we are entitled to every injustice being put right, and it being catastrophic if it’s not. The former prevents your child recovering a sense of agency and autonomy around the dynamics. The latter puts an emphasis on things way beyond your control and your child’s control. Bonding with your child as their crusader in this way, is not the most empowering mental model for them to internalise.
  • See this helpful video resource on the Drama Triangle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_XSeUYa0-8
Working with teaching staff…forging a productive alliance – a potential superpower.

Who to contact at school. How to approach the issue. Setting yourself up for success.

  • It can help to do your homework here. Every school has to publish its ‘Anti Bullying’ policy – it should be on the school website, along with the Safeguarding policy. Every school will also have its protocols. Often the form tutor is the first port of call for pastoral matters. But if there has been an established pattern of unpleasant behaviour, and you are aware of your child feeling distressed, and unsafe at school, it may well be an effective strategy to request to speak to the form teacher and someone more senior. In a primary school setting, this would be the form teacher and either the phase leader, or the assistant or deputy head pastoral. You may wish to approach the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead – they will be responsible for overseeing the investigation and recording of any allegation of bullying. In a secondary school setting, you’re looking at approaching the Head of Year and the Assistant Head Pastoral or the Deputy Head Pastoral, one of whom may well be the Designated Safeguard Lead – or part of the Safeguarding team. Here the form tutor will not be so involved or knowledgeable about what’s happening on the ground as the form teacher in primary school who would be working with the group for a good part of the curriculum. You probably want to be able to consult with someone who has a higher level of training and experience of working with children and teens where conflict or controlling behaviour is concerned.
  • Be prepared with an objective description of what you understand to have been happening. A timeline is extremely helpful. You can prepare this in writing.  Manage the urge to use emotionally loaded terms, be judgmental, or give opinions. Set out clearly the events, what happened, and the impact of those events.
  • Look carefully at how bullying is defined in the school’s anti-bullying policy. Schools use the term with precision and will investigate towards establishing those thresholds. A one-off incident which is particularly severe can certainly be seen as being bullying. A pattern of behaviour that is deliberately targeted at isolating someone or denigrating someone’s self-worth is also seen as bullying. You should be able to see an outline of how the school approaches bullying set out in the policy.
  • It is relatively rare that cases of bullying are open and shut. There can be lots of contextual information that you don’t know about. Sometimes the narrative from your child can rest heavily on the behaviours of others, but be relatively light on reflection on the part they played in the dynamic. Don’t go in arguing to win. Go in there arguing to learn, and to support your child’s learning and growth from the situation. This is best done with a sense of purpose, but also a sense of compassion. Kids are in the sand-tray of learning about how to do relationships. They will get things right, and they will get things wrong. If we make the stakes massively high by being uber judgmental and insistent on a crime-and-punishment agenda, then there will be too much blame and shame around which makes a poor starting point for learning and growth – which may be needed on all sides.
  • Detach yourself from notions of what should happen to the children you see as being aggressors. It is important that you don’t feel there ‘has’ to be a judgement that X and Y were bullies. Don’t get strung up on the terminology, or whether the outcome involves some public stand, or whether or not people get detained, suspended or expelled…Kids who seek to control other kids – whether by put-downs, physical domination, status driven behaviour – that does not come from a happy place. Take it from my experience of school life, it is rare to meet the parents of a child who is serially unpleasant or dominating, and think – wow, they are such nice people. Quite often when there’s an accusation of bullying, the parents don’t move into concern mode, they move into defence. It’s not unusual for threatening behaviour to ensue, and for the stakes to be even higher for your child who still has to go to school with the kid causing them grief, who now knows he or she has their parents fully on their side.
  • By describing the problematic behaviour, the pattern, and the impact on your child, and leaving the judgment, crime, and punishment angle to the school, then there’s less distraction from the need to play child/tween/teen ‘Relationships Poirot’. In a good school with good pastoral leadership – being less strung up on official classification of the ‘B’ word gives more leeway for the teachers to work judiciously on supporting and empowering your child with strategies, and at the same time, to work on interventions that might have more traction with the other child or children without everyone being on Defcon One. At least as a first port of call.
  • Accountability without blame (Highly recommended book by Kim John Payne – on ‘How to empower kids to navigate bullying, teasing, and social exclusion…https://www.amazon.co.uk/Emotionally-Resilient-Tweens-Teens-Empowering/dp/1611805643/ref=sr_1_2?adgrpid=1187473570684350&hvadid=74217321447761&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=132299&hvnetw=o&hvqmt=e&hvtargid=kwd-74217292922338%3Aloc-188&hydadcr=22587_2171576&keywords=kim+john+payne+books&qid=1674576823&sr=8-2) Kim John Payne speaks well on how this is often more productive in enabling kids to step up into being upstanders. Creating a good alliance with the school to help your child, the perpetrators, and the others in the culture around the situation means everyone can move forward in a less adversarial way and get closer to the issue. This certainly resonates with my experiences both in the past as a Deputy Head, and in the training work I do with Heads of Year and Pastoral / Wellbeing leads in schools.
  • Once you’ve had an initial meeting with the school, ensure that you share a clear sense of what the next steps -on both sides- are going to be. Agree a period of time for monitoring and being in touch with updates. If it’s been worth a proper call or meeting, then it’s worth a follow up in a week’s time and so on.

Supporting your child.

  • Listen carefully, ask lots of open and reflective questions. Manage your reactions. Avoid over-reacting or layering on extra drama. Validate their experience. Acknowledge and appreciate that they have been having a hard time. Praise any points of bravery or resistance – even if that hasn’t been overt in any push-back against the other child or children’s behaviour. Notice where they are showing a good sense of important values – eg fairness, kindness, injustice, inclusivity, appreciation.
  • Despite what they are suffering, help them to reconnect with their strengths. Being on the receiving end of bullying and controlling behaviour makes us feel helpless, disempowered. There’s often very deliberate power-play at stake, and we want to help our child connect with their power.
  • Stay in listening mode, and be open and receptive and curious around what they said and didn’t say, what they did, or didn’t do – ask about the feelings and thinking around that. Don’t react with judgment about things they may have done that you feel were mistakes. Chances are they are probably already blaming themselves and second-guessing…Identify the skills and needs that are at stake so that you can work on helping them with those.
  • You want to help them feel good about entrusting you with this. You want them to be able to come back to you in the future with similar, potentially more serious stuff in the future. So give them credit, praise their judgment, show your support and appreciation for them coming to you with their problem, and let them know that you will do what you can to help them figure things out.
  • Avoid minimising their complaints, or silver-lining what’s happening. Similarly don’t pathologise the perpetrators. This erodes a sense of hope, and makes it harder for a reconciliation to take place. Or if it does then there is a sense you won’t approve. Be on side without taking sides too heavily.
  • Normalise the experience – that’s not to say everyone goes though what they are experiencing – but being excluded, or being targeted, especially if it’s become an established pattern makes our kids feel like there is something wrong with them. Reframe it as a challenge that is part of a growing experience that most people experience at some point. It’s an event in time, or a series of events in time, that they will be able to get through, especially now they have made the wise move of talking about it to help keep it in proportion and get help.
  • Double down on making home their safe harbour – as Kim John Payne puts it in his book, Emotionally Resilient Tweens and Teens, where they can have a refuge from the stress they are experiencing with peers. This means decluttering the extras and allowing more time for them to rest and recover – to quite literally recreate. This means dialling up our availability to connect- but not only about the problem. Don’t let the situation with peers become all-consuming or the main way in which you connect with them. Make sure you are also able to enrich family life with some fun and playful times away from it all. Help open them up to new and different experiences – eg away from screens ESPECIALLY if they are on social media. Enrich your connection and allow space and time for you to be in coaching mode to build up their strength and skills.
  • Concentrate on putting the majority of your efforts on the aspects of the situation you have the most control over – your homelife, your relationship with your child, sharing values and teaching skills of boundary setting, minimising the impact of boundaries being encroached on, and productive ways of being on their own side. You can’t make the teachers more effective than they are capable of being. You can’t make other kids nice to your child, and neither can your kid. Concentrate on dialling up likeability skills: listening, appreciating, including, incorporating ideas, reading the room.

I hope this has been a rich enough starting point to be helpful if you are right in the thick of things with your child. And if this isn’t a current preoccupation, it’s a keeper that may be of use in the future.

People often feel it’s so terrible when their child is being mistreated. And yes in many ways it is. But I like to think about it more as an inoculation process – to help them learn about their values. What they stand for – and want and need in a healthy relationship. Where their boundaries are, and how to act on them. And how to do so in a timely and constructive way.

This track record they build up in navigating the bumpy rides of their peer group life as they grow is important for navigating more complex and high stakes situations in later life. Whether it’s a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend, a toxic colleague, or an unreasonable boss…we want them to launch into the world with a robust sense of who they are, that they matter, and that they know what they believe in, how to have healthy relationships, and how to be on their own side.  

Please feel free to share or recommend.

Did you know?

  • I am available for 1:1 coaching for parents. Feel free to reach out or recommend to fellow parents.
  • I do speaker and training events for schools and businesses. Feel free to share and recommend to the relevant leads in your school or organisation.
  • I do parent talks about healthy relationships for schools and for parent groups in corporate settings
  • I do consultancy and training work to support teacher professional development in wellbeing and healthy relationships.

This article was inspired by recent coaching work, supporting parents 1:1 when feeling helpless at how their children were being targeted by others, and stuck with engaging the school. Also by recent work training teachers on how to support young people with friendships and inclusivity in school life.

Linked articles:

An article based on supporting kids through social isolation in the pandemic, which has some good guidance on working through loneliness with children and teens: http://Supporting children through social isolation – Emma Gleadhill

What to do when your chid’s BFF is bad news: http://What do you do when you think your child’s BFF is bad news? (campaign-archive.com)

Back to School worries and the peer group scene: http://Back-to-school worries – the peer group scene. (campaign-archive.com)

With love, gratitude, and fortitude when times get tough,


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