What should parents do if their child is bullied at school?

Having your child bullied at school is one of the greatest fears of parents – and research shows this fear is well founded. School bullying has been described as the single most important threat to the mental health of children and adolescents.

Well-controlled studies show that being bullied in primary school increases the risk of serious mental health problems into adolescence and ongoing depression leading well into adulthood.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

So when parents find out their child is being bullied, they are right to be concerned. But what exactly should they do about it? Should they tell the school, approach the parents of the other child, or just let their child deal with it?

It can be difficult to weigh up the sometimes conflicting advice given to parents. Parents desperately want to help their child, but if they jump in too quickly to protect their child they can be labelled as over-protective or over-indulgent.

School authorities often recommend parents leave the school to handle it. This is fine if the school is successful in stopping the bullying. However, this is not always the case. Most school programs to address bullying make only modest improvements, leaving some children to continue to be bullied.

This could be why we often hear of parents taking matters into their own hands. This can lead to uncertain legal ground if parents reprimand other children and to ugly arguments between parents. Clearly none of these approaches is ideal.

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Taking care of vulnerable children starts with empathy

When it comes to the difficult topic of child maltreatment, it’s easy to condemn. What might not be so easy to understand for parents who sacrifice the second car for the school fees or drive hundreds of kilometres each weekend taking kids to social and sporting events, is that even parents found guilty of neglecting their children want better lives for their kids.

I’ve often seen this in clinical practice. It’s not that struggling parents lack the will to provide a safe and loving environment for their children. What they are lacking are the skills, knowledge and confidence to create the kind of environment where children feel safe, loved and secure, where kids can grow up to become capable people ready to deal with the world and its challenges.

The lives of parents struggling to look after children can be full of turmoil and riven by poverty, a situation reinforced by social structures where a lack of opportunity is transmitted from one generation to the next.

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