I have a very close relationship with my daughter and always encourage her to talk to me if she’s upset or worried about anything. Chloe had always been one to bottle her feelings at times, but she had otherwise always been quite happy. She had started to become more and more withdrawn and had found it difficult to sleep over recent weeks. When she came out of school she would just explode with rage, shouting, screaming and lashing out, which was totally out of character for her. We knew that something was going on but trying to get her to tell us was something else.
My daughter eventually admitted that she had been having some difficulties with her friend in school, which included excluding her at break times, and comments that were slowly chipping away at her confidence. Seeing Chloe sob like that just broke me as parent. I too was physically bullied in primary school (the same school!) and that was horrible, but as a parent watching your child go through it is just awful. This had originally started in reception and school had been aware of this from the start, but instead of being resolved as there hadn’t been any continuation of follow-up once it had been dealt with, it just escalated and the perpetrator had become more manipulative in their approach. I was devastated for her.
The bullying had been happening for a while, but Chloe was a very compliant pupil and didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, so she said nothing. The girl would make fun of the way she ran and would say cruel things to her. We had previously enrolled Chloe into some activities that she loved, to make new friends outside of school, yet her confidence had been chipped away so much that her self-esteem was on the floor. Despite a lot of encouragement from us for her to continue, she soon dropped out of the activities that she had loved so much.
I immediately contacted the school again via email so that I would have a record of the conversation, but their response didn’t fill me with confidence that they would sort it as they immediately put it down to petty arguments between friends, even though at this point it had been two years of ‘petty arguments.’ They let Chloe stay inside at lunchtime and arranged for some in-school counselling, but I felt that was just excluding her further rather than dealing with the problem. I volunteered for everything I could in school, just so I could be closer to Chloe, and she would have an opportunity to tell me anything she needed to during the day and to offer her some reassurance, but the bullying didn’t stop.
"It all came to a head one night as I tucked her into bed and Chloe told me she couldn’t cope anymore and wanted to be in heaven."
It all came to a head one night as I tucked her into bed and Chloe told me she couldn’t cope anymore and wanted to be in heaven. It absolutely broke my heart and I knew I had to try and sort this once and for all as I wasn’t getting any support from school, so I decided to look externally for places that could help us. School were adamant that the restorative justice meeting that they had had with Chloe and the perpetrator had not brought up any issues, and that they had done what they could. They absolutely weren’t understanding that Chloe was fearful of repercussions if she spoke up in front of the perpetrator as they would know that they were having the desired effect. I found out shortly after about Kidscape from a local parent network.
I signed us up to do the ZAP workshop which I can honestly say was a turning point for us. Before the bullying, my daughter was very quiet - but happy, confident and full of fun. Now she was shy and nervous of new people around her. But as we entered the workshop, our nerves soon vanished as Kate, the Kidscape representative, came over to say hello with a big smile and immediately made us feel welcome and comfortable. There were about six other families in the session with children aged up to 16 and while the children stayed with Kate to learn about strategies to help them become more confident and resilient in these situations, us parents went to a separate room next door to share our own experiences with our children, if we wanted to. Our representative, Mira, talked us through the process to work in collaboration with schools to resolve these issues, and the next steps to take if the school wasn’t responding. You spend so much time feeling a whole range of emotions when your child is being bullied and like you are constantly hitting a brick wall. This session made me feel empowered as a parent, albeit a few of us were a little emotional. Just to hear the words ‘I hear you, and I believe you,’ was such a huge relief.
The session lasted about five hours and as time went on, we could hear the children talking more and laughing with one another. During the break Chloe raced over to me saying ‘Mummy I’ve found my voice’. I felt such relief that she was enjoying it and feeling comfortable enough to open up. It was a great workshop and I left with a clear plan as to how we would move forward next.
Sadly, the bullying continued but we felt armoured and Chloe started using her strategies which made the perpetrator see that they were no longer having such an effect. But when we saw my son was being bullied too, I made the decision to take our children out of school. They were both so happy that they were free from this constant upset.
We looked through the reports for other schools in our area and took our children with us to visit, as we felt it was important that they have some say as to where they would like to go. They have now settled into their new school and have a great groups of friends. Chloe has had one small incident since being there, but it was dealt with very quickly and efficiently and the school has been absolutely superb. I wish we had moved them sooner.
Although Chloe isn’t bullied now, I know she has learnt much-needed skills from Kidscape to deal with any issues like this in the future. I was so grateful to the charity that I decided to become a volunteer. In this role I have offered advice and guidance to other families like ours and I have helped to deliver ZAP workshops and Online Safety in our local area. It feels great to see other families getting this support and seeing new friendships being made. It’s rewarding to see the workshop giving these families and children hope.
"Nothing I do can ever fully repay Kidscape for helping my family and I would 100 per cent recommend all parents and children take part if they are or have been affected by bullying. They needn’t feel nervous as Kidscape make it very open and welcoming."
Nothing I do can ever fully repay Kidscape for helping my family and I would 100 per cent recommend all parents and children take part if they are or have been affected by bullying. They needn’t feel nervous as Kidscape make it very open and welcoming. I just hope more schools stand by their policies to tackle bullying; no matter how petty the bullying seems to them as adults, as the lasting effect it can have on a child is huge. If they can act quicker and follow up with the target so less families have to go through what we did would be a really positive step forward.
Names have been changed to protect identities
How can I keep my child safe on WhatsApp?
Firstly, what is WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is a free messaging app that allows users to send messages, voice messages, images, and videos. You can also make calls (including video). You are meant to be 16 to use WhatsApp, but there is no age verification. 33% of 5-7-year-olds, 64% of 8-11-year-olds, and 91% of 12–15-year-olds use messaging apps/sites (Ofcom, 2020). It is therefore highly likely your child or their friends, are using WhatsApp or other messaging apps/sites.
What are they using WhatsApp for?
Mainly to communicate with friends and family. This is either one to one, or in a ‘group’. It’s not uncommon for children to have different groups for different friends. They can chat, call one another, or facetime one another. This can be one to one, or in groups. They can also share videos and photos.
Should I be concerned?
You need to be alert. These statistics suggest most children over 8 years old are using WhatsApp and other messaging apps/sites. It is not without risk, and the age limit is there for a reason. These risks include experiencing cyberbullying, unwanted contact, sexual exploitation, other criminal exploitation, risk of fraud, and access to inappropriate and explicit content. There are also features of WhatsApp that increase the risk. You may have heard of end-to-end encryption which prevents law enforcement or the tech platform from seeing any messages. You can also select an option for messages to disappear after a certain timeframe. This means you won’t be able to see historical conversations and means children can hide conversations from you.
What’s the most likely risk?
All of these risks are real and should be taken seriously. In our experience, the most common is bullying, and accessing/sharing inappropriate and explicit content. Most bullying is group behaviour, and the use of ‘groups’ to communicate can mean trouble. There are rarely agreed ‘group rules’. Children can be supportive and brilliant to one another, but they can also be unkind and get a kick out of embarrassing each other. You also cannot control what others talk about or send around the group. Expect someone to have access to porn sooner rather than later. Or to share content from Youtube or Tiktok that you would rather your child did not watch. It is also likely that at some point your child will be removed from a group. The ‘Admins’ are the people who control who is in the group. It can cause fear and anxiety if you’re removed from the group and you don’t know why and you are unsure when the Admins will let you rejoin
How can I help keep my child safe?
You need to decide what is right for your child depending on their age and maturity. With such high numbers of children using these apps, it can be hard not to be included. Your child may feel they are missing out, particularly in secondary school. If they are going to use WhatsApp, the best way you can keep them safe is to have lots of conversations about how they and others are using WhatsApp, what they have seen, anything that has surprised or worried them, and what the risks might be. Encourage them to be kind to others, and to think carefully about what they share. Talk about how it might make them feel if they are removed from a group, or they see something that scares or upsets them. With younger children, we would recommend regularly looking through their messages. You might be surprised or shocked by what children share, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open. We would also recommend keeping phones and devices out of bedrooms. You don’t want your child messaging their friends until midnight on a school night (and that’s a high probability if phone use is unsupervised at night). You also want to have a good understanding of who they are messaging. If you consistently show an interest from a young age, it will feel less intrusive as they grow older.
Isn’t this the job of schools?
Yes and no. While all schools should educate children about online safety, there is no one way to do this. It may be that your school has not talked to children about their use of WhatsApp and other messaging apps. If your child experiences bullying on a messaging app, the school has powers to discipline for behaviour outside of the school day (if the bullying involves other children from the school), but they will all take a different approach. As a parent or carer, you also have a duty to keep your child safe, and that includes closely monitoring how they are using their phones and devices, what they see and share, and setting appropriate boundaries for your child.
Who else can help?
If your child is experiencing bullying – whether face to face or online (including messaging apps)- the Kidscape website has lots of helpful advice and information.
If you want to learn more about keeping your child safe online, sign up for a Kidscape Online Safety for Parents and Carers workshop.
How you can protect your mental health when your child is having a tough time
It can be difficult to nourish ourselves in our parenting journey at the best of times, but in the midst of a global pandemic, when our children are facing their own struggles, it can feel completely out of reach. Right when we need it the most, self-care for parents often drops away. Let’s look at what we can do to protect our own mental health even while we are tending to the needs of our children.
1. Permission to prioritise your health.
It’s not only ok, but it’s also essential. It is a natural and beautiful impulse that we want to give everything we can to our children, especially when they are having a tough time. Often in looking after the needs of others, our own health gets relegated to the bottom of the list. But if there is one thing I have learnt from my own experience of energetic bankruptcy, it is that your depletion as a parent serves no one. Please know that your health matters too. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and your children need you to keep giving and keep going. We are a single human being with finite resources, so give yourself permission to nourish yourself, treating yourself with the same basic respect we give to our mobile phones as we charge them and our cars as we refuel them. The best way to be there for your kid is to nourish yourself - that tenderness, the ability to pace ourselves allows us to be a calm, safe place for our children.
For any parent feeling like self-care is just too much of an ask right now, I hear you, but let’s pare things back. True, there are some self-care activities that take investments of time and energy, but equally, there are other rituals that can be enjoyed effortlessly in a matter of seconds – try some green gazing where you head to the window and look out at the canopy of moving trees in the distance. Feel how this panoramic gaze can broaden your perspective and soothe your senses. In moments of squeeze, drop your day from your shoulders with a shrug and sigh: as you breathe in, lift your shoulders up to your ears and as you exhale, let your shoulders drop with a cathartic sigh. When things get too much place your hands across your heart and repeat some kind and coaxing words to yourself – something like, it’s ok to feel as you do, any human would. This too shall pass.
The beauty of these self-care practices is that the benefits ripple out broadly – they help us tap into greater resourcefulness and resilience and they model for our children healthy habits. Even better than just observing us, invite your children to join you in soothing practices. Get down on the floor and enjoy a childs pose or legs up the wall together. You’ll find many nourishing activities you can relish together in my book ‘Stand Tall Like a Mountain’ and if your children would like a resource all of their own, they’ll find it in ‘This Book Will (Help) Make You Happy’.
2. Cultivate self-forgiveness
We live in a culture that suggests we should be tough on ourselves to get good results when actually, research shows us it is the polar opposite. Punitive and harsh self-talk diminish our self-esteem and they illicit the stress response which can make it nigh on impossible to think straight. Parenting is one of the toughest roles imaginable – “success” is not contingent on effort… you can throw everything you have at your kids and you can’t actually make them sleep, eat or calm down, and you can’t study or make their friends for them. We are exposed to all sorts of parenting messages on social media suggesting we could be cooking with our kids like the chefs, moving with them like the personal trainers, creating together like the artists and it’s just not realistic. When our children are struggling, while we want to help, it’s not our job to be our kid’s therapist. The essential skill for us parents in protecting our mental health is self-forgiveness. Can we make peace with being the ‘good enough’ parent, can we give ourselves permission to get it wrong and to learn and grow with our kids, can we remove the blame and shame we feel when our kids are having a hard time? No parent can prevent their child from experiencing painful challenges. Our role is to protect and support our kids as best we can, to advocate for them and to empower them to advocate for themselves. These are no small things. Permission to be human, it’s ok to find this tough. You will see beautiful things bloom from self-forgiveness.
3. We all need other people
While I am passionate about empowering people with coping skills and nourishing practices, it is vitally important to recognize that it’s not about doing it all on your own. We all need the love and support of other people around us. Parenting can be a lonely experience and with any life challenge, we need a web of emotional support and practical hands-on assistance. Please keep reaching out, letting your friends and family know how they can best support you. Talking to other people who are having similar experiences can be enormously validating and reassuring. Reach out to Kidscape and you’ll find a caring community who understand and who will walk the path with you.
By Suzy Reading
About the author
Suzy is a mother of two, an author, Chartered Psychologist and Coach. She specialises in self-care, helping people manage their stress, emotions, and energetic bank balance. It was her life experience of motherhood colliding with the terminal illness of her father that sparked her passion for self-care which she now teaches to her clients, young and old, to cope during periods of stress, loss and change and to boost their resilience in the face of future challenges. Suzy is the Psychology Expert for wellbeing brand Neom Organics and is a founding member of the ‘Nourish’ app. She figure-skated her way through her childhood, growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and now makes her home in the hills of Hertfordshire, UK. Her first book ‘The Self-Care Revolution’ published by Aster came out in 2017, 'Stand Tall Like a Mountain: Mindfulness & Self-Care for Children and Parents' and 'The Little Book of Self-Care’ came out in 2019. ‘Self-Care for Tough Times’ and her first children’s book ‘This Book Will (Help) Make You Happy’ were published in 2021. Her first journal 'And Breathe' is hot off the press and 'Sit to Get Fit' is available for pre-order now.