On this week's 'Parenting' segment on the Moncrieff show, one listener sought advice about how to help her son who is being bullied.
Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist specialising in Child & Adult Psychotherapy, joined Moncrieff to answer this and other listeners' questions.
“Our 11-year-old son has had a really tough time making and holding onto friends in recent years.
“He’s a kind, funny, sensitive, chatty boy full of life.
“He can be a little quirky with his sense of humour and he loves making people laugh.
“He’s football mad and it’s his go to when he’s feeling emotional about something. He became friendly with a group of boys a couple of years ago and after some ups and down he felt accepted by them.
“Not long after my son became friends with these boys, the cracks started showing. It seemed these boys were laughing at my son rather than with him and my son would often come home from school asking, ‘Mum, how can I make them like me more?’
“They have physically pushed him around, teased him for being small, telling him he’s a useless footballer and just being generally cruel.
“I get that ‘boys will be boys’ but this has gone way past that. It came to a head recently when a photograph was shared in a few WhatsApp groups among the kids with comments claiming that my son is gay.
“He’s so upset and says it was the worst day of his life and is still getting remarks from his classmates about it.
“I’ve explained this to his teacher who has been keeping a closer eye on him in school but his football coach didn’t really want to know about it.
“I spoke to the boys’ mothers but I don’t think they’re taking it very seriously and their sons behaviour hasn’t improved since.
“I would love to hear any advice and how I can help my son through all of this. His self-esteem is really low.”
“There are layers and layers to this that in the time we have that I want to just peel back on this. The whole ‘boys will be boys’, I’m glad it’s in inverted commas because this is not a real thing.
“‘Boys will be boys’, this isn’t a thing. It’s certainly not an excuse nor is it an explanation for what is bad behaviour. It’s just not. We really have to begin to challenge those stereotypes and norms if we’re going to affect change in our boys’ self-esteem.
“Research shows us that 57% of boys between 10 and 17 report very low levels of self-esteem. This is a very serious issue... So we really do need to address this and take it seriously.
“So I just want to challenge the ‘boys will be boys’ thing and I do think this parent is too - hence why it’s in inverted commas.
“There’s a lot here though about a little boy who is funny and kind and sensitive and full of life and a bit quirky, loves making people laugh. He sounds like a joy. He sounds lovely.
“Then a couple of things jump out at me; that he has something that is his go to when he’s feeling emotional about something. Now there’s a really positive in that he has identified, ‘When I feel a certain way this helps me.’ But it also raises the issue for me that there are times when this kid gets overwhelmed emotionally and he has had cause to find a thing that helps him.
“Sensitive children tend to feel the world at a deeper level. It’s not a bad thing at all. Sensitivity gets a bad rep out there - it’s often dismissed as, ‘Oh, you’re so sensitive, you need to toughen up.’
“Sensitivity can be a superpower but it’s hard when you’re a kid. It really is.
“He became friendly with this group just a couple of years ago, ballpark around nine-years-old, that’s really that stage of childhood when our children… tend to settle into their little friendship cluster groups and with some movement that’ll be their friends through school then - at least through primary school and we’ll see change again in secondary school.
“And I’m curious what appealed to him about these friends. Are these the so-called popular kids at school? Are these the kids who are seen as cool?... Or do you really think he has stuff in common with these boys? A reason and a basis for the connection. Or are there other kids he might have more in common with in the class that you can begin to highlight?... You’ve had these boys over to your house, could you suggest he invite other kids over?
“Now I’m usually the one saying we shouldn’t insert ourselves into our kids’ friendship but let them negotiate it and work it through. But this is a different feel for me. This isn’t about a friendship glitch.
“When I read ‘physically pushed around’, ‘teased for being small’, ‘telling him he’s a useless footballer’ - which is already flagged as his safe emotional space - and that’s being challenged and being generally cruel, this is reaching the threshold of bullying for me and that’s not okay. And as the parents, as the adults involved in this situation we do need to step in.
“So then what jumped out for me was this, ‘a few WhatsApp groups among the kids.’ These are 11-year-olds. These are not 15,16-year-olds, these are 11-year-olds… I was curious about this, genuinely. Are these school WhatsApp groups? Like is this all the class, is it formally everyone in the class? Is it a means of sharing homework or assignments? Is it used in that way or is this something the kids have casually set up themselves?
“Because I’m always curious with WhatsApp groups that are somewhat connected to school and I say ‘somewhat’ because it’s worth knowing your school’s policy on this because some schools explicitly state, ‘We have no responsibility and nothing to do with WhatsApp groups. If parents choose to set them up, that’s the parents’ thing. If kids are in them, they’re your kids - it’s also nothing to do with the school.’”
“And I know his teacher has been keeping a closer eye on him in school. Now again, that’s a little vague for me because I don’t know what does that mean? If his classmates are calling him names - is that happening in class in schooltime, on school property? Because ‘keeping an eye’ may not be enough.
“If this is all of the kids he’s in school with, if it’s happening in the schoolyard or in the school day or in some kind of a school related WhatsApp group I think you need to go back and talk to your teacher about this and say that this is happening within the school environment.
“And I think it’s one thing for the football coach to say, ‘I don’t want to know about it, you’re just here to play football, let’s just play football and not be getting involved in any of that stuff.’
“At the same time if this is happening on the pitch, at training, around football practise, then you need to know what the club’s bullying policy is because any club that works with kids will have policies about this.”
“And then there’s this thing that really surprised me; I think we take for granted that we’re living in a much more tolerant and inclusive society now and then you get these kinds of reminders that, ‘You know what? We’ve a long way to go.’
“That when a child is being called gay in a way that is intended to shame or embarass and humiliate them - that’s deeply problematic on multiple levels.
“It highlights again as parents we cannot take for granted that, ‘Sure look, we’re living in a much more tolerant society now. I don’t need to be talking about that, kids know all about that!’ Not true. We need to be challenging this language, we need to be talking about what real inclusivity is, what real equality is and really parenting our kids in an environment of tolerance.
“So parents who didn’t seem interested, or didn’t want to take it very seriously, I think you need to go back to them again.”
Main image: Generic image to illustrate bullying posed by models. Picture by: PA.