Parents can feel helpless if they suspect their child is being bullied. Andrea Mara talks to experts about how it should be handled.

BULLYING — it’s a word that can strike fear into the heart of any parent; the fear that it might happen, the suspicion that it has happened, or perhaps the first-hand knowledge of just how difficult an experience it is.

Watching the disturbing teen drama Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix recently, I found myself thinking, I’m so glad I don’t go to school anymore. Then I remembered that my children do, and will do for many years to come. 

So what can I do to protect them — how do parents spot the signs of bullying and teach children to stand up for themselves?

“Just like bullying itself, the signs of bullying often creep up,” says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, whose book Bully-proof Kids: Developing Resilience and Social Skills in Tweens and Teens is published by Gill Books in August. 

“It often starts with exclusion or snide remarks and it can take some time to become full-scale bullying.

“This is one of the many reasons why it’s so damaging, as the child wonders whether they are being paranoid or if perhaps the bullies are right and there is something wrong with them.”

Stella O’Malley
Stella O’Malley

For parents who suspect a child is being bullied, there can be a sense of helplessness — the child is at school all day, out of sight and reach. And while the school must tackle the problem, parents can help too, says O’Malley.

“The parents need to provide some safe places for the child — maybe reignite an old hobby or revisit some old friendships so the child is reminded that there is life beyond the bullying.”

Parents can also help children figure out practical strategies. 

“Asking when the bullying is worse and when it recedes can give some information about the pattern.

“Parents also need to help their child access their ‘strong voice’ and their inner power. The parents will have already seen the child’s strength when the child is comfortable at home — maybe fighting with other siblings. But the challenge is to help the child to bring their inner strength into the wider world.”

Growing up, I was always told you don’t fight back — but are there some instances when force is reasonable?

“As a psychotherapist, I will always err on the side of trying to talk things out,” says O’Malley. 

“But if I’m mugged on a lonely street without any potential of calming my aggressor down or appealing to a passer-by, then I’m willing to use force to ensure that I stay alive. I believe that children, just like adults, have the right to defend themselves.

“First of all, the child might learn that they should tell the bully to stop. If possible they should tell a responsive adult. If that’s not possible, and if they are able to, then they should consider using force equal to the level needed to escape from the bullies’ attacks.”

Schools have a clear responsibility when it comes to bullying, and the Department of Education requires all schools to have an anti-bullying policy within the framework of their code of behaviour. 

“Yes, schools have a responsibility to provide an unthreatening school environment,” says O’Malley. 

“They should implement anti-bullying programmes, bring in speakers to speak with students, and if any potential bullying incident happens, the school needs to come down on it like a tonne of bricks. The most effective strategy for eliminating bullying is to have a zero-tolerance attitude towards it.”

Clodagh Carroll, who works with Barnardos, organises anti-bullying workshops for schools. 

“We support schools in promoting inclusivity,” she explains. 

“It’s really important that they value and respect difference and diversity, and that that’s embedded in the school culture.”

The workshops deal with both classroom and cyberbullying. “The internet is the new playground, and the challenge is for schools to stay up to date with what kids are doing online,” says Carroll.

“Teachers need to know what apps are being used, and it’s really important that they’re not afraid of the internet — this goes for parents too. 

"Sometimes fear of the internet can prevent parents from being able to talk to children about it, so we try to encourage them to have the conversation — ask what they’re doing and get to know the apps.”

O’Malley agrees: “Many parents feel bemused and slightly overwhelmed by their children’s social media usage but it’s necessary to learn about it. 

"So much of children’s social lives are conducted online and ignoring their social media usage is akin to parents of our day saying to themselves that they never went to discos or drank alcohol in the local park and so they have no strong opinions on it.”

And of course, communication is key. 

“If the parent is connected enough with their child’s online social life, they should hear about the cyberbullying as soon as it happens.”

  • To find out more about anti-bullying workshops, contact Barnardos on 01 4530355 or

Stella O’Malley, on how to spot signs of bullying

* Look out for behavioural changes, for example, your child becomes more wary, more nervous, and generally upset in themselves.

* If your child becomes very distressed about having the ‘wrong’ schoolbag or the ‘wrong’ hairstyle, then it might indicate that there is disapproval emanating from their peers.

* Some children can become very hard on themselves and self-deprecating — these kids are simply repeating what is being said to them by the bullies.

* The child begins second-guessing their every move and they can very soon begin to feel worthless and inadequate.

* A red flag would be if the parent notices that the child’s belongings are often damaged or missing.


Capturing the castle: Johnstown Castle in County Wexford is well worth checking out

How nature can work wonders for body and soul

Making Cents: Consumer guide to entering PcP car loan contracts

Podcast Corner: An introduction to podcasts

More From The Irish Examiner