Category Archives: Sunday Times Columns

Long summer holidays, constructive boredom and your children

One of the most powerful parenting techniques is having faith in your child’s ability to resolve a problem. This is especially true around the issue of “boredom”.Snoopy bored

I wrote previously (Boredom: a melancholy truth) that allowing your child to be bored can be a positive experience, just as solving your child’s boredom by always organising structured play can lead to new problems. Paddy O’Donnell, a professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, in a study on the impact of structured play on the future abilities of university students, claims that many current students are less confident of making their own decisions. They are so used to being managed by a hovering parent that they prefer it if someone takes charge and directs them, even as young adults.

At the same time, modern, concerned parents don’t want to simply leave children to their own devices. We need to find the balance between a lack of involvement with our children and the tyranny of helicopter parenting – where parents are a 24-hour child entertainer and teacher. We need to cultivate constructive boredom in our children and offer some appropriately “benign neglect”.

With the long summer holiday approaching, here are a few tips that might help you in this quest:

calvin and hobbes brain atrophy

Plan ahead

Why wait until your child’s already bored? At the moment your child decides to announce (over and over again) that they are desperately bored, you will probably be on the phone to your boss, sorting out an office emergency while stirring a pot of pasta sauce. Rather, in a quiet moment sit down with your child and make a “when I’m bored” list. I tried this out with my own nine-year-old son and his first three ideas were: “Play soccer against the wall, make the tallest tower I can with my wooden blocks and make a teepee with sticks.” Add a few ideas of your own and stick the list on the fridge.

For longer activities, consider things such as sleepovers, campouts in the garden and allowing kids to wear pyjamas all day Sunday while amusing themselves. Just remember: while you might suggest these, don’t organise them yourself.

Make resources available

If you have these around the house then the boredom monster can be slain at any time: crayons and coloured cardboard or paper, straws, hammers and nails, spray paint, masks or costumes, a pile of sticks in the garden, discarded computer print-outs, used plastic cartons and bottles, cereal boxes, a collection of fabric scraps and glue. It also helps if you allow one part of the garden to be a play area with sand or mud, or are relaxed enough to allow your children to colonise one corner of the kitchen to concoct their evil brews.

Be actively noncommittal

If your child tries to engage you in solving his boredom, master the art of saying, “Really? Hmmm,” followed by silence. She might lose interest and move away. Or you could say, empathically: “Yes, as a child I was often bored myself,” followed by: “Let’s think of some ideas together.” In other words, try not to leap in with your solutions – rest assured, they will anyway likely be met with scorn.

Maintain safety

It might be good to give your child space to use his imagination, but some safety rules are non-negotiable. Don’t forget to explain that the pool is out of bounds, or leaving the property without permission and playing with fire in the house are forbidden.

Practise boredom

Switch off the TV sometimes, limit the amount of time spent on PlayStations or computer games and have days where no after-school activities are scheduled – in this way, your child learns to engage himself and doesn’t become a complete nag when he’s suddenly feeling ignored or unstimulated.

Read feelings

Maybe your child’s not bored. Maybe she’s crying out for your attention or needs to spend time with a friend after a period of being alone. In this case, ignore everything I’ve just said and spend some quality time with him, giving him your undivided attention.

Ultimately, life is often a solo journey. By trusting your children to be able to cope with the responsibility of sometimes amusing themselves or generating their own ideas and managing downtime, stillness and space, you will do them a great service. And if out of this boredom greater maturity and creativity emerges, you will have done the world a great service

The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton

Not just a few worries and quirks: children and OCD

notobsessiveI had always known the 10-year old was an anxious child. Her parents had referred her for therapy as they felt she lacked confidence, was falling behind at school and seemed very secretive. I had spent many sessions with her, building trust and developing a relationship, and we had talked about her worries at school, the conflict between her parents at home.

But it took some months before she finally confessed to me that she thought she was “weird”. Thoughts invaded her mind and she couldn’t ignore them, upsetting thoughts that bad things might happen.

Specifically, she felt she had to check and recheck that she had tightened the tap after she washed her hands, as she couldn’t shake the feeling that she might leave the tap open and cause a flood.  This need to close taps and tighten them, to the point she would hurt her hands, had extended to her glue lid, the cap of her juice bottle – in fact to all items that needed closing.

She was very ashamed of her thoughts and behaviours and was sure she was a “freak”. “I just can’t stop myself,” she whispered. “What if I don’t check the tap and I flood the house?”

It was then that I knew that she wasn’t simply a nervous child, but was suffering from a serious form of anxiety disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

It is estimated that about 1 in 200 children has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and that 80% of adults with OCD have had significant symptoms before the age of 18.

In children and adolescents OCD involves obsessive thoughts about things like:

  • contamination, dirt and germs,
  • illness,
  • putting things in order, arranging things symmetrically,
  • lucky or unlucky numbers,
  • the possibility of hurting others or causing something bad to happen,
  • danger to family or friends, and
  • losing or breaking things.

Children with OCD can’t simply choose not to think these thoughts; they cannot just put the ideas out of their mind and think positively. The thoughts feel intrusive and overwhelming and cause enormous distress to the child.

Children with OCD generally ‘deal with’ these obsessional thoughts, anxiety and preoccupations by carrying out particular repetitive actions. These actions quickly become compulsive rituals, examples of which are checking, hand washing, counting things, performing an action in exactly the same way every time, repeating a behaviour a specific number of times, and collecting and hoarding things.

It’s as if the child believes that the rituals will undo any possible harm and magically reduce anxiety and make things feel right. But in truth these compulsions are enormously time-consuming and increasingly interfere with all aspects of the child’s life.

Experts are not exactly sure what causes OCD, which can run in families. Some theories suggest that it involves serotonin, a chemical in the brain also called a neurotransmitter. When something blocks the flow of serotonin, the brain overreacts and misreads information. Instead of ordinary thoughts being filtered out, the OCD mind lingers on them and sparks off fear or worry like an overactive alarm system.

OCD can be a difficult condition to treat. Early diagnosis is not easy as children are often secretive about their obsessions and compulsions. But if untreated, childhood OCD tends to persist into adulthood and is associated with long-term negative outcomes, so it’s worth being proactive if you start to suspect your child is showing features of the disorder.

Below are some of the positive steps you can take.

Consult an expert

As with most difficult mental health issues, the support and expertise of an expert is often vital. First, this person will help you to distinguish between what is manageable anxiety and what is OCD. Second, even children with the most knowledgeable and accepting parents will often withhold certain worries and acts from them, but talk about them with an expert.

A combination of psychotherapy and medication might be suggested by a professional, but first do some research and inform yourself thoroughly before deciding how to move forward.

Prepare the family

If everyone in the family  understands what OCD is and that the behaviours that come with it are part of the condition, this creates a more understanding home environment. Also try to run a fairly structured home so that compulsive rituals don’t stand out as much and are less exacerbated by chaos.

Talk to your child

This is obvious. Be honest and open about the condition and talk about it with your child, without ever forcing the issue. You are a parent with a family to run and limits to set, not a psychologist. The more difficult work of dealing with OCD might need to be dealt with by an expert.

Deal with school

For the OCD child, stresses at school are usually worse than at home. Adults who teach your child will not be as well informed as you learn to become, and other children are often not tolerant or understanding. Therefore, meet all those who will come into contact with your child and help to educate them.

Managing and treating OCD is a challenge but possible – as the famous 18th century writer, OCD and Tourette’s sufferer Dr Samuel Johnson said, “Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”

OCD hand

For useful links to resources in South Africa and internationally I can recommend the website of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) – http://www.sadag.org

Intimate enemies: sibling rivalry

I had a second child,” a mother says, “because I want my son to have company as he grows up.” Which made me think:

  • The first murder victim in history, according to the bible, was Abel, killed by his brother, Cain.
  • A client consulted me because her 7 year old daughter fed her younger brother a potentially fatal overdose of medicine because he was irritating her and she “wanted to make him better”.
  • First-hatched black eagle chicks peck their younger siblings to death, driven by a primitive fuse.

There is an old Arabic saying that goes, “I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger,” that perhaps sums up how primary and instinctive sibling rivalry is. In the competition for emotional and material resources, no greater threat exists than the brother or sister living in your own home.

Of course, life with siblings can also be an enriching experience. For many people, life would not be the same without a sibling with whom they can shoulder life’s burdens or celebrate common experiences. But we should not assume that the sibling relationship is always easy. From the very beginning sibling rivalry rears its head. Toddlers want to protect toys; young school kids, having internalised the concept of fairness, will dispute a sibling receiving perceived preferential treatment; teenagers bent on becoming independent might resent doing household chores that younger brothers and sisters do not have to do.

These age-dependent conflicts could also be exacerbated if one child has special needs that require other siblings to accept less parental attention, or if one of your children has a temperament that intensifies the conflict – a child who is sensitive and needy might not be well matched to a more robust and independent child.

When fights do break out, what should you do? Wherever possible, don’t step in. It’s difficult to adjudicate the truth in these fights, with both parties making an equally impressive case for why they are the victim. Taking sides can also increase dependency on one side and resentment on the other. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like Cinderella’s father, benignly standing by while others burst into cruel laughter, mocking their younger sister.

If the heat of the moment requires you to step in because of possible violence or vicious name-calling, the advice one can give is based on common sense. Start by separating the combatants. If possible, allow a little cooling off time. Make it clear that violence and insults are not acceptable. As far as possible, encourage your kids to resolve the problem themselves. Of course, this doesn’t always work, but in doing this you are laying the foundation for a time when they are able to find a win-win solution.

Over the long haul, family problems like this are better prevented than treated. Somewhere in that busy schedule of work, school lifts, extra lessons and meetings, try to work out a preventative approach.

As disputes arise, talk about the concepts of fairness and equality. You can’t always treat children equally but you must always try to be fair.

  • Work with your kids to write up family rules governing behaviour that is acceptable and unacceptable – eg no name-calling, violence – and how disputes will be sorted out, as well as consequences for such behaviour. Stick this set of rules on the kitchen cupboard. 
  • Make special time for each child according to their interests, so they don’t feel neglected. 
  • Do fun things as a family – this reduces tension and builds bonds.
  • For specific areas of disagreement, such as who gets to watch favourite TV shows, write up a schedule that divides the time equally between siblings.

Most sibling differences are resolved over time as brothers and sisters grow up and become friends and mutual supports.

Except when they don’t.

Situations I deal with in my practice include families where siblings haven’t spoken for 20 years, a grandmother who still struggles to deal with her older sister’s bossiness and constant one-upmanship, and a man in his 30s who still bitterly resents his successful, much loved younger brother.

Perhaps if parents had from the beginning consciously adopted the sort of approach I have mentioned, a lifetime of distress might have been replaced by a valuable sibling friendship.

Calvin_and_Hobbes_1280_Wall_by_LamboMan7

Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Parenting

All parents make mistakes – lots of mistakes, and making mistakes is part of the necessary cycle of rupture and repair that enables our children (and us) to learn from and grow through these mistakes. But here I’m writing about something a little different…

I’m not talking about the actions of psychopaths and paedophiles, or sadists and scientologists, but those of we ordinary, well-intentioned parents who sometimes just get it wrong.

There’s lots of advice about how to parent effectively, but it’s necessary to confront what makes us ineffective or, worse still, damaging to our children. You should have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins and you may know of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Well, here’s my small contribution – this one’s for the list lovers.

1. Envyenvy

Exceeding simple jealousy, envy is the desire to ‘outdo and undo’. All parents feel it at one time or another. Comparisons are made around an infant’s milestones and behaviours (many of which have very little to do with your parenting). Your friend’s child sails through school, or through the tape, while yours labours in the rear. Your child is still not able to swim while their same-age cousin has just completed their first Midmar Mile.

Parents often feel competitive with each other – there is societal and family pressure to be the best parent and raise the best child. But envy is a destructive and spoiling emotion,  detracting from our capacity to enjoy our children for who they are, not simply for their achievements. Parents who are most susceptible to envy are those who are concerned about how others may judge them, those who struggle to value themselves and those who measure success in concrete and short-term ways.poison-envy-POSTER-SM

2. Perfectionism

If there are any regular readers of this column, they will know that I’m no fan of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a curse and has it’s roots in a yearning for a fantasy of control, success and affirmation. One could argue for a scale of perfectionism and that on one end is a desire for excellence in one’s child, but the other end is a tortured place for children to be. A neurotic drive for your child to achieve excellence in all areas can lead a compliant child to a life of misery, with everything tainted by imperfection, while a child with a stronger personality is bound to resort to fighting or fleeing you.The Perfectionist's Guide to Results (Lo)

3. Sloth

The sloth or laziness I’m focusing on is not about slumping in front of the TV after work or serving hot dogs for supper (again) instead of a wholesome home-cooked meal. I completely understand how utterly exhausting life and parenting are. And I am a strong proponent of frequent naps, holidays and periods of indolence.

The type of sloth I am worried about is emotional apathy, a refusal to be actively engaged in passiveparentsyour child’s life. In particular I think about parents who are highly successful and driven individuals, with high expectations of but low engagement with their children’s lives. To thrive, children need engaged and interested adults around them.

4. Joylessness

Early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle saw humour as a statement of superiority over others’ flaws, but current research draws attention to the correlation between humour and resilience. It seems that a child who grows up in a home filled with pleasure and play is better equipped to face the serious issues of the world. Humour also oils the wheels of verbal intercourse and allows you to address difficult issues in manageable ways. Laughter reduces stress hormones and encourages healthy feelings of connection amongs family members.

5. Self-blame

When we blame others we wrap ourselves in a cloak and insulate ourselves from being responsible. But self-blame is also a huge problem. We are both cause and effect – a poisonous state of being from which there appears to be no escape. “It’s all my fault!”; “I’ll never learn Maths – I’m too stupid!” we might hear our child say.  Perhaps your child is prone to this or perhaps he’s developed these thought processes in the home.

Excessive parental guilt about all the shoulda-woulda-couldas simply paralyses parents and renders us ineffective.

6. Rigidity

The parents I find most challenging to work with are those who have a rigid insistence on how it should be done, because “That’s always how it has been done”, or “That’s what I believe to be right, no matter what other evidence there is to the contrary”.

Keep calm and ignore Gina fordOne size doesn’t fit all when it comes to raising children. Effective parents are able to assess the needs of each individual child and try to respond appropriately.

Setting up of predictable routines and rules, while useful in the everyday structuring of a family’s life, can become problematic when these are rigidly adhered to with no room for deviation. Life involves growth, change and managing unpredictability. As parents we have to be able to go with the flow when necessary. By being adaptable, we model to our children a thoughtful approach to the way we live our lives.

7. Denial

A little denial is undoubtably a good thing – we need to be able to put aside some of the horrors and worries of human existence just to get through some days. But when denial extends to not acknowledging or dealing with a persistent truth, it is damaging. Whether it’s a parent’s denial of the extent of their own problematic behaviour (addicts in particular have a special gift for denial), or denial of the extent of a child’s problems, a refusal to look difficulties head-on and tackle them leads to long-term distress and damage.

PROFILING

Ironically I wrote this column shortly before the new management of the Sunday Times decided to cancel my column. But at least I’d been profiled in a national paper once…

I have been writing this column for the Sunday Times for some years now but I have never properly introduced myself to you, the reader. And because I haven’t yet been profiled for a glossy magazine or featured on a reality TV programme (where I could debut snappy catch phrases like “Get your grown-up on” or “Who’s the mommy’’), I thought I would do the obvious thing: interview myself. So here goes.

Where do you get ideas for your columns?

I read widely to keep up with current ideas in child development, and justify hours of surfing the internet as research into trends, debates and controversies in the area.  But mostly I listen to clients and colleagues and observe what’s happening around me for clues as to the everyday concerns of parents, teachers and care-givers. Just last weekend a friend’s 13-year old daughter said she gets really nervous every time she sees her mother talking to me. Her fear is that whatever issues she’s been having will be broadcast to the world as a parenting column on  “How young is too young to date?’’ or “Is it really wrong to read your daughter’s diary?”

What are you currently reading that might help parents?

how children succeesI have just finished How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. It is an overview of the research into which factors contribute to long-term success. He argues that personal qualities such as resilience, curiosity, optimism and the capacity for self-control matter most when it comes to raising children who succeed. He also cites a broad range of research that supports his argument that character is directly and powerfully related to the quality of early interactions between children and loving, consistent caregivers.

What else is on your mind?

far 1far-from-the-tree_420I am now immersed in the dauntingly thick but compelling book by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree. He writes movingly about parents who face the painful reality of raising children whose identities are shaped by profound difference and disability. For example, parents whose children are transgender, autistic, prodigies or conceived of rape, and families managing deafness, dwarfism, Downs Syndrome and schizophrenia. The book challenges parenting assumptions, and explores how parents can face the truth that loving someone and finding them a burden are not incompatible feelings. It also shows that love can transcend prejudice, pain and disappointment.

Does being a psychologist with an interest in parenting ideas make you a great parent?

No. Definitely not. I wish I could say differently but it’s always easier in theory than in practice. In theory I am a calm, rational and warmly accepting mother who sets limits appropriately while allowing my son to explore and take acceptable risks. All this while earning a living, whipping up tasty and nutritious meals, encouraging wholesome activities and limiting his TV, computer and digital gaming hours. Right. Cue sardonic tone.

Do you analyse people all the time?

Only if they pay me. Otherwise, the therapy mode is switched off.

What was your worst parenting moment?

My husband’s was when he lost our son for a few minutes in a public place. ‘There is no way to describe the gut-wrenching anxiety that overcomes you,” he said, “the sudden fear this might be the rest of your life.” Mine is any time my son coughs while eating. I am deeply neurotic about choking (there is a long backstory to explain the roots of my anxiety, but that’s for another column) and I have no faith that I will remember my First Aid training come a crisis.

Can a parenting column make a difference?

Most of us have to parent instinctively, which is neither good nor bad. But I have the luxury of focusing my professional attention on research on parenting and the world of new ideas. I can be a conduit for those ideas but, in the end, what really makes the biggest difference in parenting is trying hard to be the person you want your children to be. Being more, saying less.

Are there any parenting theories or ideas you don’t like?

I am suspicious of anyone who promises a quick fix or who rigidly holds to one theory of parenting that will fit all children or all situations.

Finally, what are the essential things you would like parents to know?

  • It’s never too late to make a difference.
  • It’s inevitable and necessary to make mistakes, but we can learn from these failures.
  • Fathers matter and the absence of interested and involved fathers impacts negatively on society.
  • School is a marathon, not a sprint. Some children only really thrive after finishing high school – but what happens during the school years lays the foundation for that success.
  • Above all, and to repeat an earlier point, infants and young children need consistent, connected caregiving from birth to make them human, to wire their brains for empathy, thinking and resilience.

Can I “bully-proof”my child?

I have been invited to go down to PE to talk at a fundraiser – and the topic that I was asked to speak on is bullying. So I went back into my archives and here is one of my very first columns. It is a topic that, sadly, is still important as bullying is such a pervasive and difficult issue. And not only in schools and during childhood. My work with adults and within corporate and workplace settings keeps reminding me that it is a big issue throughout our society. 

“Our child lies in bed every night, crying. He says he’s going to kill himself. Kids at school are calling him names. Some of them push him around. We don’t know what to do about it.” The mother becomes tearful.  The father says, “I just want to go to the school and beat up every one of those bullies.” I look at my distressed clients and see the expectant look in their eyes, the look that says, ‘Give us a solution.’ While there is no single answer, there are, however, strategies we can use to try manage this problem.

Bullying evokes a variety of responses. We might feel powerless and tempted to minimise the situation, or angry and determined to protect our kids by taking action against perpetrators. We might also be concerned not to overprotect our child from a ‘normal’ life situation and believe they should ‘tough it out’.

The first thing to do when you suspect your child is being bullied or if he/she reports being bullied, is to establish the extent and nature of the problem. Is what your child is experiencing part of acceptable social interaction or is it more persistent and  problematic? Some children are more sensitive and may struggle to manage ordinary social interactions, but on the whole children are pretty accurate about assessing the intentions of their peers.

Bullying can be verbal, physical or social in nature and has the intention to hurt, humiliate and isolate individuals. It can include name-calling, shunning and ignoring, threatening, mocking, physical violence, spreading rumours, extorting money and possessions. These days it happens not only at school and social gatherings, but also online and through cell phones. And it is something that both girls and boys do.

Parents often ask me whether there is something specific about their child that makes them the victim of bullying, are some kids are more vulnerable? Bullying can be about anything: your height, or lack of it, your weight, or lack of it, your money, or lack of it, Bullies will zero in on any aspect of their victim’s life. However, those children who are the victim of repeated bullying do tend to have certain characteristics in common.  They tend to have poor coping mechanisms in ordinary situations. Often they have low self-esteem and may be anxious and passive, and struggle to assert themselves. On the other hand they may also respond too impulsively or aggressively to an event, making them a sure target for bullies who thrive on getting a rise out of their victims.

Bear in mind also that the way you respond to finding out that your child is being bullied is influenced by your own experiences. If you were, or still are, a victim of harassment, or a bully yourself, you might find it difficult to act in a calm and appropriate way. Bullying also isn’t just something that happens to children. At all levels of society and in all workplaces people intimidate others or act passively in the face of intimidation. How you typically act in these situations can affect how you respond to your child being bullied.

To help your child who’s being bullied begin by acknowledging and recognising how difficult the situation is for them, praise their bravery in telling you about it. Offer comfort and support, no matter how upset you are, and take seriously their fear that if the bully finds out that they’ve told, the bullying may get worse. This does not mean you should keep the incidents secret and bury them. Be active in approaching the situation and deal with it sooner rather than later. Brainstorm and discuss different coping strategies. Consciously working on open communication between you and your child will help you to help them to be more in charge of the painful situation. As part of this approach you could role play what they could do or say differently.

Your actions should also take into account that bullying is a systemic problem, not only an individual one. You might need to speak to the school, or other adults in positions of authority, and report the incident, but in such a manner as not to disempower your child. All schools should have an anti-bullying policy, and this policy must be made clear to learners and staff at the school.  At the same time it is not only the school’s responsibility to solve the problem. This can only be done effectively if you see yourself as in partnership with the school and your child, allies in enforcing zero-tolerance for bullying.