Bullying can be verbal or physical, can include damage to property and can take place through messaging apps and social media. Children who look and sound different to their peers may be more of a target for bullies and can be more sensitive to teasing and comments. It may not be easy for teachers or parents to recognise at first that a child is being bullied, as children will often not want to tell anyone out of fear or even embarrassment.
Signs a child may be being bullied include:
- They are frightened travelling to or from school, or have changed their route
- They often try to avoid going to school or are regularly absent
- Their school work and/or participation in school begins to decline
- Their property is damaged, destroyed or ‘goes missing’, including money
- They become withdrawn, distressed, stop eating or start stammering
- They have unexplained bruises, scratches or cuts
- They refuse to say what’s wrong, or give implausible excuses for any of the above
If a child behaves in any of these ways, it may show that they are being bullied, though it could equally be that they are seriously distressed by something else. Remember that they may be very frightened to talk about what’s going on, so ask gently and reassure them that it isn’t their fault and that you’ll try to help.
There are three main steps to addressing bullying once it is identified:
Help the child to cope
There are a number of practical techniques to help a child cope with bullying, e.g. sticking with friends or learning and practising responses to bullies. Working to increase a child’s self-confidence can also help them deal with bullies better.
Most of this can be talked through with teachers and parents, but sometimes a little extra help is needed and the child could benefit from speaking to a counsellor or the Clinical Psychologist with the Cleft Team. Changing Faces have useful resources on their website too.
Working with the people in a child’s life to help change the situation
Make sure that a child’s teachers and other caregivers are aware of the situation so they can work together to help. Keeping in contact about any changes and seeking input from other sources can help to find solutions to ongoing problems like this.
Encourage the School to act appropriately
Every school should have a policy stating what measures they have in place to prevent bullying and what measures they will take if bullying is taking place. Your child’s teacher should be informed as soon as possible so they can look out for any further incidents. Always reassure your child that they have done the right thing by telling you. If the bullying continues, you should be able to make an appointment at the school to speak to someone about it.
Top tips for meeting with the school:
- Write down any questions in advance.
- Take in a written copy of what was said in the bullying incident(s), who was involved, where, when and how often.
- You may feel upset about what is happening, but try stay calm in the meeting, stick to factual information and work towards a practical solution.
- Ask for a copy of the anti-bullying policy. This will help you hold them to account if you do not think the appropriate actions are being taken.
Strategies for Coping
The Clinical Psychologist with your Cleft Team may be able to work with your child to help them cope and manage bullying. They may wish to liaise with the school to support your child. The charity Kidscape offer advice on how to recognise that a child is being bullied and suggest useful ideas and strategies for children, parents and schools to deal with it.
For example, Michael and his family have decided to use the following strategies to deal with comments and questions:
- Explain “I was born with a gap in my mouth and the doctors sewed it up when I was a baby.”
- Reassure “It doesn’t hurt.”
- Change the subject “Did you do your maths homework?”
If Michael is ever upset by questions, his teachers have been asked to do the same thing (Explain using Michael’s phrase, reassure and move the conversation on).
Some children won’t mind talking about their cleft to others, and you can help them put together phrases which are simple enough for others to understand. E.G. “I was born with a gap in my lip and gum, so my teeth are a bit wonky. I’ll have an operation when I’m older to make sure my adult teeth grow properly.”
Every child is different and will benefit from different strategies. In any case, it’s important to give them the space to talk about their experiences without placing blame (either on them or yourself), and reassure them that nothing will be done without you talking to them about it first.