How to understand what’s really going on with your children’s friendships and the truth about bullies

Bullies are actually as lacking in confidence and self-esteem as the people the pick on, says Dr Ros

Bullies are actually as lacking in confidence and self-esteem as the people the pick on, says Dr Rosemary Taylor, one of two experts giving a Huddl parent talk about friendship groups and bullying in Ipswich on October 9 and Cambridge on October 30.Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's easy to despise a playground bully but is that the right reaction? Their actions betray just how lacking in confidence and self-esteem they really are, says Dr Rosemary Taylor, one of two speakers who will be sharing their expertise at an event for parents in Ipswich.

According to the charity Young Minds, bullying affects a million young people every week in the UK.

But what can parents do to best help their children with this and other pitfalls associated with growing up, such as peer pressure, the need to fit in and fall outs with friends?

The subject will come under the spotlight at an event organised by East Anglian parenting support social business Huddl, when expert speakers Dr Rosemary Taylor and Dr Ruth MacConville will give an insight into what the latest evidence suggests and share practical tools.

And parents may be surprised to learn that bullies aren't actually the most confident, cocky people in the playground after all.

In fact, they have more in common with their victims than perhaps even they realise.

'Bullies and the bullied actually share many of the same characteristics: low self-esteem, lack of confidence - it is all there,' says Dr Taylor, a behavioural psychologist, former headteacher and UN advisor.

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'People who become bullies have often been bullied themselves in some context. If a child feels threatened they may go on the attack. It is a different response to low self-esteem. They try to gain confidence by knocking it out of other people, often someone they perceive to be the weakest person in the class or perhaps someone they are jealous of or someone who has something they want.'

Different stages

Friendships between children are very different to adult friendships so if, for instance, a child has a different 'best friend' every week that shouldn't be a cause for concern, says Dr Taylor. 'It's perfectly normal for a certain stage of development. It's a bit like being in an ice-cream shop and trying lots of different flavours to get to know what you like.'

Gender roles

Gender also influences how friendships are made - and broken.

'If boys fall out in the middle of a game they will often carry on playing as the game is the most important thing. But girls will stop because, for them, the relationship is the most important thing,' says Dr Taylor. 'The way girls make friends is by self-revealing; telling their deepest secrets to make a social bond. This is not a problem until they fall out, when it can come back to haunt them. Boys don't do that. They will be friends with someone who shares their interests. A good rule of thumb is not to send pictures or information you wouldn't want a wider audience to see or to know.'

How to react

Although it can be hard, says Dr Taylor, parents should avoid 'helicopter parenting' when their children run into friendship difficulties.

'You want to protect them but rather than coming in with the solution every time it might be better to say, 'what have you tried so far; did that work or how about trying this?'. Encourage them to come up with their own solution. Every time you over-parent you are actually harm your child's self-esteem. The message they get is that they are clearly not capable of sorting it out themselves.'

Peer pressure

Teenagers are vulnerable to peer pressure and can get drawn into areas of behaviour they are not entirely comfortable with but will go along with to be part of 'the pack', says Dr Taylor. 'As parents, we have to ask ourselves, will this be a problem five years from now before we react. For instance it could be something as simple as wearing make-up, which probably won't matter in the longer term, or something more troubling, like smoking, which clearly would.'

Communication is key

'It's important to have a dialogue with our children so we can understand what is going on,' says Dr Taylor. 'Even if we can't always make it better it is important not to make it worse. Bear that in mind as a parent and know they will come through it but how they come through it can be influenced by what we say and do, or don't say and do.'

:: Huddl's Friendship Groups and Bullying talk on Tuesday, October 9, is at Trinity Park, Ipswich. To find out more and book tickets go to 10% of profits go to Suffolk Mind and CPSL Mind. The talk will also take place at Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre, Cambridge, on October 30. Huddl's final parent talk this autumn focuses on social media and the internet and takes place in Cambridge on November 12 and Ipswich on November 13.

Friendship skills can be learnt

Learning 'friendship skills' at an early age is crucial to help children navigate many of the potential hurdles of growing up, says Dr Ruth MacConville, who has a background in psychology and has spent 30 years as an educator working with children and families.

'Research suggests that you give your child much more chance of success in life if you concentrate on their 'likeability' skills rather than their ability to read from an early age,' says Dr MacConville, who did her doctorate in social and friendship skills.

'This begins by modelling - arranging friendship activities with other children. In the beginning, parents choose the activity and companions but slowly they encourage the child to do that for themselves. This builds up 'likeability' - things like being able to make eye contact and smile and not hover on the edge of groups but to make an entrance.

'The good news is that lots of parents are doing all this unconsciously, either because they are sociable themselves or because they transmit to their children that they do care about others and that relationships matter. The only parents who really don't help are the ones who are not bothered about being likeable.'

Likeability, she says, should not be confused with superficial popularity, which is more related to status, something that starts to gain currency as children enter adolescence.

'Competition comes into it - who is the best at X, Y or Z,' says Dr MacConville. 'Young people with status like to build on that status so that others flock to them. It doesn't mean they are likeable, but they do have social power. Parents should encourage children to continue to be 'likeable' - to say please, thank you, smile and make eye contact - as, at the end of the day, it's real, lasting relationships that matter.'