Family Almanac

What to Do If Your Child Is Being Bullied at School

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009

Q.My daughter -- a sociable child -- is about to start sixth grade at her coed Catholic school, but she began to cry the other night and said she wants to change schools.

She said she has been unhappy at her school, on and off, for the past two years, because she has been bullied by some of the children in her group. Even if she plays nicely with them at lunchtime, she is afraid of what will happen the next day.

She said one child had conducted a "poll" to find out who liked my daughter -- and who didn't -- and that some of the girls ran away from her or had "private talks" where they whispered, smirked or laughed while looking straight at her.

My child also said some of their mothers didn't want their daughters to play with her, but I don't know why. She does act a little silly sometimes -- if she's trying to make her friends laugh -- but that shouldn't make them be mean to my child.

My husband doesn't want our daughter to change schools, however, because he is afraid that she won't be accepted by her new classmates. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," he says, but I'm not so sure.

I'd like to make my daughter happy and give her what she thinks she needs, but I don't know how she can have a smooth transition to middle school if she goes to this new school for only one year. Also, if she does move, wouldn't she be focusing on her friendships more than her education? And won't it be harder for her to make friends with children who have been together since first grade?

A.Before you make any decision, you need to know whether your daughter wants to change schools because of the bullying or because of other, more fleeting problems that she barely understands.

You'll know the truth after the two of you have had a few long talks. Have them in the dark, so she will be more confiding, and leave long pauses, so she will confide even more.

You may find that she has become uncertain and self-conscious, like many girls between 10 and 12, because she's finding it hard to adjust to all the hormones she's beginning to get and to the changing size and shape of her body.

She also may be having the same case of jitters that affects every child at the start of every school year, but she doesn't know that it will go away as soon as she finds out that her new teacher isn't as stern as she looks; that her homework isn't too hard and that her coach lets her play quite a lot.

Although most young people worry about these things, they seldom think that their old friends might turn mean, and yet this often happens with girls, particularly in the second half of the second, fifth and seventh grades, and it can be devastating.

It's all very well to tell your daughter that she shouldn't let herself be bullied by a couple of classmates, but you can't expect children to be strong all the time. Nor can you expect all teachers to know what to do about bullies or even to notice their behavior, since most of it occurs on the playground, in the halls, in the lunchroom or on the bus, and without a teacher in sight.

The principal should listen to your complaints, however, and agree to stop this bullying and to monitor the campus and the bus much better. If not, you should move your daughter to another school, not because you're putting friendships above education, but because you know she won't learn much if she's unhappy.

This may seem like an overreaction, but put yourself in your child's small shoes. She has finished the fifth grade, so she is probably at least 10 years old, and she says she has been bullied, on and off, for two years. Now ask yourself: Would you like to be bullied for a fifth of your life? Would you want to be bullied for another year? Another day?

Changing schools has its drawbacks but it also has a few great pluses. The move will broaden your daughter's horizons and help her make other friends, because her new classmates will probably be pretty bored with each other by now and eager to meet someone new. Above all, the move will teach your daughter to look for angels wherever she goes and leave the devils to somebody else.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.


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