As parents, we can be ultra-sensitive about anything that hurts our children's feelings and it is easy (for all the right reasons) to tend towards over-protection. We must take care to ensure that children have every opportunity and freedom to develop as independent agents. Learning to cope for themselves with a range of behaviours is vital to developing social resilience so that they are able to operate confidently when she or he encounters bullying behaviour.
Safeguarding policies now include 'peer-on-peer abuse' as it is recognised that sometimes cruel behaviour is exhibited between children. If your child is exposed to such behaviour, you will want s/he to be able to discuss the experience as well as to become well-equipped to deal with it. Effective responses to potential bullying can mean that your child grows up able to set personal boundaries, avoid potentially abusive relationships and recognise acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, while maintaining a confident self-image.
Children need to know they must speak to a teacher, or their parents, whenever bullying happens. For this, young people need to feel that they can trust adults implicitly. Sometimes it will be necessary to support quietly in the background without taking overt action – coaching from the sidelines and helping children to learn to deal with difficult situations for themselves. This is counter-intuitive for many parents but intellectually we know that it is our job to help youngsters develop into independent adults and we cannot fight their battles for them (much as we might wish to).
Parents can help prepare children for difficult situations before they occur by talking through real, as well as fictional, examples of bad behaviour. Opportunities will arise naturally every day when sharing experiences and memories, reading and watching films and television together. By normalising observations of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, you can build a vocabulary around this and support your child's developing sense of self.
If you become concerned that your child might be bullied at school, it is important not to jump in and wrest control from the child. Try to make this a learning experience, giving your child every opportunity to deal with interactions him/herself. Welcome your child's confidence respectfully if s/he shares any difficult social experience with you. Try to make it all about the child coping with this situation, rather than your own outrage. You might ask what your child will say to the alleged perpetrator next time and support the child in taking control rather than accepting victimisation. Is the behaviour best ignored or confronted? You might encourage the child to explore the potential motivation of the alleged bully, developing empathy and understanding the behaviour for what it is: unhelpful behaviour, probably from an individual who has problems of their own.
Use the school's pastoral system, first by encouraging your child to approach the form teacher/favourite teachers and pastoral staff. If the situation continues, you can approach school staff yourself, taking care to provide them with space to investigate objectively and provide all-important support to your child. Take care not to charge in: there might be more to the situation than is immediately evident and your priority is to be a trusted support for your child rather than a source of embarrassment!
One of the worst things parents can do is leap in to defend a child, claiming that s/he is right and others must be wrong or 'lying'. Life is complex and children need to learn that different people can see the same situation in different ways. What is clear wrongdoing to your child might be understandable behaviour from the point of view of another. Helping your child to appreciate this by talking through the different angles on a given event will develop negotiation skills and help your child not to take it too personally. See whether you can help your child to understand the motives of the alleged perpetrator. This can support the development of insight that supports your child through teenage years and into adulthood where no doubt they will be challenged by tricky behaviours in the work place! The very worst thing a parent can do is take matters into their own hands through a confrontation and create an interfamilial war in the school car park.
Your child deserves your support in finding his or her way in the world and that means your (preferably, invisible) parental support in the background. The most helpful thing you can be is a caring, firm, consistent and pragmatic coach/mentor, discussing tactics and analysing the day's events while empowering your child to be an agent of his or her own destiny. It is their life and their issue to deal with. They will ultimately thank you for your support if you help empower them – and might not forgive you for outright interference!
We are all tested by bullying at some stage in our lives. When it happens to your child, you will not be there, so you will want him/her to have the strategies to be able to cope with the situation. More help is available online from Childline, NSPCC and Bullying UK.