Written by Claire Handrick

Voices

Living with a teenage stranger

Claire Handrick has misjudged the challenges of being the mother of a teenager and has decided to chronicle the joys, frustrations, hair-pulling moments and deep-rooted fears she’s experiencing. This week, her heart breaks for victims of bullying.

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Illustration by Harriet Carmichael.

Kids can be cruel: they can name-call, they can ignore and exclude, they can manipulate, they can isolate, they can physically and emotionally bully and torture.

Listening to Felix Alexander’s mum talk about the bullying of her teenage son, which led him to take his own life, broke my heart – the pain she is in must be crippling and the pain her boy was in, simply unimaginable.

Kids are often bullied because they stand out: they become a target because they are a bit different in their looks, their ability, their hobbies, their background – seemingly nothing is off the list. And it’s all about power; the bully having power over someone who seems weaker than them. And in some cases there will be jealousy, bitterness and maybe even revenge mixed up in there as well.

It’s hard to be different, especially as a teenager when kids are trying to find themselves and work out who the fuck they are, when they are also learning about people, friendships and the whole world. It can be a brilliant time but it can also be a time of great disappointment and distress.

Last year, one of my daughters was bullied at school, hideously bullied to the point where I was worried that she might hurt herself. She was already struggling with friends, after being dumped by a group of girls she thought were her mates and then, as she became more and more isolated, she also became a target. She hid it from us for quite a while, as she withdrew and became low, anxious and angry.

We are close but she withdrew from me in a way I had not experienced before. Her grades started to drop and I knew something was really off. I arranged a night for us to be on our own to cook together – our thing – and it all came out.

“As her mother I felt so utterly helpless, desperately fearful that the love I had for her would not be enough.”

She sobbed like I’d never seen before. She felt like no one at school liked her, she wasn’t included in anything, she often felt ignored and sidelined, and she had resorted to hiding in the loos at lunchtime. A group of girls were doing the name-calling, the other girls were ignoring her and my girl felt lost and lonely, upset at the name-calling but also at the isolation of having no friends and that no one had her back.

As a mother I did all I could, which was to keep her close and go in to the school. We were lucky: school were excellent. It was dealt with quickly and well and, while still not perfect, things have got better. I was seconds away from pulling her out of school – probably not the perfect solution, but survival instincts took over and protecting her was my focus.

I had sleepless nights, I cried a lot, I crept into her room at night to make sure she was OK – the very real fear that she could hurt herself took a while to go away and I still feel quite anxious about her.

This bullying exposed a vulnerability in both of us and she has been left with anxiety and low self-esteem. I do all I can to give her a boost and make her feel safe but weekly counselling is making the biggest difference.

As her mother I felt so utterly helpless, desperately fearful that the love I had for her would not be enough. We were very lucky – she’s doing all right now, and I hope it stays that way.

It saddens me to think of just how many teenagers are struggling like this, and there isn’t an easy answer but maybe it’s time that schools were given the funding to provide lessons in mental and emotional health, in addition to excellent counselling and mentor support for students.

Let’s get counsellors and mentors in there to teach as a preventative measure, so that teenagers can learn more about supporting one other and about the effects that negative behaviour and cruel words can have, to encourage teenagers to value themselves, to boost their self-esteem.

There’s no academic value in that though, is there? So until more investment is made and realistic solutions are developed, kids will continue to struggle on and some will die.

Read the rest of Claire Handrick’s columns here.

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Written by Claire Handrick

Mother, ponderer and cake eater.