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Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness.
My daughter started high school at the start of this year. Since then, she has become really withdrawn around home, and I've recently found out she has been skipping classes. When I've tried to ask her about what is going on, she won't talk about it much, but has said that she doesn't feel like she fits in and some girls at school are saying things about her behind her back. I think she is being bullied, and I'm not sure how to help her?
Starting High School can be new and exciting and sometimes a very trying time for many young people and their families. Not only is there expectation of increased independence and responsibility in terms of education and learning, but this also coincides with significant developmental and cognitive changes. This can be a confusing time for both you and your child.
As your child enters early adolescence, often the importance of friends and peer relationships begin to take precedence over connection and time with you as their parent. However, your support and her positive connection with whānau is so important to helping her to develop a strong and positive sense of self. For your daughter, this is a time of significant identity formation. It is widely understood that during adolescence, we are much more self-conscious about our changing identities than at any other stage in our lives.
You mention that your daughter “won’t talk about it much.” This is unlikely to mean that she does not want your help. Sometimes “not talking about hard stuff” is a defence strategy to avoid thinking about, and feeling the negative emotions associated with the situation (the bullying). You could try telling her that you know that it feels hard or uncomfortable to think about, and talk about, what is happening for her at school. Assure her that you are willing to listen when she is ready. Often for young people, a problem shared is a problem halved. We know that if a young person opens up for a first time and feels listened too and validated in their feelings that they are more likely to engage in help-seeking behaviour again in the future. Keep encouraging her (not nagging) that you are there for her, to support her in the way in which she needs.
There are a number of online sites that other parents and young people have found helpful in dealing with some of the issues you have described.
The Aunty Dee website is an online tool designed specifically for youth that assists to help in working through a problem.
The Pink Shirt Day website has lots of specific information about how to identify if your child is being bullied and the various ways to helpfully respond to this.
If at any time you become concerned about your child’s mental health please call your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service for advice or book an appointment to see your Family Doctor.
Effective communication is so important at this stage, and it requires parents or other trusted adults:
The second step is to work with the young person to find a way out of being bullied. Recent research and theory suggests using some of the following:
Bullying and peer relationship issues are consistently among the top five issues we work with on Youthline’s Helpline. We are always available to talk and help you build a plan. Remember, it is important for you to be well supported through this process too, and we are here for you.
We are also here for your daughter – if talking with friends, teachers or yourself doesn’t feel right for her, we are always available, free and confidential. We find young people really appreciate being able to text us for free at 234. We always encourage young people we work with to connect with trusted support people in their network – we might be able to support your daughter to be open to a conversation with you or a school counsellor.
Be honest about your concerns. Ask her if everything is OK, explain that you’ve noticed that she’s become withdrawn and that you’re worried that she might be being bullied. If you want to raise the issue of her skipping class, come from a patient, non-judgemental place. Tell her you’re worried about her wellbeing and that she’s not in trouble.
Let her know that you’re always there to listen and help out. Ask how you can help, she might not want to talk right away or might not want you to intervene. You might feel like you want to jump in and take action, but the best support can often just be listening.
Give her the number for Youthline so that she can contact them if she feels more comfortable, and talk about who else she can talk to. Is there a trusted teacher, family member, friend she can look to for support?
Find out together what the school's policy is on bullying and what steps the school can take if they get involved. If you feel the school's response is not enough, you can speak to the board of trustees directly.
This can be a really sensitive and distressing topic to navigate with your teen, and often it’s difficult to know how or where to start.
Some options you could use to draw your daughter into a conversation about what is going on for her, could be making the observation that she has changed over the past few months and become withdrawn. Ask her if she is aware of that and why does she think that may be. You could also start by using a ‘wondering’ statement – “I wonder why you don’t feel you fit in or what makes you feel different?”
Sometimes it is helpful to discuss what bullying actually is, who are the people who bully, who they target, how it makes them feel, and why it needs to stop. I would suggest that your daughter should talk about it with someone they trust whether that be at school or elsewhere. Skylight has counsellors in a number of areas in New Zealand that can be accessed by calling 0800 299 100.
Skylight sends free information support anywhere in New Zealand and can offer you a range of handouts and pamphlets that help navigate this issue with the child/teen including the possibility of approaching the school and how to go about that. We can provide you with information about the ‘what and why’ of bullying and tips on how you can support your daughter.
Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness. Got a question to ask our panel? You can ask us here.