Master Nine came home from school one day in February and burst into tears. “No one likes me,” he said. “Everyone’s mean to me.”
My heart froze. I would do anything to have my children avoid the type of bullying I went through as a child. And yet here he was, saying the exact words that I remember saying at his age. I wanted to scream and shout and wrap my arms around him and never let him go. But before I did anything, I took a deep breath. It was possible — only possible, mind you — that I was overreacting.
After all, he was eight. And it’s developmentally normal for children his age to go through a period where they feel like no one likes them; where they feel like they have no friends as they take place in normal social push-and-pull power plays.
So I listened to him, and I gave him a hug, and l I told him it would be all right.
I was wrong.
By the end of March, Master Nine no longer wanted to go to school. He no longer wanted to go anywhere. He was scared. All the time. Of school, yes, but also of everything else. He was terrified of familiar stories; of movies he’d seen a hundred times; of the thoughts in his head; of new people and old friends and leaving the house. He couldn’t get to sleep. And when he finally did, collapsing from exhaustion, he’d be woken by nightmares once, twice, three times a night.
By April, he was suffering panic attacks every night. He’d lie in bed thinking about having to go to school the next day, and then stagger out, hours later, whimpering and struggling to breathe. I’d put a hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat, like fluttering hummingbird wings inside his chest, then hold his ice-cold hands while I helped him calm down; breathing with him, in and out, and gently reassuring him that he was okay. Eventually, he’d collapse against me and sob himself into a restless sleep, and I’d carry him back to bed.
One day in mid-April, when I was encouraging Master Nine (yet again) to tell the teacher if someone made him feel upset or uncomfortable, he looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to stop them. Not even the teachers can stop them. There’s no point trying.”
I cried for his pain. I cried for my own. I cried for eight-year-old me who felt exactly like the same way, and desperately wanted an adult to step in and make everything better. I cried for current-day me, because now I was that adult. And I still didn’t know what to do.
I thought I’d felt helpless as a child. But being a parent, watching you child feeling helpless, and still being helpless yourself? Helplnessness to the power of infinity.
We need help, like quick, on the double
One morning in late April, Master Nine snuck into my bedroom and said, “Mummy, I think I need to go to the doctor.”
“Okay, Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. But everybody hates me, so something must be wrong with me. If we go to the doctor, she can give me some medicine to make me normal.”
Once upon a time, about six months ago, Master Nine was a confident young man who didn’t hesitate to talk to people — whether adults or children — and wouldn’t let me go with him into doctor’s offices. So on the day that we went to the doctor — after many hugs and reassurances from me that he is not only normal but perfect just the way he is — I realised just how much he’d changed.
He flat-out refused to talk tot he doctor without me, clinging to my arm like a tired two-year-old and not making eye contact with anyone else in the waiting room. When we went into the doctor’s office, he hunched his shoulders over and hid behind my back, then collapsed into a chair, pulled his knees up to his chest, and pulled the hood of his hoodie up over his head so he could hide in its shadows. Over the next ten minutes, Master Nine answered the doctor’s questions in whispered monosyllables . He said only one full sentence during that visit; one full sentence in response to a question about what makes him feel happy: “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.”
We didn’t get magic medicine. But we did get a referral to a child psychologist.
At his first appointment, I took Master Nine into the psychologist’s office and waited for him to be engrossed in an activity before quietly making my way back out to the waiting room. The psychologist talked to Master Nine for almost an hour, and then called me in. “He’s highly intelligent, isn’t he?” was the first thing she said to me. “Such a conceptual thinker.”
In the psychologist’s opinion, Master Nine had a healthy attachment to me and the rest of the family, felt completely secure and at ease at home, but was struggling to deal with the trauma of the bullying he’d endured. Her biggest concern was that he’d lost confidence in his own ability to tell friend from foe — he’d developed trust issues. She suggested he start a new social activity — one completely unrelated to his school or anyone he already knew — to get some social “wins” on the board, and taught me some relaxation exercises to use to help him with his sleeping.
Things started to improve a little. But only a little. The relaxation exercises helped him sleep, and nightmares became less frequent. But he still hated school. His reading ability was getting worse and worse, and he was too scared he’d get a question wrong to practice any maths. I started to get concerned not only about his emotional wellbeing, but also about how his emotional wellbeing was affecting his learning. And then, towards the end of May, he started telling me that he couldn’t remember whole chunks of time. A particular example that stayed with me was the time he remembered going into class, then the teacher raising her voice. The next thing he remembered, the teacher was crouched in front of him, gently suggesting he go out to lunch. That’s when he realised the class was over, and all the other kids had already gone outside.
Decision-making is hard
I started thinking about pulling Master Nine out of school back in March — back when his anxiety symptoms were starting to worry me. But I persevered, trying to make things work out. I probably did so for far too long, in retrospect; not trusting myself to make the right decision. I second, third, and fourth-guessed myself.
- Was I projecting? Did I think things were worse than they really were because of what I’d been through as a child?
- Was I being over-protective? Was this something he needed to experience to help him grow? Would removing him from the situation stunt his emotional growth?
- Was this experience something that would pass? Was it a storm in a teacup?
- Was this experience teaching him resilience and courage? If I removed him from the situation, would that just teach him to run away when things got hard?
I didn’t trust myself to make the decision. And so no decision was made. Right up until a day came when I tried to drop Master Nine off at school and he literally couldn’t get out of the car. Every time he put his feet on the ground, he started shaking and retching convulsively. His skin had turned a distressing shade of grey, and his hands were freezing cold. I closed the car door, got back in, and drove away.
We saw his psychologist later that day. She listened to me describe what had happened, talked to him for an hour, then told me exactly what I didn’t want (but needed) to hear: “He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. You need to get him out of that environment. Now.”
I withdraw him that afternoon.
Playing the blame game…
The first instinct of people on hearing about something like this is to cast about for who to blame. Well, here’s what I think: Playing the blame game is counter-productive, unhelpful, and irrelevant. And I have no interest in doing it.
I don’t blame the children who bullied him. Firstly, because they’re good kids — I’ve known most of them since they were five years old. And while their behaviour led Master Nine to a place of trauma, it hasn’t (to my knowledge) had the same effect on the other children. Besides, children will inevitably push boundaries and see what happens. It’s how they learn about the world. They need guidance to help them develop empathy and socially acceptable behaviour. If they don’t get that guidance… well, we’ve all read Lord of the Flies, haven’t we?
But I certainly don’t blame the parents. Again, I’ve known most of them for years. They’re all wonderful, loving, generous, kind people, doing everything they can to raise their children to be just as wonderful, loving, generous, and kind.
It would be easy to blame the school, but easy isn’t the same as right. I do believe there were some systemic issues that contributed to the situation, however as soon as I spoke to the staff about them, changes were made. The teachers and admin staff were responsive and open and caring. They did everything they could to change and manage and improve things for Master Nine. And I thank them for that.
If I was forced to lay the blame somewhere, however, I would lay it at the feet of our society as a whole, which simultaneously condemns and endorses bullying. But that’s a discussion for another day.
New Adventures, Dead Ahead!
Since the day I told Master Nine that he didn’t have to go back to that school, he’s been getting better. It’s a slow process, and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, seventeen steps back, but we’re getting there. We celebrate the little milestones along the way: A week without nightmares. Two weeks without a panic attack. Talking to a shopkeeper. Attending social activities by himself.
And on Monday we start our next grand adventure.
For the next six months (at least) I will be homeschooling him. It’s not something I expected to be doing, and I am heartbroken about the events that brought us to this point, but I’m excited for the future. And that, my friends, is the lesson I hope Master Nine takes away from this. Not that bullies can’t be beaten, or that running away is the solution, but that all hard times come to an end, and the future shines bright.