We at CLDF were all very proud when Charlina, one of our amazing young people, was selected to be part of The One Show’s Surprise Squad for BBC Children in Need. It was a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of CLDF and of childhood liver disease itself. During her interviews, Charlina who is now 21, bravely took the opportunity to speak honestly, not only about her experience of liver disease, but the fact that her condition had resulted in her being bullied. It’s a subject she feels passionately about as she explains:
Unfortunately bullying was a fact of life for me for many years. It started pretty much as soon as I started school. My health needs were complex and meant that I was developmentally behind the other children. Toilet training took much longer so I was the only one allowed access to the disabled toilet, which had been put in place specifically before I joined. I wasn’t allowed any dairy so when the other children were having their milk, I had to sit separately and have a different drink. I still don’t understand why I had to sit separately – maybe there was a good reason but I don’t think it helped. I was also very skinny. All of those things made me look and feel different to the other children. It was one group of boys in particular who made fun of my weight and encouraged others to bully me too. In fairness to my primary school teachers, they did try to address the problem and the bullies would be told off but when you have those experiences so young, they do stay with you.
When I moved to senior school, most of the children from my primary moved there too – including the bullies. Unfortunately for me by the time I started this school, I had a tube and an oxygen tank which I had to take around with me in a suitcase. This made me stand out even more and gave the bullies further ammunition. I always remember that on the first day in year 7, my mum asked for the chance to speak to the matron and the head of year so that she could explain my health situation and the impact it had had on me but the school said it wasn’t possible, there wasn’t time. Who knows if that would have made a difference but here the bullying was much more open. I do think that high school is a tough place anyway for a timid person (which I was) but if you are a bit different, it makes it worse.
I that I was lucky enough to receive my liver transplant during Year 7 but unfortunately the bullying did not stop. During the Year 8 Sports Day (when I was just sitting watching), a girl jumped on me and pushed me – and yet I was the one told to move and one day during a lesson in Year 9, a fellow pupil said something so nasty to me that I walked out of the classroom crying. The teacher told followed me and told me to come back but the boy who had said it just got away with it. I remember my friends being really angry on my behalf and telling me to complain to the Pastoral Manager for my year which I did. She told me to go back to class and that she would sort it later but that ‘later’ never came. In the end I got fed up of complaining. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been up to me to complain. This behaviour shouldn’t have been tolerated in the first place.
I left school after GCSEs and went to college. To begin with I was very on edge, not quite trusting people and waiting for the bullying to start but it never did! I started to feel really free in a way I never had previously. After college I came to university where I’m doing a Foundation course for nursing. Here it’s even better – bullying just doesn’t happen. Being able to study without this worry of being bullied is just great.
So what would I say to others in my situation? Well even though it was something I found hard, I would say speak up – tell someone. It does takes courage, especially if you’re shy, but don’t suffer in silence. You don’t necessarily have to tell a teacher – it can be a parent, family member – in fact any adult you can trust. But you mustn’t feel that this is your problem to sort. No-one should get away with bullying. We all need to speak up about it because I don’t want others to experience what I did.
Charlina’s view is echoed by 12 year old Katie, who also experienced bullying at an early age.
It started in Year 1. One particular girl started calling me names. She said liver disease was catching, like Rabies, and that other children should keep away from me. Her friends joined in. For a while I kept this to myself but when it carried on into Year 2, I told a teacher and told my parents. The children who were being nasty got told off but they didn’t seem to care about being told off and their parents didn’t seem to mind about what they had done. So they carried on being horrible all through primary school.
I was lucky to have my best friend and my other friends and I did talk to them about it. They would stand up for me and they told me to ignore the bullying. They were great friends but they didn’t know what it’s like. It’s really hard to ignore.
When I moved to senior school, unfortunately the bullying girl and her friends came to the same school. The bullying got worse. I would be called names and once I actually got kicked as I was walking along the corridor. This time I didn’t wait. I reported it straight away. The school acted, the children were told off and I was moved forms so I don’t see them so much. Things are better now but it still happens from time to time and I have good days and bad days. What’s kept me going are my friends.
My advice to anyone in this situation is don’t keep bullying a secret. I was threatened that if I told anyone, people would be waiting outside school and beat me up but I did tell and I’m glad I did. I didn’t have people waiting for me outside school but I did feel a whole lot better As soon as I reported it, it was like a great big weight had gone from me. Let your friends help you. Reporting it isn’t easy – it takes a lot of courage to report it but you have to be brave because you will feel better as soon as you do.
Now I’m older I can join in the CLDF Hive Hangouts and I love doing this because I feel just the same as everyone else and I don’t have to explain anything. I’m happy talking about my liver condition on the Hive hangouts but also happy when we talk about other stuff as well.
Millie Mai who is 15 believes that having experienced bullying makes you more conscious of how others treat you:
I am more aware of what people say to me and how they say it and if I were to be bullied again I would tell my mum and try sort it out with school as well. I would say that if anyone is being bullied, speak to someone you trust and get it sorted out, as it can be very mentally draining not telling anyone and when you do it feels much better, like a weight off your shoulders.
Dr Fiona Lambert, Senior Clinical Psychologist at Leeds Children’s Hospital has some advice for parents whose children experience bullying.
While many people who have chronic health conditions talk about having positive experiences at school, we understand that it can also be the peak age for teasing and name-calling, and for children with any kind of perceived ‘difference’ this can be especially difficult.
Bullying and hurtful behaviour can be verbal or physical, can include damage to property, and can even take place online through messaging apps or social media sites. Sometimes children with perceived differences to peers, such as children with chronic health conditions, may be more of a target for bullies. However, just because someone has a health condition, it does not mean they will experience bullying. Lots of people with health conditions never have a problem with bullying or teasing. However, if a young person is experiencing unpleasant comments or behaviour from others that is upsetting them, then this is not okay.
It may not be easy to recognise that a child is being bullied, as children will often not want to tell anyone out of fear or even embarrassment. Signs a child may be being bullied include:
- A change in behaviour (e.g., louder, quieter)
- They are frightened travelling to or from school
- They often try to avoid going to school or are regularly absent
- Their schoolwork and/or participation in school begins to decline
- Their property is damaged, destroyed or ‘goes missing’, including money
- They become withdrawn, distressed, stop eating or start stammering
- They have unexplained bruises, scratches or cuts
- They experience disturbed sleep
- They experience unexplained illness (e.g., tummy aches, headaches)
- They refuse to say what’s wrong, or give implausible excuses for any of the above
If a child behaves in any of these ways, it may show that they are being bullied, though it could equally be that they are upset by something else. Remember that they may be embarrassed or frightened to talk about what’s going on. Talking to adults about bullying can also be tough for children because they may worry about how adults will respond. For example, they may fear upsetting you, or that you will get angry and speak to school when they do not want that. Understandably, you may well feel upset or angry when your child tells you they are being bullied. But this is an opportunity to show your child how to calmly and confidently deal with difficult situations and conflict. So, if you notice any of the above signs, ask gently about them and reassure your child that it isn’t their fault and that you’ll try to help. Here are some tips on how to do this:
- When your child is telling you about their problem, listen carefully and do not interrupt them. This will support your child to feel listened to. It might help to create a relaxed space for the conversation to take place (E.g., go for a walk or drive together, have a meal together)
- Your child needs you to remain calm
- Empathise with your child’s situation. You can do this by acknowledging how hard it must have been to experience the teasing/bullying and that they did not deserve to be treated in that way. This will help your child feel validated.
- Avoid listing off solutions or trying to explain why the bullying might have happened. Instead, ask your child what they would like to do about the situation and whether they want you to do anything to help. This will support your child to recognise they have choices and power in this unpleasant situation.
- Help the child to cope
There are practical techniques to help a child cope with bullying, such as encouraging them to be around positive friends. It is also important to encourage the child to talk to an adult about any bullying they are experiencing. Most of this can be talked through with teachers and parents, but sometimes a little extra help is needed and the child might benefit from speaking to someone externally.
- Encourage the school to act appropriately
Every school should have a policy stating what measures they have in place to prevent bullying and what measures they will take if bullying is taking place. Your child’s teacher should be informed as soon as possible so they can look out for further incidents. Your child may be reluctant for you to speak with school, so always reassure them that they have done the right thing by telling you. Before speaking to school, you and your child can think through what you are going to say to their teacher, and they might want to choose who they want to tell. Again, this can help your child feel empowered in a difficult situation.
If the bullying continues, you should be able to make an appointment at the school to speak to someone about it. At this meeting you may feel upset about what it happening to your child, but try to stay calm in the meeting, stick to factual information that your child has told you and work towards a practical solution.
- The bullying is online
If bullying is happening online, talk to the child about cyberbullying and how they might want respond to hurtful comments (e.g., leave the conversation, and tell someone what has happened). Most online platforms have methods for reporting bullying behaviour.
It is also important to remember that many children with chronic health conditions do very well at school, make friends, have a positive experience and do not need any additional support.