When Ann Gallagher’s daughter was cyberbullied, it took a whole-of-community approach to tackle it. Ann shares her story to encourage other families going through the same thing.
I’m Ann, mother of two children aged 16 and 19. I’m an alternative therapist, netball coach of almost 30 years and run my own small business. Over the last few years I have learnt a lot about the challenges young people face. One of the most difficult experiences I’ve had in this time was through 2018, when my daughter, Stephanie, experienced cyberbullying.
It started as a result of her trying to walk away from some really difficult friendships, that she felt were not healthy for her and were impacting on her ability to recover from some tough times.
Stephanie was seeing a counsellor at headspace at the time and often discussed these friendship difficulties, and how she could get through them. She had lost 5 friends to suicide in 14 months and was only 14 years old. The difficulties with her friends just added to an already struggling situation.
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The relationship with these friends worsened when Stephanie started to draw some boundaries and asked them to be more understanding of her, and others who were struggling. She decided to split from these friends and tried to be amicable about it by asking them if things could remain civil, she just would not be hanging around them anymore.
This is when the cyberbullying started. At first it was through group chats on social media. She ignored them after seeking advice from me. We had hoped that not fighting back or giving them “air time” would mean it would blow over and go away. It actually made it worse. The cyberbullying then escalated, and some of Stephanie’s other friends were targeted. When a lot of people became involved it got really hard to contain the bullying or get a break from it.
Approaching the School for Help
School had started back and when it was impacting Stephanie’s ability to go, I approached them for help. We had a lot of discussions, and tried to work within the confines of their policies. Unfortunately, if it didn’t happen at the school, there isn’t much they could do about it. They were useful in the fact they gave some options to help, including police involvement.
The impact it had on her life was massive. She was already working on depression and anxiety issues, so cyberbullying thrown in the mix, when already vulnerable, really took its toll.
Throughout the five month ordeal (and I call it that as it honestly felt like it would never end at times), Stephanie went from someone who was managing her mental ill health, to being completely overwhelmed. She would make suicide plans, self-harm, feared school and was completely withdrawn.
“She was already working on depression and anxiety issues, so cyberbullying thrown in the mix, when already vulnerable, really took its toll.”
We took all the steps suggested by school, other websites etc to try and combat the situation. The school had a chat to the girls to try and keep them apart but the cyberbullying tactics continued to change, making it really hard to make progress or find space and time to recover. I lost count of the amount of times both my husband and I wanted to approach the people involved, or their parents. I was really hurting, but wanted to try to play by the rules, and take the higher ground, to set a good example for Stephanie.
Police became involved, they interviewed Stephanie, spoke to her about what was happening and then did a talk to all the year 10 students as there were two other incidents in the year 10 level at the school at the same time.
Unfortunately, this didn’t end the bullying, it just changed the way the bullying happened.
Blocking the Bullies
After some discussion we decided to lessen social media. Stephanie also decided to remove herself from some online groups, and delete or block people that were connected with them, in order to give her an opportunity to focus on recovery. Still, the bullying didn’t stop. This continued to have a big impact on her wellbeing. We were working really hard to support her, work with teachers, and school wellbeing workers to give a consistent message of support.
Her attendance at school continued to reduce, and when she was there, she was in the office with a teacher so that she was away from those involved in the bullying – which helped.
In one of our meetings at the school where the conversation came up about not letting them win, she responded with “it’s no longer about them winning, it’s about me being safe and ok”. That’s the moment, for me that things changed.
For us the solution was to change schooling and since doing so, she is getting her sparkle back.
My advice now to anyone would be to really listen to the young person being bullied. It’s so important to understand the impact it’s having on them. It is so important that we can keep them safe and feeling ok. We became so focussed on stopping the bullying, we got a little lost about who we are stopping it for. Her statement changed the outcome. We didn’t need the school, the police or other people to stop this. We removed ourselves from the situation. It stopped. Stephanie finished year 10 via distance education and she is now attending Tafe for her VCE, away from the social groups of school hierarchy, into an environment where she has found safety and comfort.
I often wonder if those doing the bullying really understood the impact it had on her. I honestly believe they just weren’t aware of what they were doing and the impact they were having. Perhaps they felt justified in their actions, because they were hurt by her trying to walk away from the friendship and for that reason. I don’t believe it was ever going to stop while she was there.
“Did they win”? I don’t thinks so. My daughter walks away head held high, a kind and compassionate person, who has empathy for others, knowing people quietly go through issues behind the scenes. The kind of people we need in this world and that I would certainly want to be around. That’s a big win for me!