Ann Gallagher: 'I often wonder if those doing the bullying really understood the impact it had on her'

26 Jun 2019
I often wonder if those doing the bullying really understood the impact it had on her.

I’m Ann, mother of two children aged 16 and 19. I’m an alternative therapist, netball coach of almost 30 years and I 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 was in 2018 when my daughter, Stephanie experienced cyberbullying. It started when she tried to walk away from some really difficult friendships that she felt weren’t healthy for her and were impacting 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 five friends to suicide in 14 months and was only 14 years old. The difficulties with her friends just added to an already challenging time.

The relationship with these friends became worse when Stephanie started to draw some boundaries and asked them to be more understanding of her, and others who were having a tough time. In the end, she decided to split from these friends and asked if things could remain civil.

Ann Gallagher Portrait web

This is when the cyberbullying started. At first it was through group chats on social media and after seeking some advice from me, she ignored them. We hoped that not fighting back would mean it would stop. 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. 

School had started back and when it was impacting Stephanie’s ability to go, I approached teachers for help. We had a lot of discussions, and tried to work within the confines of their policies. Unfortunately, because it didn’t happen on school grounds, there wasn’t much they could do about it. They did offer some options to help, including getting the police involved.

The impact it had on her life was huge. She was already working on depression and anxiety, so when cyberbullying was thrown in the mix, it really took its toll on Stephanie. 

Throughout the five month ordeal (and I call it that as I 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.

We took steps suggested by school to try and combat the situation. The school had a chat to the students to try and separate them 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.

Eventually, police became involved and interviewed Stephanie about what was happening. They also did a talk to all the year 10 students as there were two other incidents in year 10 happening at the same time. 

Unfortunately, this didn’t end the bullying and only changed the way the bullying occurred.

After some discussion we decided to reduce social media use. 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 and this continued to have a big impact on her wellbeing. We were working really hard to support her, working with teachers, and school wellbeing workers to provide help.

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.

In one of our meetings at the school, a conversation came up about not ‘letting them win’. In response Stephanie said, “It’s no longer about them winning, it's about me being safe and ok”. For me, that's the moment that things changed.

The solution for us was to change schools and since doing so, she is getting her sparkle back. 

What I would say now to anyone experiencing something similar would be to really listen to the young person being bullied. It’s so important to understand the impact it’s having on them. And it’s so important that we can keep them safe and feeling ok.  What Stephanie said that day at school changed our direction. We decided that we didn't need the school, the police or other people to stop this. We decided we needed to remove ourselves from the situation. And fortunately for us, it stopped. Stephanie finished year 10 via distance education and she is now attending TAFE for her VCE. She is now in 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 choosing to walk away from the friendship.

My daughter now holds her head high. She is kind and compassionate person, who has empathy for others, and knows what people quietly go through. To me, she’s the kind of person we need in this world and she’s certainly someone I would want to be around. That’s a big win for me!

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