We’ll always have Paris

People go to Paris to be happy. They go to drink champagne, to eat delicious food, to sit in cafés discussing philosophy, to shop for matching underwear and to make love.
Paris is not a city you go to if you’re on a diet, metaphorically or literally. It is a city of excess, of abundance, beauty and glamour.
I’m sure that’s why the terrorists picked Paris on Friday night. There is no city on earth that is more symbolic of everything they hate. As the writer Alan Furst once said: “Paris is the beating heart of Western civilisation. It’s where it all began.”
On Friday night, a gang of murderous thugs tried to end it. They turned a fun evening out for hundreds of people into their worst nightmare. They targetted young people, people who had just started out in life, men and women who had everything to look forward to, who should have had years and years to live, not minutes, or seconds. A concert was turned into something resembling Dante’s lower circles of hell.
The stories and images to come out of the Bataclan theatre and other parts of central Paris where the terrorists rampaged will stay with us forever. Who will ever forget the man whose wife was murdered promising the terrorists that every day their 17-month old son will “insult you with his happiness and his freedom”? Or the hero who threw himself in front of a woman in a restaurant to save her from the terrorist’s bullets? Or even the BBC newsreader who broke down in tears? Something we have all done, some of us several times a day, since it happened.imgres
I don’t understand what those murderers think they are going to achieve by killing and maiming people. I’m not even sure they do. But picking on Paris was a mistake. Paris is everyone’s favourite city. Most people who have visited Paris have happy memories. Those who haven’t yet been dream of going and walking over one of her bridges, or exploring her museums. Paris is beautiful, elegant and, as we have seen, vulnerable. She is a bit like a stunning woman, whom no one wants to see violated.
It was wonderful to see the whole world light up monuments in the tricolor as a tribute to Paris, and of course the Eiffel Tower itself, standing tall, like a giant ‘doigt d’honneur’ or middle finger saying an enormous f*** you to the terrorists.
Vive la France.

St Trinians for grown-ups?

Has anyone else found that the more choice we have on TV the less there is to watch?
Last night I scrolled through the channels. At the last episode it really was too late for me to get into The Great British Bake Off. I love The Simpsons but just wasn’t in the mood. Channel 4 news annoyed me, again. And England are out of the Rugby World Cup, so no point in watching that.
I wished then that I had done something about an idea I had a couple of years ago for what I think would be a brilliant reality TV show. Something to rival The Great British Bake Off, only less fattening. The plan is this: you pick a suitably snooty girls’ boarding school, Benenden for example, or maybe even Heathfield Ascot. You take say three or four of the girls, possibly from Lower Sixth or maybe from various age groups, and you replace them, for a period of two weeks, with their mothers.bfi-00m-mjh
Obviously you need to pick the mothers wisely. You need women who will create good TV. It’s no good having someone who doesn’t say anything intelligent, stupid or outrageous. But my experience of these boarding school mothers is that they have plenty of chatter. The mothers would live at school, wear the uniform, attend lessons, play lacrosse and eat the ghastly boarding school food. In short they would live their daughters’ lives for a couple of weeks.trinians_682x400_405423a
We viewers would monitor their progress. How they were doing conjugating their French verbs for example, or being told by matron when to get up, sharing a bathroom with ten other girls who are all trying to steal their La Prairie face cream, attending chapel on a compulsory basis. It might be a good idea if one of them was an ‘old girl’ so she could compare life then and now. “Well, in my day we didn’t have heating, we had a hot water bottle, but only in Upper Sixth.” You can imagine the sort of thing.
There would obviously have to be some kind of competitive element in order to make it more interesting. Maybe the mother who wins the most votes from the viewing public gets a term’s free schooling for her daughter?
At around £11,000 this would definitely be worth embarrassing yourself on national TV for. I think it would make great viewing, and if someone wants to make the show they can count me in as one of the mothers. Bea will be grateful for the time off and I would even be willing to subject myself to chapel for two weeks. It can’t be more boring than television.

Why we will always love Jonny

As we prepare for the rugby world cup without the world’s greatest living Englishman, I thought I would bring back some fond memories of the 2007 tournament. I covered it for the Sunday Times from deep in the heart of French rugby-playing territory. Here is a piece about Jonny Wilkinson, whom I will always consider one of our greatest ever sporting heroes. I am so happy Leo watched him kick that drop goal in 2003. OK so he was only four months old, but he swears he remembers it…

This time last week I had a terrible hangover. I woke up at 6am wondering why my head was throbbing. Then I remembered.
“We won,” I said to my husband.
“I want to read the French papers,” he replied.
“I want to marry Jonny Wilkinson,” I said.
“I do too,” he said.
That’s the thing about Jonny. Everyone adores him. My husband doesn’t even mind me having a crush on him. He is Jonny. He is the greatest living Englishman.
Never mind his girlfriend and his mum cheering him on, the rest of the nation is behind him too. And most of the female population would like to be on top of him.
I have noticed a change in my friends over the past few weeks. These are professional women of a certain age. But they are acting like teenagers. A freelance writer and mother in her 40s who shall remain nameless, spends most of her days sending me links to gay sporting websites where, once you get past the more obscene items, there are pictures of Jonny without his shirt on.
What does she love about him so much? “It’s the facial expression, although the bottom is lovely, it’s that come hither look and we’ll have some fun that I adore,” she says. “He is so incredibly private and low-key and this gives him an air of mystery and thus obviously more sex appeal. The exact opposite of those talent-less celebrity seekers, Jordan and Posh types.”
A doctor friend of mine has five children, so plenty of choice for screensavers there. What picture does she have on her computer? Jonny taking a penalty kick. Why I asked her? “Don’t ask stupid questions,” was her response.Marry me
But it’s not only sad middle-aged women like me who adore him. A friend of mine’s fourteen-year-old daughter loves him, as does her grandmother. Jonny’s appeal is cross-generational and universal.
Although I wouldn’t mind taking him home myself, he is the kind of boy I would be delighted if one of my daughter’s came home with. He would be a model son-in-law, polite and helpful around the house. He’s a nice boy with good manners and sense of fair play. When he wins he is as gracious as he is when he loses. When he lies on the ground it is not because he thinks he can convince the ref to give him a penalty but because someone has tried to take him out.
Some say he’s boring, that he’s too obsessed. “How do I meet him?” panted one friend during the England/France game. “By disguising yourself as a rugby ball,” responded another. People say he’s a rugby-playing anorak and deeply dull due to his focus and single-mindedness. I don’t agree. I love that ambition and determination. It makes him even more attractive. This is a man who wants to be the best in the world at kicking a ball over a post. Trivial? Dull? Maybe to some, but not to me and most of the female population of England.
In fact to us he is a super-hero. Jonny comes in at the last minute and scores the drop-goal to win the World Cup. Jonny tackles men four times his size and stops them dead in their tracks. But unlike most super-heroes he doesn’t wear his tights outside his trousers or a cape. Instead he wears an English rose and looks divine. And he takes the pressure so well. “Poor lad,” said a lady I met from Yorkshire recently. “He’s got the whole world on his shoulders.”Jonny
He is as brave as a super-hero. What must it feel like to walk onto a rugby pitch and know that the opposing team has only one strategy: Get Jonny. Obviously this is a strategy the female population of England can relate to, even if it is a tad unsporting.
It is true to say that he wouldn’t be such a hero if he wasn’t so, well, pretty. And pretty is not a word you would normally use to describe rugby players. But he is not poofy. He is no Percy Montgomery, constantly flicking his locks around, he is no Ginola, posing in L’Oreal advertisements. With Jonny you get a no-nonsense lad who looks like a model. What’s not to like? He is not using rugby to get his own TV show. That doesn’t interest him. He’s unlikely to have his own range of foul-smelling fragrance. Jonny has no sarongs, no celebrity girlfriends, no stupid hairstyles, no tattoos. He’s just a proper bloke with drive, ambition and determination to win for himself, his team and his country. That and a cute butt, obviously.


The Ballad of Fifth-Form Square

“We know not whether laws be right
Or whether laws be wrong
All we know who lie in gaol
Is that the walls are strong
And each day is like a year
A year whose days are long.”

This is an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Goal, which I was reminded of the other day when I had a call from Bea’s school to say she was being ‘internally suspended’.
“That sounds dreadful,” I said. I imagined Bea being hung by her arms from the beams in chapel by a bungee rope. Actually being internally suspended entails being taken to a room in fifth-form square (where the fifth form live) and left there, alone, for two days. You are let out only for meals. Sadly for Bea her sentence coincided with the hottest day of the year.
Meanwhile Olivia, having finished her GCSEs was camping on the Norfolk coast. While Bea was in bed staring at the ceiling for the 705th time that minute, Olivia was enjoying the view. “It’s so beautiful,” she wrote to me in a text message. “We are looking at the stars.”
Which of course brings me to another Oscar Wilde quote. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
In Bea’s defence, that is probably what she was trying to do when she was caught committing her crime of climbing onto the school roof. Incidentally my mother-in-law, who was here when the call came through, admitted that she was an appalling roof climber at school and constantly in trouble. “But I gave it all up by the age of 12,” she added. Very wise.
At the end of this term the girls, for the first time ever, are going to be in separate schools. Olivia will leave boarding school to do her A Levels at a day school in Oxford. We have rented a place I have affectionately named “the little house” and during term time this is where you will find us. It is little, but it’s charming, and now stuffed full of furniture from Peter Jones and crockery from Emma Bridgewater. It is also a five-minute walk from M&S, so frankly it can be as little as it likes. Olivia will be studying French, Spanish, English Literature and Religious Studies. We have the first three sorted; a French neighbour to the left, a Spanish one to the right and I can help with the English Lit. We have yet to find an expert in RS but this being Oxford I’m sure it won’t be difficult.
But Bea’s internal suspension did get me thinking about how best to punish Olivia if she misbehaves. There isn’t much room to suspend her in the little house. I suppose I could ground her, but then again no one seems to go out any more anyway, they just talk to people online. Punishing the children for bad behaviour is something I have never been very good at, and I was extremely relieved to leave it to the professionals at boarding school. I’m not sure I’d be capable of incarcerating Bea in a room for more than five minutes. When we lived in Abu Dhabi I was always threatening to take away their phones or stop their pocket money but I never did. I blame my mother, she was far too nice to me. But I suppose if the worst comes to the worst and Olivia behaves truly appallingly, Reading jail is not far away…

Wife-swap? No thanks, just the house…

This morning I was woken up by John Humphrys. Happily he was not in my bed, but on something called a Sonos system, which sprang into life at 6.30am. No sooner had I got over the shock of that when there was a loud thudding sound from a speaker downstairs. ‘Who starts a disco at 6.35am?’ I wondered. I had, was the answer, or rather another Sonos speaker had sprung into life, greeting the rainy Oxford morning with some rather lively music to work out to.
Yesterday’s awakening could not have been more different. I was woken up by birdsong. It was probably just as loud as John Humphrys, and as impossible to turn off. (Although this morning I did eventually find something under the bed with a mute button that seemed to do the trick.)BobCarolTedAlice
Nowadays people no longer swap wives; they swap houses. We are onto our second house swap here in Oxfordshire. The first was with some friends who own a beautiful place deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. It was your classic rural idyll, an Aga, creaky floors, fresh milk delivered from the local dairy, tennis court (courtesy of generous neighbours) and village pubs. Yesterday we moved into a stunning, newly renovated house in town. It was designed by a Scandinavian architect, so I feel completely at home. The kitchen come living area is incredible. A large island (heaven) and steps down to a dining and sitting area, with glass doors for walls that open up onto the garden. Rupert says he feels like he’s on a golf-tee.
The house is beautifully decorated, reminiscent of a luxury boutique hotel, but with the added bonus of no other irritating guests. And all this fabulous technology (the induction hob is a lesson in physics all on its own) must be doing wonders for our neural pathways.
When we moved in yesterday it did occur to me that while not quite as intimate as wife swapping, there is an element of the very personal involved in a house swap. You are often letting complete strangers, with whom you’ve only had email correspondence, into your home. They could leave knowing more about you and your personal habits than a lot of your friends do. Our house swappers will certainly leave knowing more about our cat than most people do. It’s a very clever concept though, based on a mutual desire to travel and of course trust. You look after mine, and I’ll look after yours.
I guess that is the only downside. Because you are a guest, you are constantly fretting about breaking anything in a way that you never are at home, or would be in a hotel. There is also the stress that they may show up at your house and hate it. Although I can’t imagine anyone hating Sainte Cecile, although our bathrooms are really rather shabby in comparison to the elegant ones here.
I am very much looking forward to our month here. I will work of course (back to Abu Dhabi on Sunday) but when I am not I will be nipping down the road to M&S for food and getting to know Summertown, where I will be living once Olivia starts school here in September.
And now that I have managed to silence Mr. Humphrys I am going to enjoy the view from my bedroom window over the St John’s college cricket pitch, slowly unpack my clothes and decide which wide-screen TV to watch the test match on. Assuming I can work them that is…

A very French village affair

News reaches me that Swedes recycle 99 per cent of their rubbish. Never one to be outdone by my compatriots, I am recycling this column first published in the Sunday Times. You will be pleased to hear that since this exciting episode things have calmed down and the bakery is now run by another family. The bread has improved as well…

Our location three kilometres away from the nearest village normally insulates us from local gossip. But news reaches me of a tale so gripping that I feel I cannot ignore it. Besides, it says a lot about life in rural France.
The story is centred on the most important building in the community – no, not the bank, nor the bar not even the post office. It’s the bakery. It is not my favourite bread shop – the range is a bit limited – but occasionally I have glimpsed the baker in the backroom, rather a muscular, handsome chap covered in flour. His wife sold the baguettes and croissants. A bohemian figure with long highlighted hair and a penchant for grungy outfits, we were quite friendly, partly because she shares a name with one of my daughters.
However, last weekend, when I went to get a loaf, I was served by a rather pretty youngster with long blonde hair. Where, I asked a friend, is the baker’s wife?
“You mean you don’t know? The whole village has been talking about it.” She steered me towards the local bar, and over a cup of coffee, outlined the sorry tale.










It turns out that a couple of years ago a Parisian moved into the village with her husband. She became best friends with the baker’s wife. They spent many happy hours together in the shop talking about fashion, food and other French obsessions. But as Coco Chanel was fond of observing: “My friends, there are no friends.”

For when the baker’s wife went to visit her ailing mother, the baker took the opportunity of getting close to the Parisian woman. He may not be the first baker to be caught with his hands in the wrong bag of flour, but when his wife discovered what had been happening in her absence, she took it badly. She repacked her bags and left; nobody knows where she went.

The Parisian thought this might leave her free to move in with the handsome baker, but he apparently rejected this kind offer. This was the cue for her husband to get involved. He went down to the bakery with his shotgun and loosed a couple of rounds into the windows. Whether he was aiming at the baker, we don’t know, but it does seem a bit of an odd reaction to take it out on an innocent building.

What we do know is that the baker has got rid of two women who were beginning to show their age and apart from the damage to his windows, has come out of the whole saga unscathed. Moreover he now has a younger woman handling his baguettes.
“As long as she doesn’t end up with a bun in the oven, he’s had a result,” says my friend. What interests me is the reaction of the rest of the village. They are delighted to have something to talk about. It’s the biggest thing since Le Pen defeated Jospin in 2002. (Zidane’s World Cup head butt pales in comparison.)

There are now regular pilgrimages to gawp at the gun-shot wounded windows; much more interesting than the normal evening pastime of going to the bus stop in your slippers, carrying a deck chair and sitting there watching the traffic go by.
“You’ll notice the police haven’t been involved,” one village senior told me. “That’s the French noblesse oblige. If a man has been cuckolded then he is perfectly entitled to take a few pot shots at your window.”

There’s not much sympathy for the wronged wife. “She was always very grumpy,” says another villager. “She would look at me and say ‘what do you want?’ when I came into the bakery. ‘Some bread,’ I felt like responding, ‘isn’t that bleeding obvious?’”
Many locals think the baker might now spend more time on his bread, thus improving its quality, although the foodies in the village still make the journey into the local town for their banette moissons and apple tarts.

The Parisian and the cuckolded husband are said to be still living together in domestic disharmony. Apparently they have taken a floor of the house each, and eat at different times. God knows where they get their bread from.

What is also interesting here though is the French attitude to infidelity. No one has condemned the baker as a cheat and a cad. Everyone thinks he’s a jolly good bloke. When I asked another villager if he wasn’t shocked by the goings-on at the bakery he looked amazed.“Shocked?” He said. “This sort of thing has been going on since before time began.”










I remember a friend of mine telling me the story of a woman who lived outside Toulouse whose husband had an affair with the local postmistress. Instead of turfing her husband out she asked a friend if she could borrow her house.
“What for?” said the friend.
“I need to seduce my husband,” was the wronged wife’s response.
She got dressed up in some sexy underwear, invited her husband round and performed a striptease routine. I can’t imagine an Englishwoman reacting in the same way. She might borrow a friend’s house to murder him in so as not to get any blood on her own carpets, but certainly not to show him her latest matching underwear.
De Gaulle once said that it is impossible to rule a country with over 350 types of cheese. Maybe it is the sheer variety of everything: bread, wine, strange vowel sounds and so on, that make fidelity more difficult for the French.

Strangely enough they seem more able to resist culinary delights than temptations of the flesh. I remember an extremely chic and slim Parisian once telling me about her little trysts, always carried out with maximum discretion in smart hotels around town.
“What else can’t you resist?” I asked her. “Croissants for example?”
She looked horrified. “I haven’t had a croissant in over twelve years.”

I should think the baker’s wife has gone off them as well.

An 80s’ icon…

Never mind what everyone wore to the Oscars. This is clearly THE jacket to be seen in this week. There I was innocently knocking up a soup last night when my daughter sent me a text with a picture of a jacket from some trendy website with a picture of me on the back. It’s tough to discover one is an 80s’ icon while chopping carrots.IMG_2945
The other thing that is tough is telling my children not to do stupid things to their hair, wear ridiculous clothes or anything else really when the evidence of my own teenage misdemeanours is on the back of a piece of white denim.
I have looked at the website where they sell the jacket but can’t find it. I can only assume it’s already sold out. I saw some other jackets, all for around £250 quid. Am half thinking of demanding royalties.
And before you ask if I was trying to look like Boy George, the answer is no, he was clearly trying to look like me. Have you seen him on the back of a jacket recently? I think not….

What to wear, or not to wear?

I am back at Viva Mayr for the first time since 2008. I landed late last night and have woken up to a snow-covered landscape. The staff all wear white, thus matching the surroundings. In fact some of the clients are in white too, but you can tell they are clients because they shuffle along in their spa slippers, those horrid contraptions that make you sound like an old person, and their outfits are the Viva fluffy white dressing gowns.
One of my main dilemmas yesterday was what to pack. Granted this is not an unusual dilemma for me, but there were many factors to consider. First it is minus 3 degrees here. So I needed warm clothes. But then again if you’re in a spa you don’t really go out? But what if you want to go out? And then at the end of this trip I have Bea’s confirmation, and I am not going to that in old person’s slippers and a fluffy white dressing gown.imgres
Having unpacked I have realised I have nothing to wear. It is boiling hot inside the clinic, I may as well have planned for a holiday in the Caribbean. The numerous pairs of jeans, three polo necks and two fur gillets will be of no use whatsoever. I will have to wear gym kit for the week.
Of course I have ventured out of my room to check out what the others are all wearing. So far nothing too maddening. By that I mean nothing that has induced a bout of ‘outfit envy’. There is a young lady, I would guess early to mid twenties, who looks just like Bridget Jones. She is wearing some extremely floppy pyjamas and a dressing gown that has seen better days. She is shuffling around in the old person’s slippers to complete the look. I think she’s probably extremely pretty but it’s hard to tell under all the layers of comfort clothing. She looks downcast, maybe even heartbroken à la Jones?
The rest are mainly in track-suits or gym kit. There are a couple of Arab girls wearing flip-flops, not a bad call, and certainly beats the slipper look.
I saw one woman in jeans and shoes, but she must be new.
The men are ALL wearing their white dressing gowns, which makes me think they have packed nothing but suits, the fools. But it is only breakfast so maybe we will all dress for lunch or dinner? I was hoping there might be a spa shop where I could replenish my wardrobe but sadly there isn’t. So I will just have to wear some more gym kit, or maybe the hideous jeggings I packed on the proviso that I never wear them anyway and can throw them away if they don’t work here.
My main aim though while here is not to locate the ideal outfit but to write a book. Some of you may remember The Viva Mayr Diet, a book I wrote with Dr Stossier (the man who runs the clinic) in 2008. We have decided to write a follow-up book. Title yet to be determined, but the main theme is ageing (my favourite topic) and how to age in a healthy (that is Viva Mayr) way.
Off I shuffle now to do some research….

It’s a long way down…

On our way to the south of France from England, Leo and I passed the time listening to Desert Island Disks podcasts. One of the best ones was Bear Grylls. He spoke about his decision to climb Everest as he lay in hospital with a broken back.
It was in part this that inspired our adventure today to a rock we have named Wright’s rock, about a mile from the house. I have a vague memory of climbing it once before, but I was sure there was a path. Today there was not. And as we stood looking at the sheer stone rock-face we were going to have to climb to get to the top I felt less like Bear Grylls and more like the vertiginous coward I really am.FullSizeRender 4















My husband was all for it. He has some new walking boots and wanted to try them out. Leo was keen too, and started climbing immediately. I stomped off in a downward direction convinced they were both going to fall and refusing to watch. It was all about to end in tears when Olivia came to the rescue, discovering a slightly less horrendous way up that involved crawling under a tree.FullSizeRender 2
We all made it to the top, which had seemed impossible ten minutes earlier. “There,” said my husband, surveying the stunning views. “We’ve all achieved something today.”
“Let’s go home for a cup of tea,” I suggested. And we started looking for a way down. No one ever really talks about getting down, it’s all about reaching the pinnacle, getting to the summit, scaling the heights etc. How come no one ever mentions getting down?
The way down in not to be underestimated, especially not when you are dealing with bare cliff-face. My husband admitted that he had put us all through the adventure of climbing up to make sure we weren’t deprived of that lovely sense of achievement. “But I’m sure there is a path down somewhere,” he smiled.FullSizeRender 5
I thought about killing him on the spot, but decided to wait until he’d found the path.
He didn’t find the path, so we had a rather harrowing descent, mainly on our bottoms. I have never been so happy to see a gravel track in my life.FullSizeRender 3















The moral of the story is two-fold; definitely push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you’ll feel great afterwards (and really enjoy your cup of tea). But don’t forget about the way down. While I was happy to get to the top, I was even happier to get to the bottom.

Bullying: how to spot the signs and put a stop to it

I am delighted to present a guest blog from my great friend Floss who runs a brilliant website called uktherapyguide.com. Her son was very badly bullied so she speaks from experience. 

In my work as a psychotherapist and my life as a mother, I have witnessed the long and short term effects of bullying. At least 70 % of my clients have experienced bullying at some point in their lives, often for the first time at school. I used to be surprised that bullying was a common denominator in the narratives of stories of so many clients, but now it is predictably present.

The feelings brought about by being bullied on a daily basis, fear, isolation, chronic anxiety and helplessness, can create a deep cavity of sadness. The victim can be left with a distorted core belief that they are somehow at fault. Children, often boys, hide incidents from parents, because they don’t want to ‘worry’ parents or show their vulnerability. Often, pleas for help are brushed aside and diminished, compounding feelings of loneliness and desperation. In addition, there will always be the cases where the child has experienced bullying at home by a parent from an early age and this is likely to form the deepest cavity of all.shutterstock_108866654

While we are made up of an infinity of memories etched on our minds and bodies, when we have a bad experience it can distort the good memories and lay a shaky foundation for the future. Being humiliated or hit, tripped up, laughed at, told you are bad, ugly, stupid, fat, skinny on a daily basis can create a distorted world view. Such negative roles are often re-enacted in relationships, friendships and the work place. Victims of bullying are more likely to repeatedly attract bullies into their lives via behaviours and unconscious processes, unable to break free of this vicious cycle and their familiar role.

“I didn’t want to go out in case I bumped into them and I was anxious a lot of the time.

“It started with bitchy, unkind comments, little comments that would just chip at me and make me feel small. Then the others would join in, laughing at me. I started cutting myself, it was the only thing that I felt I could control. I hated getting up in the morning and in the evenings I just wanted to cry.”

Sometimes with maturity comes a moment of clarity, when those that feel broken and fragmented realise that they are yet again in the familiar territory of pain and angst. For some, this “eureka” moment might lead them to reach out for help through therapeutic intervention. Sadly the majority of victims of bullying remain imprisoned in their past, haunted by their trauma and terrifying experiences. Sometimes, when the suffering becomes too much, they turn to self harm and in extreme cases, suicide, because it feels like the only option left open to them.

We all know how vulnerable our children are and we strive to teach them to be open, kind and gentle. Sadly, the world does not always operate on a level of reciprocal kindness and respect. As their guardians, we need to be vigilant to the signs of encroachment on their sensitive delicate worlds. We need to arm them with the tools that will safeguard them on their journey.

My son is now a secure and popular young man, with a positive sense of self and a good understanding of right from wrong. However, when he was about 8, I started to notice that my bubbly, talkative little boy had become withdrawn and no longer wanted to play football and other sports. It preyed on my mind, but I was pretty busy with work and didn’t really notice just how troubled he had become. One day I received a call from the school to say he had had a ‘little accident’, nothing major and there was no reason for me to leave work.
It was only when I arrived to pick him up form school, when I was met by his grazed and bloodied little face, wide-eyes staring up at me, shocked and confused. His mouth was covered in blood, his lip swollen and embedded with gravel and his front tooth cracked, the nerve hanging out like a tiny little worm. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, but he didn’t cry, just held my hand very tightly.
I took him home. I was so terribly upset and angry, particularly as I had trusted the schools claim that at it was only a little accident and that there was no need for me to come. After a lot of cuddling and reassurance he slowly peeled away the resistance and let me into the world that he had been living in, for the past 4 months, since the beginning of the school year. He told me how a group of older boys had started to pick on him. They would push him over in the play ground, hit him, kick him and tell him he was shit at football and couldn’t play. This had been happening daily, becoming more extreme culminating in the ‘accident’. The boys had tied skipping ropes around his legs and ankles and started to pull him, face down on the gravelly play ground floor.
I was horrified. How had this happened at school? Where were the teachers, where was his protection? The school, when I confronted them, were ambivalent. They denied any knowledge of bullying and refused to deal with the children who had been the aggressors or approach their parents. My son was left with long term damage to his teeth and the scars of the repeated intimidation. In the end, we decided to change schools and place him somewhere with stronger leadership that would not foster “bully culture”.

“I didn’t understand what I had done, why they hated me. I hid it from my parents. They would only worry and if they got involved, it would be even worse.”

Luckily, the new school was very different, dealing with the children as individuals and confronting unkindness in an open and immediate way. My son gradually regained his confidence though I was still wary, watching for signs of the distress that I missed, leaving my little boy in such a vulnerable position.
A couple of years later, I began to see subtle changes; withdrawn behaviour, mood swings and a loss of confidence. This time, I recognized the signs and was able to intervene, speaking to the school and finding him some outside support. Talking to a trained professional (I called him a “coach” rather than a therapist to destigmatise it) helped him to process his feelings and move beyond this experience and break the pattern before it became habitual.

Now, I know to watch for the most common indications of bullying:

-Low self esteem

-Your child suddenly seems withdrawn and is spending lots of time alone and is quiet.

·-Self harm

·-Suddenly not being included or engaging in with their ‘friendship group’

· Not participating in school activities

· Over or under eating

· Lack of energy

-A marked change in character, whereby your child unusually appears anxious, angry, detached, distant or tearful.

Some of the above are of course all part and parcel of normal teenage angst. Yet, if you do have any concerns about your child, act on them, because nothing is lost by showing concern. Try find a quiet moment to have a chat with your son or daughter to ‘check in’, preferably out of the family home and in a neutral and relaxed setting. Avoid attempting to talk when you are busy, driving the car or when time is a pressure. Make the time to engage, observe body language and really try to be present, listen and hear what is being communicated to you. They may not want to tell you, but continue to be vigilant and available.
Cyber bullying is yet another way for those with negative, unprocessed feelings to project them on to others from afar. As it is usually done anonymously, the attacks can be vicious and deeply humiliating, spreading like wildfire across social media.
If it transpires that things are not as they should be, the best advice I can give any parent, is to act on immediately, nip it in the bud. Do not ignore your child’s reality; do not hope that that it will go away, because bullying scars run deep. Early intervention can be crucial in dissolving the impact and collateral damage.
Some suggested Action points:
-Keep a watchful eye for significant changes listed above.
-Act immediately.
-Talk to your child alone in a calm way in a neutral environment.
-If you child has asked you not to get involved, to let them ‘sort it out”, put your own time limit on how long you will wait for signs of improvement before intervening.
-Remember you are the parent and your child’s protector.
-Early intervention can limit damage.
-If the bullying is taking place at school, contact the school and ask them what their policies are and insist on complete confidentiality.
-Try to help them establish friendships with ‘good friends to reduce the feelings of isolation. Invite them to your house so your child can feel safe.
-If you are not happy with the schools reaction and procedure, set a time limit on how long you will wait before escalating the matter to the board of governors
-If you have a gut feeling that you need to exercise damage limitations, go with that and move your child to another safe school, but always be very open with the new school about why you are moving your child and notice their reaction. Ask them what they are going to do to help your child settle in and regain his confidence.
-Keep on checking in with your child and if the impact is great then find a therapist, or buddy to talk to. At this age it can help to have a same sex therapist to avoid awkwardness. If it happens again, they will most likely need help; you cannot keep moving and behavioural pattens are set relatively early in life.

Therapeutic intervention is sometimes viewed as a defeat, as the end of the road. It is really the beginning. You can not see the scars of bullying but they exist beneath the skin like a thousand cuts. Dealing with these issues will prevent them from festering. There is no more important and valuable gift you can give your child than the tools to resolve their problems and conflicts both in the present and in their lives ahead. A different kind of unique relationship, one that is neutral, safe and containing, where they can discover they have the power to make different healthy choices. That is a priceless gift that endures the test of time.