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‘Hiding in the school toilets to avoid the humiliation of having no one to hang out with still haunts me’

Readers share their own, and their children’s, experiences of feeling isolated at school

The Irish Times published several articles recently about the isolation some children feel – especially teenagers feeling excluded, deliberately or otherwise, from peer groups in school.

Ita O’Kelly wrote about a parent who was worried about her teen daughter, who is upset every evening because none of her classmates speak to her during the school week.

Parenting expert John Sharry answered a letter from a parent, who wrote asking for advice about their 16-year-old daughter who is finding it hard to make friends in secondary school.

There was a big response from readers to the articles, and so we asked for their views. Many parents, teachers and students responded, and thank you to all who did.

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Empathise

“I experienced it at school and then again in my 30s. When in my 30s I couldn’t care less, but while in school it was devastating. It wasn’t the end of the world, but to 15-year-old me it definitely was. Best advice I can give parents is to accept that what your child is experiencing is real and difficult – we often minimise how teenagers feel and make it seem like their worries are trivial compared to work, bills, etc. Yes, we have adult worries, but teenage worries and angst are just as worthy of time and attention, so listen to your children and empathise with them.”

Ostracised

“As a 15-year-old, I had zero friends in school after I too was ostracised by the leader and subsequently the rest of the group. That was 10 years ago and the sudden loss of support had, and still has to some degree, affected my ability of making and keeping friends. People I trusted with all my heart totally abandoned me. The idea that there was something ‘wrong with me’ haunted me as I walked past these girls every day until school ended. My advice? Learn your self-worth. I did this through counselling in TY, and, by fifth year, the group of girls saw how happy I was and begged for my friendship back. I forgave the group for leaving me, whilst keeping them at arm’s length until I left school and made more sincere and closer friends in college.”

Hiding

“I just wanted to say that the piece about ostracisation has struck home with me very profoundly. I experienced this exactly as described, and still now as a woman in my 40s feel I haven’t fully recovered from it. I went from being one of the top students in my class to failing several subjects. From popular, happy and fun-loving to isolated, depressed, almost suicidal. Hiding in the toilets at lunchtime to avoid the humiliation of having no one to hang out with still haunts me, as up there with the most exquisitely painful experiences of my life. Luckily, after a couple of years I did build a new friendship group and recover some of my confidence, but I still feel the hurt and rejection of it to this day. Reading this piece has gone some way to lifting the shame I have carried with me – to know that I am not alone in feeling this way is a consolation. Thank you.”

Pandering

“My 15-year-old has struggled since she started secondary school. She has been trying to establish a ‘friend group’, only to always be on the outskirts. She’s practically pandering to these girls to include her and they do sometimes, but only when it suits them. It breaks my heart that she has let them treat her like they do, but I understand her longing to fit in.”

Hot potato

“This happened to my daughter on moving from primary to secondary school. Her best friend in primary dropped her like a hot potato and wouldn’t even say hello to her, never mind inviting her to sit with her and her new group at lunch. We took a while to contact the school and have a meeting with her year head. She tried to implement activities for our daughter to do during lunch break and sent the Meitheal Programme (anti-bullying) team around to make sure she had someone to speak to.

“To the school, it looked like she had a group to sit with, but in reality my daughter was on the edge of a group with nobody still talking to her. We had many nights of tears and cries of ‘why don’t they like me?’. It was TY and the musical that eventually gave her the band of buddies that she is still friends with now. The primary school best friend came back when my daughter was seen as popular again. Girls can be cruel.

“My main advice is approach the school and year head. Make sure your daughter has friends in other areas – sport, drama, neighbours. Let her know other people suffer this too and help build up her own resilience through mindfulness, yoga, book club, anything that interests her. Make sure she is given extra love at home. If needed, Jigsaw or other therapy sessions may help. Good luck out there.”

Snapchat

“My 12-year-old daughter has been ostracised by her current peers for being a teacher’s pet. They used Snapchat to deliberately exclude her from activities and taunt her to the point she now requires therapy.”

Battled

“This exact thing happened to my daughter aged 14. My popular, pretty, confident girl slowly disappeared. She battled through the rest of school, left and went to college. By the time she was 20 she struggled to let friends close. She went to uni, was diagnosed with depression and anorexia, and spent three months in hospital. Teenage girls are the worst and I’ll never forgive those girls from school. She is amazing and strong and is battling every day.”

Ring-leader

“This happened to me and a few other girls in my ‘friend group’ at school. We are now all in our early 30s and the ringleader is a teacher. I often wonder if she thinks about what she did, and how that made us feel. Those who were not bullied out of the group are still friends. I see them on social media at each other’s weddings, on group holidays. I’m still friends with some of the others who were ostracised, but we’re not so close. I’ve made other friendships over the years, but often am jealous of those who kept their friends from school. Sometimes, I wonder if it was my fault, when really it was hers.”

‘Blow-in’

“We had to remove our daughter from sixth class in primary school when she had just more than three months to go. Children, especially girls, change from 11/12 years onwards. They become more aware of their parents’ attitudes and biases. Our daughter was a ‘blow-in’ in a Gaelteacht area. During lockdown, she was conveniently isolated, and when she returned to school the isolation continued. Kids sniggering when she spoke, no Friday play dates, isolation and exclusion in the playground.

“We did tell her teacher, and she even told him about it herself. He sympathised, but he didn’t take any steps to help the situation. When she came home shaking and devastated (again) one day, so bad that she was unable to talk, we knew she had enough and we moved her. Her remaining time in a different primary was a good experience for her. Our regret is that we didn’t move her sooner. We should have realised that local politics and cronyism always come before the welfare of children in Ireland.”

So-call friends

“I was that anxious parent for two years. We had a fun-loving girl change into a very sad girl. She was too quiet for the group of friends. No one would talk to her and her so-called friends didn’t do anything. After months of liaising with the school, nothing changed. In the end, we changed schools. She is smiling now coming in the door and has settled into her work. As parents, what did we learn? We shouldn’t have left our daughter in this environment for two years.”

Sidelined

“My daughter started first year last September. She has had crippling anxiety since sixth class. She has been sidelined since starting this new school, and it heartbreaking as a parent. Every day is hell in term-time and I keep thinking, she/we have another six years of this.”

Awkward soul

“Our daughter transferred from a lovely inner-city public primary school in Dublin to a well-known private school during Covid. From a young age she has been top of her class academically and is the first in her family to go to a school like this.

“Early doors in this new school she struggled to fit in but developed a very strong single friendship. But over time that friendship faded – as these things do. This was not helped by a clash between our daughter and the self-nominated leader of the class group. She has been isolated completely by the entire group – including her former friend. The “constructive dismissal” includes social events, birthdays, etc – all publicised on social media and our daughter uninvited.

“Interestingly, no parent of any of the kids involved seems to take any notice. It seems that the school can’t really do anything except be supportive of our daughter directly. Most of the teachers have been great and see our girl for what we see of her at home – a conscientious, awkward soul but one who never fails to be kind and giving.

“She eats lunch on her own. She has no one calling over holidays. Social media is not hugely relevant as it is only a window on what is being missed. The school is great on so many levels, but the dismissal is so complete she can’t wait to leave at the end of term this year.”

Unintended isolation

“This happened to my daughter from second year through to fifth year. It was a living hell for her and there was so little we could do to help her while she was in school. She had counselling, but the reality was she wasn’t doing anything wrong, she just got left out of the group – probably because she has a quiet personality (but not shy) and couldn’t ‘break into’ another group. It eventually led to serious mental health issues, but thankfully we were able to navigate our way through that with professional help. She is now in college and, thankfully, extremely happy and healthy. This type of ‘unintended isolation’ in secondary schools is not unusual and can be detrimental to teenage girls. I still have no solution unfortunately.”

Sympathetic

“This is so commonplace it’s frightening. As a mother of girls, I have seen this repeatedly. Schools are sympathetic, but don’t know how to deal with it. The child is left feeling hopeless. No rhyme or reason to the reasons for her isolation. I don’t know the answer.”

Silence

“Our daughter was part of a group but fell out with one member. The group decided to blank her and this spread to the whole class. She said nothing to us for a long time, but she went through agonies. No one to sit with at lunch, no one to hang out with between classes. At lunchtime she ended up hiding in the toilets. Once, when she won a prize in class the reaction was total silence. Eventually, she started getting panic attacks and it all came out.”

Heart sank

“My daughter announced in late May of first year that not one pupil had spoken to her outside the classroom for the whole year. My heart sank. The only other girl from her primary school was better at being popular and they had not been friends. I had spoken to the school in November about the situation, but they did not offer any practical solutions. I wish they had tried to integrate my daughter more when selecting teams for PE and groups for practical subjects such as science, construction and home economics. I feel they also missed a trick at the parent-teacher meeting. There should be a talk to parents highlighting the points made in the article, that children at home are not the same at school – a point that definitely needs to be made to parents of popular children. My daughter changed schools after first year. She is in first year at university now and she is blossoming.”

Immense damage

“I have lived experience this past year with my daughter in primary school. The school principal did nothing to address the matter, so we have moved schools now. However, the damage was done. She now has anxiety, PTSD and panic disorder. I don’t know why schools have anti-bullying policies when they don’t even follow them. I’m convinced it’s for show. The teacher was left alone with no support from the principal to try to sort it out, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with it. The school had a duty of care to my daughter. She started a confident, happy child and left a nervous, self-conscious, traumatised girl.”

Crying in the toilets

“Same happened to my oldest daughter and now is happening to my middle daughter. Some days no one would speak to my oldest daughter the entire day. She moved tutor groups twice and is now happy and settled, but doesn’t like school. My middle daughter is in the throes of this. Messaged me from the toilets crying today. A girl, who she knows outside school – at dancing where she is friendly – is horrible at school. She was placed beside my daughter today and sneered and all the others sniggered and laughed. I advised her to stand up for herself and call them out on it. We talk about behaviours at home, but absolutely agree that most parents don’t, and need to call out their own children.”

Cruel

“I’m 60 this year and reading this article brings me straight back to the awful lonely time when this happened to me. It has affected how I made friends for decades. Teenagers need to be thought to be kind and to understand how cruel it is to treat people in this fashion.”

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