Dear Reader, As many of you already know, my books often have a serious theme to them, and Too Close to Home is no exception. This time I have explored some of the devastating effects bullying can have on victims and their families.
Bullying is an issue that raises its monstrous head in so many lives and in so many ways. In this case it claims fifteen–year–old Paige Moore as its victim, and we see how easily it goes undetected as her mother struggles to deal with a broken marriage.
In preparation for this book I spent some time with an MA student who is writing a thesis on the subject of bullying, as well as a select group of fifteen–year–old girls who’ve had their own experiences, either firsthand or through friends, of peer intimidation and devastating forms of jealousy and spite. They were very sobering sessions, and in many ways deeply shocking—-until then I hadn’t fully realized just how cruel and relentless and even life–threatening bullies can be. In some tragic cases, as we know, the victims have been driven to take their own lives, feeling it to be the only way to escape their tormentor(s). Of course, social media plays a huge part in perpetuating and worsening the misery of innocent victims as it allows the bully to carry out his or her sadistic attacks twenty–four hours a day. (There must, of course, be a profound disturbance in the mind of someone who does this, maybe the subject for another book!)
Since publishing the hardback in the UK, it has been extremely encouraging to discover just how many of you have been moved by the story and how greatly you care about this issue. I agree with you that we need to talk about it more in order to get to its heart and attempt to overcome it. A way of doing this can be to get in touch with anti–bullying charities, such as www.stopbullying.gov. In the UK, Kidscape is a great organization to support, and they also provided an exceptional amount of support and guidance while I was writing this book. Their contact details, along with an interview with the head of Kidscape, Claude Knights, can be found on the following pages, as well as on my Facebook page and on my website. You will find that this interview provides some invaluable information for those who want to learn more about how to deal with the issue, particularly parents and victims. While dealing with the extremely thorny and complex subject of bullying, I have also explored the consequences of family breakdown and betrayal. We see how Jenna, Paige’s mother, becomes so wrapped up in her own problems that she doesn’t see what’s happening right in front of her. I wonder how many of us have been in that position? For those who are lucky enough to have escaped it, perhaps this book will help convey what it feels like to be in such a challenging and heartbreaking situation. I really hope Too Close to Home has touched you in some way and that you will be sharing it with your friends and family, and if you know someone who’s suffering, I hope this will help you to find a way to reach them.
Thank you to all of you who have shared your reviews with me already and for those who’ve just reached these end pages, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts, too!
The Research Behind Too Close to Home
An Interview with Kidscape
As many of you may already know, Too Close to Home deals with the difficult, even toxic issue of bullying. Its main focus is Paige Moore who, aged fifteen, moves to a new school in Wales where her life is turned into a living hell.
When writing this book Susan wanted to present very real scenarios experienced by children who are bullied. Dealing with such a sensitive issue, she had to be sure the research was thorough and was, therefore, extremely grateful to be put in touch with Claude Knights, CEO of Kidscape.
Kidscape is an anti–bullying charity in the UK that supports children from ages six to nineteen and we hope that after reading this you, too, will think more closely about this subject and those who may be in need. In Susan’s book, fifteen–year–old Paige Moore falls victim to some ferocious bullying, both face–to–face at school and around the clock online. Have you noticed a significant increase in bullying since the advent of social media?
Social media has certainly added another dimension to the bullying landscape. The 24/7 aspect of online bullying as well as the sheer number of platforms add to the opportunities to dish out abuse. The disinhibition experienced by the bullies because they do not have to face the pain of their targets makes for very raw, thoughtless and relentless cruelty. At Kidscape we have found that young people who are vulnerable offline are often targeted online. Too many incidents of bullying remain unreported, but as there are an increasing number of channels for disclosing occurrences statistics would seem to point to an increase.
One recent study indicates that 69 percent of young people aged between thirteen and twenty–two had experienced cyber bullying and that 20 percent of those reported it as extreme. A robust finding across much recent research into the prevalence of bullying per se is that 46 percent of all children report that they have experienced some form of bullying during their time at school.
What are the signs that you advise parents to look out for?
The ability to identify the signs and symptoms of bullying is crucial as it can lead to prevention and early intervention. A child who is being bullied may exhibit some of the following signs and symptoms: they may be frightened of walking to or from school; refuse to attend school; feel ill in the mornings or on certain days discernible by a pattern; be truant; show a marked deterioration in their schoolwork; become anxious after using their mobile phone or computer; may become distressed or withdrawn; start stealing money (to pay the bully); refuse to admit that anything is wrong; have unexplained bruises or cuts; may become aggressive and unreasonable; and give improbable excuses for any of the above. Do you feel schools are vigilant enough?
Schools vary hugely in terms of how they acknowledge, respond to, and deal with bullying behavior. The support given to targets of bullying and their families has improved over the past decade, but there are still too many establishments that value exam results and reputation above the creation of an environment that does not tolerate bullying in any form and that investigates incidents that take place beyond the school gate. Schools have a duty of care to all their pupils that entails providing them with an environment that guarantees their safety and in which they can pursue their studies free of anxiety. Anti–bullying policies are mandatory, but to be meaningful in an active sense, they need to be understood and enforced by the whole school community. Pupils need to understand that bullying in all its forms is wrong and that there will be consequences if any anyone engages in this destructive behavior. At Kidscape we still have to deal with too many examples of bullying situations that have slipped beneath the radar and which have not come to light until a crisis point has been reached. There remains a real need to provide additional training in preventative strategies for teachers as well as the resources to sustain peer–support initiatives and workshops for parents. What sort of advice do you give young people who contact you for help?
We urge young people who are being bullied not to suffer in silence. If their school ignores the bullying, we tell them not to be resigned to becoming a target. We also suggest a wide range of strategies that include: telling a friend (A supportive friend can keep bullies away.); saying “No” assertively; not giving a reaction to taunts, giving the impression that you don’t care; thinking up creative responses in advance; trying to avoid being alone in places where you know the bully is likely to pick on you; practicing “walking tall” and looking confident so that the bully finds it harder to identify you as a target—-even if you feel small inside; and keeping a written record of all incidents. Advice specific to online bullying is also given, and this includes never sharing passwords; activating privacy settings; never sending out provocative or cruel messages yourself; and reporting abuse to the service provider and retaining evidence. In the book, Paige’s mother, Jenna, is distracted by problems in her marriage. Do you find that children will try to protect their parents by keeping their own pain to themselves?
We can quote a number of cases where children and young people have channeled much effort into protecting their parents by hiding the agonies caused by bullies for months and even years. In such cases the parent finds out what is going on once a crisis point has been reached, e.g., an escalation into self-harm, attempted suicide, risky behaviors, etc. One memorable case study is one where the mother was suffering from breast cancer and her ten-year-old daughter, who was enduring extreme face-to-face bullying, was determined not to disclose her pain as she felt that there was already too much anxiety in the home. The mother found out the extent of her child’s agony when she happened to see her in the bathroom (the door was normally locked), and she caught sight of bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns on her back and legs. This revelation resulted in an anguished call to Kidscape. Some children tell us that they are ashamed to tell their parents, and that they feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse. If a parent contacts you wanting to know how to help their child, what advice do you give?
The advice would depend on the nature of the bullying, but information essential to all bullying situations would include the need for parents to encourage their child to disclose what they are going through by ensuring full support and a real sense that they are believed. The parent needs to find out the details of what has been happening, which entails talking to teachers, probably the head of school. Parents can help to “bully-proof” their child by emphasizing a positive outlook, including assertive body language and firm eye contact. Well-developed social skills, including the ability to listen to others, to ask questions, to smile when appropriate can be modeled and encouraged by parents. These are all protective behaviors, which help to prevent being assessed as a potential target of bullying. Do you ever counsel the bullies themselves? If not, are there organizations that do?
Some of the young people who attend Kidscape therapeutic sessions are both target and bully in different settings. Our literature addresses issues that underlie bullying and aims to stimulate reflection and provide strategies and motivation for changing that behavior. One of our major projects works specifically with young people who tend toward aggressive and antisocial behavior. The content includes modules on anger management, conflict resolution, and the development of self-awareness. It is a sad fact that in comparison to targets of
bullying very few bullies come forward to ask for help. Kidscape’s aim is early intervention. If we are to challenge bullying, we need to work with both bullies and victims. There is certainly a need for more interventions that address the under-lying issues that lead young people to satisfy specific needs through bullying.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Have you, or has someone you know, ever experienced bullying?
2. In what ways do you think the Internet and social media change the bullying culture in schools?
3. What can be done about this issue, in schools or at home?
Do schools have a responsibility to get involved? To what extent?
4. What do you think prompts bullying behavior in teenagers? Can it be stopped?
5. Discuss Jack and Jenna’s relationship. What changed between them after the move to Wales? Could they have handled their affairs differently? How would you have handled it?
6. What sort of consequences do you think bullies should face for their actions?
7. Why do you think the bullies chose to target Paige specifically?
8. Discuss the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. What did you think of Jenna’s parenting? How could she have handled Paige’s situation differently?
9. Discuss Paige’s relationship with Jack. How does the fact that he’s her stepfather influence the family dynamic?
10. Paige has a very complicated home life: her mother’s marriage is in jeopardy, they recently moved to Wales, finances are tight, etc. What other aspects of her home life may have heightened the stress Paige was under?