What is bullying?
Bullying is a systematic abuse of power. For some young people, it takes the form of repeated teasing and name-calling. For other young people, bullying can end up in social exclusion or verbal or physical assault. Bullying can also occur online – this is cyberbullying.
How bad bullying is varies widely, as does its impact. What might add up to a bad day at school for one child could be devastating for another. While the vast majority of bullying is fairly mild (for example, unpleasant teasing rather than assault or social exclusion), all bullying is hurtful. When it keeps going, it can sometimes cause serious and enduring physical and/or psychological harm.
The approach that you and your family take to recognise and combat bullying will vary according to:
- what type of bullying your child is experiencing – for example, verbal harassment or physical assault
- whether the bullying is being done by a group or by one person
- how severe the impact is for your child
- what strategies you and your child feel are best.
Why bullying happens
Many children bully others at some stage, but bullying is usually less common as young people grow older.
There are several influences on young people that could make them more likely to bully others. These include an aggressive temperament, low levels of empathy, learned prejudices towards certain groups of people and negative family experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse.
Young people’s social situation can also have an effect. For example, when starting secondary school, some young people try to establish their position in a new social hierarchy. Young people who are part of an anti-social friendship group might also be more likely to bully.
How to spot signs of bullying
Adolescent bullying can be hard to spot. It’s often less physical than bullying among younger children. Your child might try to hide it from you and others. Or your child might feel ashamed, afraid or might not want you to worry or make a big deal. Often young people just want bullying to go away without drawing attention to it.
A child who is being bullied might:
- refuse to go to school, or make excuses not to go
- be unhappy or anxious before or after school
- say ‘I hate school’ or express fear of school
- become more and more isolated from others
- have unexplained physical signs of injury – for example, bruises or torn clothing
- start doing poorly at school
- come home with damaged or missing belongings
- show noticeable changes in behaviour or emotions, such as anxiety
- have trouble sleeping
- regularly tell you she has a headache, stomach ache or other physical problems
- seem low on self-esteem or self-confidence.
Your child might be experiencing some of these signs for other reasons, so it’s best to talk together about the signs you’ve noticed.
Bullying can happen in any place a young person goes, not just school. Bullying behaviour can be found at home, at social or sports activities, and in workplaces.
Why some young people are bullying targets
Anyone can be bullied, but some young people are more likely to be targets than others, especially if they’re in an environment where bullying behaviour isn’t managed. Young people who are more likely to be bullied could be:
- not as tall or strong as other children at school
- unable or unwilling to protect themselves
- psychologically vulnerable – for example, have low self-esteem
- struggling in class or have a learning disability
- lacking in social skills
- socially isolated, with few or no friends.
Sometimes, children can act in ways that ‘provoke’ bullying behaviour. Although this is never an excuse for bullying behaviour, you might need to check whether your child has been acting in ways that encourage others to react badly or lash out.
Having any or some of these characteristics doesn’t mean your child will definitely be bullied. Your child might also have ways of protecting himself, such as being assertive and confident. This will make him a less appealing target for bullying behaviour and less likely to suffer serious emotional harm if he does become a target.
Building your child’s resilience
Resilience is the ability to deal with the ups and downs of life, socially and emotionally. Building resilience has important benefits for life. These include reducing the chances of being bullied or being able to cope better if you do experience bullying.
All children can benefit from opportunities to build their resilience and assertiveness as a way of combating bullying and developing skills for life.
It’s never too late to start working on resilience and life skills with your child. The earlier you can start, the better. Here are some ideas:
Show your child lots of love. Focus on your child’s positive personal characteristics, but keep your love and praise balanced and realistic.
Be supportive. This can get harder as your child gets older – supporting your adolescent child is very different from supporting your infant child – but is no less important. Actively listen to how your child is feeling, explore options together to help tackle problems, and suggest possibilities that could help.
Provide your child with freedom. Young people who have opportunities to meet new people and learn how to get on with them develop their social skills and interests and expand their social circle. Children who are isolated and have few or no friends are among those most commonly bullied.
Encourage your child to be assertive when necessary. Teach your child from a young age that treating others with respect is the right thing to do. It’s been shown that once children believe that others deserve respect, they’re quick to demand that level of respect for themselves.
You’re the best role model for your child – at home with your family, and in your relations with other people.
If you show respect for others and resolve conflicts in a constructive way, your child sees this. Your child learns that this is an appropriate way to relate to others. But if your child sees you behaving aggressively, she might copy you.
Good family relationships are very important too. They help children feel loved and secure and build self-esteem. How you relate to your children at home can have an influence on bullying behaviour. A child who is fearful of the adults in her life might be more likely to bully others to try to get a sense of control and power. You can build relationships by staying connected with your child.
How your children relate to each other is also important. Bullying among siblings is quite common, and there’s a clear link between bullying at home between siblings and bullying at school. How you handle fights between siblings can also help your children learn to relate more constructively to peers at school.
Working with your child’s school
If your child is the target of bullying behaviour at school and is having a hard time, you might want to consider working with your child’s school, as well as with your child, to try to combat the bullying.
Schools are required to take bullying extremely seriously. Your child’s teachers should be trained in spotting and handling bullying. They can work with you to try to prevent further bullying.
The school should also look at changing the bullying behaviour and preventing others from bullying. The school’s suggestions will depend on the nature and circumstances of the bullying.
Ask the school for a copy of its policy on bullying. Also talk to the school about how the policy will be put into action in your child’s situation.
How to involve the school
- Discuss with your child the benefits of speaking to the school.
- Ask your child if he would like to be with you when you talk to the school. Also ask what your child wants you to say at the meeting.
- Make an appointment to see a representative at the school.
- Discuss the problem with the school representative, put forward the facts as you know them, and ask for the school’s views.
- Be assertive – not angry or accusatory – and be ready to listen.
- End the meeting with a plan for how the situation will be managed.
- Keep in touch with the school.
How cases are handled
All interventions by the school should aim at protecting the young person who has been bullied and ensuring that child’s safety. The school’s specific actions might depend on the type of bullying that’s occurred. If the bullying is severe and involves criminal offences, you might also want to contact the police.
Directly contacting the young person who has shown the bullying behaviour, or that young person’s parents, is likely to make the situation worse. It’s always safer to work with the school than to try to solve bullying on your own.
If the bullying behaviour continues
- It’s still safer to work through your school than to take matters into your own hands.
- Inform the school of any further bullying incidents. Keep a careful and detailed record of what happens and when. This might include taking photos if the bullying involves physical harm or taking computer screen shots or print-outs if the bullying involves posts on social networking sites, comments on instant chat, emails or phone messages.
- Write a note to the class teacher. Ask for your concern to be addressed in writing.
- Speak to the school principal.
- Request a meeting to discuss the matter with the school board.
- Seek further advice from your school’s regional office, or legal advice about your options.
It takes time to change behaviour, so you might not see overnight results. Do let the school know, though, if your child continues to tell you about incidents of bullying.
If you’re not satisfied, ask to see the school’s grievance procedure.
While sorting the problem out with the current school is ideal, sometimes, for the safety and wellbeing of the young person, families consider a different school as a last resort. This is a complex decision that has many consequences. There might never be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ path. The decision is best made in consultation with your child’s wishes and advice from your child’s current school.
Give your child as much support and love as you can at home. Continue to offer support at home while you, the teacher and your child come up with a plan for combating the bullying.
There are many books available that offer solutions for bullying during childhood. Some that you might find useful are:
- Rigby, K. (2008). Children and bullying: How parents and educators can reduce bullying at school. Melbourne: Wiley.
- Rigby, K. (2010). Bullying intervention in schools: Six basic approaches. Camberwell: ACER.
Parents talk about bullying
In this short video, mums and dads share their experiences of bullying when they were at school. They say that bullying seemed more direct when they were kids, and they worry about their children being bullied over the internet or mobile phone now. These parents offer a range of ideas for helping kids with bullying – teach kids to stand up for themselves, help them find positives in their lives, and work with the school to sort out the problem.