By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Rates of bullying generally decrease in adolescence, but there is a sharp increase at around the time of the shift to secondary school.
It can be a shock to discover your child is bullying others. But if it’s happening, you need to step in. You have an important role to play in helping your child learn about caring and respectful relationships with others. This is a vital step towards changing the bullying behaviour.

What does adolescent bullying look like?

Bullying is when your child deliberately and repeatedly upsets, frightens, threatens or hurts someone or someone’s property, reputation or social status. Bullying in adolescence often goes undetected and is generally less physical than bullying in younger children.

There are several different types of bullying, including:

  • verbal bullying – for example, insulting, threatening, ridiculing or mocking
  • bullying behind someone’s back – for example, playing nasty jokes, spreading rumours, or encouraging peers to exclude someone
  • cyberbullying – using technology such as mobile phones and the internet to bully
  • physical bullying – for example, pushing, tripping or hitting.

How bad bullying is varies widely, as does its impact. What might be 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 and upsetting. It can sometimes be very disruptive or even harmful.

Signs your child is bullying
If you suspect your child is bullying, there are some signs to look out for. For example, your child might be:

  • talking about the other kids at school in an aggressive or negative way
  • having money, electronic goods or things that don’t belong to her
  • being secretive about communication devices, including computers
  • systematically excluding others from her friendship group.

None of these signs means your child is definitely bullying. But you might want to talk to your child to find out if he’s been having any problems getting along with other children at school.

You can read more about adolescent bullying and cyberbullying.

What to do: first steps

The first step is to acknowledge that your child is bullying others.

This involves talking with your child. She needs to know that you know about the bullying. Make it clear that bullying is always wrong, whatever the circumstances.

Not all bullying behaviour is deliberate. Some young people show bullying behaviour without realising the harm they’re causing. Generally, this sort of bullying will stop when your child is shown that what he’s doing is wrong or hurtful.

Tell your child that you want to work with her to stop the bullying. Talk with her about reasons she might have for showing bullying behaviour, and discuss options and strategies to change things together.

Your child needs to know that you’re taking the matter seriously and that you’ll support him to change his behaviour.

Your role

You are the best role model for your child. You can use your everyday interactions with other people to teach your child about being respectful, empathetic and responsible.

For example, you can model the behaviour you want your child to use by showing respect and caring towards others – in your family, with your friends, out shopping, and so on.

Your child can learn from you about expressing anger or negative emotions in healthy and constructive ways. For example, if you feel angry, you could say something like, ‘I feel really angry just now. Could we talk about this later when I’ve calmed myself down?’

If you have a conflict with your child or somebody else, it can be a chance to show your child how to resolve conflicts constructively. For example, think about how you react when your child breaks the rules or upsets you. Use these times to talk through what happened and involve your child in coming up with ways to resolve the issue.

This all lets your child know that you can talk about feelings, rather than having to act on them.

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. On the other hand, a child who is given few boundaries by her parents is also more likely to bully others. It’s important to be neither too strict nor too relaxed. 

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.

Positive family relationships make a strong contribution to your child’s resilience and sense of being connected to other people. Positive family relationships help young people feel loved and secure, and build self-esteem. Young people who have positive relationships with their parents are less likely to participate in bullying behaviour. You can read more about building positive relationships and staying connected with your child.

What to do if the bullying continues

  • Share your concerns with your child’s school. All schools are required to have strategies in place to manage bullying. Working in partnership with your child’s school is likely to be the most effective strategy.
  • Discuss your child’s friends and their influence – both with your child and with the school. Bullying can sometimes be a result of the influence of others.
  • Think about what else is going on in your child’s life. Is there a situation or a recent event in your child’s life that could be causing anxiety or fear? Bullying others might be a way to get control over these feelings.
  • Consider whether your child is frequently exposed to arguments, conflicts or relationship problems at home. Some young people develop inappropriate ways of reacting to and coping with stress when they’re exposed to behaviour at home that models bullying behaviour. Your child might be copying negative adult behaviour.
  • Discuss situations that have occurred in real life or on TV, to explore issues from different people’s points of view. This can help your child develop empathy.
  • Think about how you handle discipline with your child and how you solve problems as a family. Some young people learn that negative events can be handled only in physical ways, rather than through talking and working on problems to find solutions. The next time your child hurts you or breaks the rules, involve your child in solving the problem together. This teaches him that he has some control over situations and that you value his input.
  • Think about what your child is watching. Is your child being exposed to violence or inappropriate images on TV, in video games or on the internet? Young people who see too much violence in the media can learn that this is how you behave and solve problems.
  • Consider your child’s communication skills . Is your child using bullying to communicate anger or sadness? Speaking with your child and a school counsellor about these issues might be helpful. Give your child plenty of chances to learn how to solve problems through healthy, open communication.
  • Consider your child’s social and emotional skills. Is your child bullying because she doesn’t know how to interact appropriately with others or how to form friendships? Speak with your child and a school counsellor about these issues. You might like to read more about social and emotional changes in adolescence.

Developing positive, resilient young people
When you model respectful and caring behaviour, you help your child build the skills he needs to develop positive relationships and feel good about himself. These skills include:

  • awareness of and ability to manage emotions
  • empathy for others
  • ability to manage peer pressure
  • respect for others
  • acceptance of others’ differences
  • ability to deal with conflict
  • problem-solving
  • good decision-making
  • how to get what he needs without bullying.

Some children might need extra help to develop these skills. Speak to your child’s school counsellor, or a psychologist or GP for help if needed.

Resources and support
There are many programs, resources and supports out there to help you to support and guide your family. These include:

  • your child’s school – you can approach your child’s teachers, principal, school psychologist, school counsellor or guidance officer
  • confidential telephone counselling services such as the parenting hotline in your state or territory, Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline
  • health professionals such as your GP or a psychologist or counsellor
  • other parents whose children have been involved in bullying – you could look online for support groups.

Video Teenagers and parents talk about bullying

In this short video, parents and teenagers discuss their experiences of bullying and its impacts. Parents talk about what they’ve done to help resolve bullying. Teenagers discuss types of bullying, including cyberbullying, and what might cause bullying behaviour.