What is bullying?
Bullying is when someone deliberately and repeatedly upsets, frightens, threatens or hurts someone else or their property, reputation or social status.
Bullying can be:
- verbal bullying – for example, insulting, threatening or making fun of someone
- bullying behind someone’s back – for example, playing nasty jokes, spreading rumours or encouraging peers to exclude someone
- physical bullying – for example, pushing, tripping or hitting someone, or damaging their property
- cyberbullying – using digital technology to deliberately harass or humiliate.
All bullying is hurtful. When it keeps going, it can cause long-lasting harm.
If friends or peers disagree or even argue, or if someone says something mean once, it can be unpleasant and even nasty. But it isn’t bullying. Bullying is mean and hurtful behaviour that happens over and over again.
Spotting the signs of bullying
Teenage bullying can be hard to spot.
It’s often less physical than bullying among younger children. Also, your child might try to hide it from you and others. Your child might feel ashamed and afraid or might not want you to worry. They might deny it’s happened if you ask them about it. Often teenagers just want bullying to go away.
But there are signs of teenage bullying that you can look out for. For example, a child who’s being bullied might have problems with school, or show emotional, behavioural or physical signs.
Your child might:
- refuse to go to school, make excuses not to go to school, or skip school and not tell you
- be unhappy or anxious before or after school
- say ‘I hate school’ or express fear of school
- start doing poorly at school.
Emotional and behavioural signs
Your child might:
- become more and more isolated from others
- show noticeable changes in behaviour or emotions, like anxiety
- have trouble sleeping
- seem low on self-confidence – for example, say things like ‘I’m no good’ or not want to try new things
- start using alcohol or other drugs.
Your child might:
- have physical injuries they can’t or won’t explain – for example, bruises or torn clothing
- come home with damaged or missing belongings
- regularly tell you they have a headache, stomach ache or other physical problem.
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 doesn’t happen only at school. It happens at home, at social or sports activities, and in workplaces.
Talking with teenagers about bullying
If your child is being bullied, listening and talking with your child is essential. This helps you to find out what’s happening so you can take action with the school or organisation where the bullying is happening. Calm and caring conversations with you will also help your child feel loved and supported.
Here are some ideas for talking with your child:
- Actively listen to how your child is feeling. Try to talk somewhere quiet where you can give your child your full attention. Ask your child simple questions, then listen to the answers. For example, ‘So what happened next?’ and ‘What did you do then?’
- Tell your child that you’ll help. For example, ‘It sounds like things haven’t been so good. Let’s think about what we can do to make it better’.
- Make sure your child knows that the bullying isn’t their fault. For example, ‘It isn’t OK for someone to treat you like that. You deserve to be treated with respect no matter what’.
- Praise your child for telling you about the bullying. It might have been hard for your child to talk about it.
Your child might feel too ashamed or afraid to talk to you about the bullying. If this sounds like your situation, you could suggest that your child talk to another trusted adult, like a relative or family friend or your child’s GP. Or they could call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
Working with schools on bullying
If your child is being bullied at school, it’s important to get the help of the school as quickly as you can.
Schools must take bullying seriously. Your child’s teachers should be trained in spotting and handling bullying. They can work with you to prevent further bullying.
Here’s how to involve the school in a positive and constructive way:
- Let your child know that you’re going to involve the school. Ask whether they’d like to be with you when you talk to the school, and what they want you to say.
- Make an appointment to see your child’s teacher, the year coordinator, or the head of pastoral care. These people have the most contact with your child.
- Discuss the problem with the school representative, put forward the facts as you know them, and ask for the school’s views.
- Be ready to listen, and be assertive rather than angry. For example, ‘Yes, children do have disagreements sometimes. But I think this is more serious’.
- Ask for a copy of the school’s policy on bullying. Ask how the policy will be put into action in your child’s situation.
- End the meeting with a plan for managing the situation and a time for a follow-up meeting.
What if your child doesn’t want the school involved?
Your child might be embarrassed or worried that involving the school will make the bullying worse. It’s important to listen to your child’s concerns and see what you can do to ease their worries. For example, you might be able to make an appointment at the school at a time when other students are less likely to notice.
But in the end, you’re the best person to decide what’s in your child’s best interests, even if that means involving the school against your child’s wishes.
It’s best not to contact the person who has been doing the bullying, or the person's parents. This 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 doesn’t stop: what to do
If the bullying doesn’t stop, it’s still safer to work with your child’s school than to take matters into your own hands.
At this stage, it’s important to have a record of what’s going on. So when there’s a bullying incident, get your child to write down:
- exactly what happened
- the name(s) of the person or people who did it
- when and where it happened
- what your child has already said or done to stop the behaviour.
If the bullying involves physical harm, you or your child can take photos.
You can take screenshots if the bullying involves posts on social media, comments on instant chat, emails or text messages.
You need to talk with your child’s teacher again, and this time you can use your child’s record of what happened and when. You can ask for your concern to be addressed in writing.
If the bullying still doesn’t stop even after you’ve spoken to your child’s teacher several times, you can ask to see the school’s grievance procedure. You could also speak to the school principal, school board or school’s regional office.
It takes time for behaviour to change, so you might not see overnight results.
Support outside the school system
If the bullying is violent, if criminal offences have occurred, or if you think the school has treated you unfairly or unreasonably, you still have options:
- Seek legal advice.
- Tell the police.
- Apply to the Children’s Court for a restraining order against the person doing the bullying.
- Contact the education department or the ombudsman in your state or territory to make a complaint.
It’s best for your child’s wellbeing and development to be in an environment where they feel safe, respected and valued. Changing schools might help, but bullying can happen again in a new school, so this is probably a last resort. If you decide that changing school is best for your child, it’s good to get support with this process. You can ask your GP for a referral to an educational psychologist.
Supporting teenagers at home
Your child needs support and love at home while you work with the school on a solution to the bullying.
You can show love in ways that suit your child’s age and maturity. This might be a hug or a pat on the back, telling your child you love them, or spending time together doing something they enjoy.
Your child might want to stay home to avoid the bullying, but this won’t help. It’s best for your child to think about what they can do about the bullying. For example, your child could:
- use a map of the school to identify safe places to avoid the bullying
- list a few teachers or other adults they can turn to for help
- work with you on a problem-solving approach to the situation.