What is bullying?

Bullying behaviour has several core elements that don’t feature in normal conflict between children. There is general agreement that bullying is:

  • deliberate, repeated, unprovoked, hurtful and aggressive behaviour that aims to harm, embarrass, threaten or intimidate

  • carried out by perpetrators who are more powerful (either in reality or perception) than their targets, who are usually not able to effectively resist. The power imbalance might relate to physical size (e.g. the person who bullies is bigger) or popularity (e.g. the person who bullies has a large amount of friends).

There are different types of bullying behaviour:

  • Face to face bullying is easier to identify and may include kicking, hitting and shoving, or overt verbal acts such as threats, name-calling, taking belongings and insults.
  • Covert bullying is more subtle, typically non-physical and often occurs out of sight of others. Covert bullying includes hand gestures, threatening looks, whispering, gossiping, excluding, blackmailing, spreading rumours, threatening, and stealing friends.
  • Cyberbullying involves using technology such as mobile phones and the internet to bully others. It differs from offline bullying in that the perpetrators can more easily remain anonymous, content can reach a large audience, and material can be difficult to remove.

These different types of bullying can occur in combination and leave students to feel they have no safe space.

Consequences of bullying

Bullying is a mental health concern because it causes distress and can lead to loneliness, low self-esteem, feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. Bullying can also affect children’s concentration and lower their achievement at school. Bullying involves a power imbalance and the behaviour is typically repeated over time, often resulting in a sense of oppression and low levels of psychological wellbeing and social adjustment for children.

When children have been bullied they may: 

  • not want to go to school
  • be unusually quiet or secretive
  • be more unhappy or anxious than usual, especially before or after school, sport or wherever the bullying is happening
  • become more isolated – playing with friends or lose interest in school or social activities
  • complain about having headaches, stomach aches or other physical problems.
  • seem over-sensitive or weepy
  • have angry outbursts

You may also notice that their property has been damaged or is missing. As a result of bullying, children often don’t want to go to school and are absent more frequently than other children. Their learning is also sometimes impacted, because they are thinking about ways to avoid the bullying rather than concentrating on what’s going on in class. Children who are bullied can feel isolated and sometimes don’t have a lot of friends. Similar effects can exist for children who bully others.

Raising the issue with your child

If you suspect your child is being bullied, it can be hard to know how to raise it with them. Some kids try and hide what’s happening, feel ashamed, afraid or might not want you to worry or make a big deal. Often children just want the bullying to stop without confronting the issue or drawing attention to it. They might find it uncomfortable discussing their feelings and emotions openly with you, or get angry and defensive when you ask if they’re ok. Try to stay calm, and realise you may need to raise the conversation in different ways over time to get a response.

Some children may find it hard to talk about it and may not respond well to direct questioning. You may not want to ask them straightaway if they are being bullied, but rather ask questions about their day, see if their behaviour has changed, how they’re feeling and give them time and opportunities to talk to you about it. If your child has difficulties in explaining what is happening to them and/or communication difficulties, you may need to use different ways to communicate with them.

If you think your child is being bullied, it is important to try to talk with them about it. Try to:

  • stay calm and reassure them that talking with you is a great start
  • listen to them and show them your support
  • explain that it’s not their fault and it’s never ok to be bullied
  • ask them if there is a particular action they would like you to take. Depending on their age, this may not always be possible.
  • let them know you are there to help them practise responsible ways to respond to bullying
  • you may also like to contact your school to discuss it in more detail and understand the action plan the school will take to address it

Addressing bullying behaviours in your own child

Unfortunately, sometimes it may be your child who is participating in bullying behaviour. While it can be a challenging situation, try to listen to the information given to you by others and take time to process the information. This can help make sure that you are calm and approachable when you talk to your child.

When talking with your child, whilst not supporting the behaviour, it’s important to provide reassurance and support for them as a person.  When seeking to understand the circumstances, sometimes it may be hard to get responses from your child about their actions; they may choose to focus on the actions of the other children involved. Questions such as ‘can you help me see why Max sees it his way?’ or ‘how would you feel if Max did that to you?’ can help encourage taking other’s perspectives. It is also useful to understand if there is a pattern to the bullying (e.g., how long has it been going on? Are other children involved? What circumstances lead up to the bullying behaviour?).

If your child is engaging in bullying behaviour:

  • make sure your child knows the bullying behaviour is inappropriate and why
  • try to understand the reasons why your child has behaved in this way and look for ways to address problems
  • encourage empathy through perspective taking (e.g. “how would you feel if …”)
  • help your child think of alternative paths of action

Talking it over can also be helpful to find out if your child is upset, jealous, unhappy, or perhaps has been bullied themselves. Understanding what might have led up to this can also help to understand possible reasons why your child might be behaving this way.

What you can do to help

If your child is being bullied:

  • listen and provide support to your child
  • try to understand what has been happening, how often and how long
  • encourage social skills, like being assertive, telling the bully to stop and seeking help
  • support your child to think through different ways they could deal with the problem
  • talk with your child’s school and ask for help
  • keep talking with the school until your child feels safe.

If your child tells you about bullying he has seen or heard at school:

  • encourage your child to stand up for the child who is being bullied
  • encourage your child to report what he/she has seen or heard to school staff

To help prevent cyberbullying, KidsMatter encourages parents to:

  • Talk to your kids about what they’re doing online. Children benefit from assertive parents who actively monitor their technology use. Just like in the face-to-face world, the younger the child, the more supervision they require in the digital world.
  • Reinforce your values. Think about the digital world as an extension of the face-to-face world and encourage your children to match their offline values with their online behaviour.
  • Keep up-to-date with current popular website and apps. Choose websites and apps that look good and use them with your children. Talk to your child’s school and other parents about what they are doing.
  • Teach children about ways of keeping safe when using the internet and mobile phones

It is very important for the bully to understand how his or her behaviour has affected the other person and to be clear not to repeat that behaviour. To help prevent bullying, children can be taught how to be respectful and caring towards others. Children who bully may appear confident but often lack skills for building positive friendships

Learning to be more assertive can help those who are bullied to stand up for themselves. Learning the skills of assertiveness can also help those who bully find ways to communicate their wants, needs and opinions without becoming aggressive. Both those who are bullied, and those who do the bullying, will benefit from learning effective social and emotional skills.

Links and resources:

Bullying: How to spot it

Parents and carers preventing and responding to bullying

Talking about bullying with children

Bullying at pre-school: Helping your child

Bullying at school: Helping your child

How parents and carers can respond to bullying

Cyberbullying: spotting the signs and helping your child

Online safety: Basics, tips and what to do

Bullying: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Help now and more information/resources on bullying