Understanding bullying: How to support your child

Bullying, whether in school, online, or among friends, can deeply affect your child's well-being. Here, Dr Deborah Trengove explores the types of bullying your child might encounter, and equips you with practical strategies to identify and address them.

When we send our kids to school, we want them to feel safe and happy and have a sense of belonging so that they are in a good place for learning. Unfortunately, around one in four Australian students between years 4 to 9 report being bullied every few weeks or even more often. While reports suggest bullying peaks in years 5 and 8, it can occur at any age (see

Bullying happens through repeated verbal, physical or social behaviour that intends to cause harm. It can occur in the open or more secretly, and it can do real damage to young people, physically and psychologically. Bullying is related to lowered self-esteem, anxiety and social insecurity. Unchecked bullying can also lead to school attendance issues, may present as psychosomatic complaints and can be a factor in depressed moods through its effect on self-image and confidence.

When bullying occurs online, there is great potential for rapid and widespread impact. Because the digital world is integrated into almost every facet of our waking lives, home may no longer feel like a sanctuary: cyberbullying can reach inside homes and bedrooms, on mobile phones that are carried everywhere, and have repercussions in classrooms and school grounds.

What is – and isn’t – bullying?

It helps to understand what bullying is and what it isn’t. Look at these scenarios:

A – Sia tells Ahmed he looks weird when he throws the ball.
B – Jack picks up James’ lunch and throws it in the bin.
C – Meg posts derogatory comments about Ella online three times in one week, with others in their group ‘liking’ them.

C is bullying. While A is thoughtless, B is mean (and also unacceptable), and C is bullying because it involves repeated behaviour deliberately intended to cause harm. It is related to the misuse of power, perceived or actual, by an individual or group.

Why can’t we stamp out bullying?

Schools do great work in educating children and adolescents about bullying. Despite this, it is almost impossible to eradicate bullying — young people are at different stages of their development of empathy, vary in their social skill development, and some may be trying to gain social status through their bullying behaviour.

Worryingly, the vast majority (85 per cent) of bullying incidents are witnessed by others in the peer group. Still, many young people are reluctant to let someone at school know because they fear adult intervention will make it worse. The fact that so many kids witness bullying can make it seem almost ‘normal’ and create a stigma for those who report it. It also builds a fear of it happening to you, so saying nothing seems the safest option. The ‘dobber’ culture is alive and well, too, falsely protecting bullies while victims suffer.

What to do if your child is being bullied?

This depends on the type of bullying and where and when it happens.

Verbal bullying is the most common type of bullying experienced by school-aged children. Trying to ignore, not react or make a joke of the comments can work in some instances as teasing is often done to get a reaction. Another option is to tell the person to stop in simple, clear language. If these strategies don’t work, and it is repeat behaviour, children should be encouraged to report it to a teacher they trust and feel comfortable with.

Physical bullying or property damage should be reported to the school immediately. In extreme circumstances, the bullying may constitute assault and police involvement is warranted.

Relational bullying can be hard to establish – it often happens in covert ways that are easily denied by those accused of deliberately excluding others. It is also difficult to force friendships despite the hurt experienced when rejected by an individual or group. It may be helpful to explore other social connections to identify supportive, trustworthy friends. Another option may be exploring whether the school would assist with mediation, if both parties are open to it, to clear up any misunderstandings and work out how to move forward.

Online bullying can cause great distress and harm, being so public and fast-moving. Keeping screen shots of offensive comments and images is very helpful in holding bullies to account. Blocking the sender is important too, to protect young people from receiving offensive or nasty texts and images. Because online bullying can impact relationships at school, it may be important to share what is happening with the school, so that your child feels safe going. The
eSafety Commissioner has great information and advice – and can assist with reports and acting to take down posts if necessary.

The school's role

All schools have policies around bullying that should be readily available to families and familiar to students. These policies can be a good starting point if you have concerns and are unsure what to do. Policies will explain how the school will respond to bullying. All accusations of bullying need to be investigated first to establish what has happened and ensure the person bullying understands the impact of their behaviour and that it is taken seriously.

Adolescents can be reluctant to get the school involved. They worry it will make things worse or that they will be seen as a ‘dobber’. Discuss options with them and encourage them to try different strategies. If they are losing confidence or don’t feel safe, intervention may be needed. Reassure them their voice will be heard and that their wellbeing is important.

Bystander behaviour

Our children will see bullying in their peer group, whether in the playground, corridors, on buses, or online — sometimes even in the classroom. This means that young people can make a significant difference if they understand their role in standing up against bullying if they see it happening. Sometimes, it can be as simple as standing beside the victim, showing them they are not alone.

There are four main actions that children and teenagers can take as bystanders:

Direct action: Say something to the bully to show that what they are doing is not OK.

Distract: Change the subject, tell a joke, or do something else to distract the bully from what they are saying or doing.

Delegate: Reach out to someone else, such as a teacher, to make them aware and get their help.

Delay: Do something later, such as talking to the bully, telling a teacher or supporting the victim.

Fostering bystander behaviour supports the person who has been belittled, hurt, or excluded. It can make a powerful difference, both to the person who is being badly treated and to the culture of a community. Talk to your kids about what they have seen and what they might be comfortable doing as bystanders.

About Deborah Trengove

Dr Deborah Trengove is a former school psychologist and school wellbeing leader, and a regular contributor to The Parents Website.

Deborah’s previous articles for The Parents Website include The Place of Consequences in Positive Discipline, Listening: The heart of connectingWhat parents can do about sibling conflictTeam Family: Why we need the family meeting, 10 tips to help your teen out of the Procrastination Trap and How parents can help kids make good friends.

You can find more from Deborah on her website and on LinkedIn.

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