Bullying is a behaviour that has received considerable attention lately. There are several reasons for this, one being the amount of media and government focus on cyber bullying. This behaviour is now seen as a serious concern for the wellbeing of young people on social media and across the wider web.
Another reason may be more timeless — bullying is a universal source of worry for any parent. Whether the bullying occurs on social media, at school, or at a friend or relative’s house, the knowledge that your child is being victimised can make any parent feel powerless.
Why do people bully anyway?
To understand how to best deal with bullying it’s necessary to understand why people — and in particular children — bully in the first place.
Most people have experienced or at least known bullying. In its simplest form, bullying is when a person attempts to harm or intimidate someone they feel is vulnerable or somehow “below” them.
The reasons why people bully are complex.
- Among children, a common reason is that the person doing the bullying may themselves have been, or is, a victim. These bullies may be angry or have feelings of low self-esteem. Their behaviour may therefore be a way to “feel better” about their situation.
- Children and adolescents, who are still developing emotionally, may resort to bullying as a way to fit in with a group. In some cases it may even be a means to avoid becoming victims themselves.
- Jealousy is another common reason. The motive could be about someone’s perceived wealth, popularity (status) or physical appearance. So too might an inability to relate socially.
- Underlying most forms of bullying, whether it’s among children or adults, is a need to establish control or domination. It is also notable that many people who bully are more likely to have experienced distressing events in their lives.
Other common factors that are thought to contribute include:
- Bullies are more likely to live in households where family break-ups or separation were a factor.
- Bullies are also more likely to have been bullied.
- Bullies are more likely to have lower access to education.
- It is thought that bullies feel more insecure about family relationships and friendships.
Bullying is incredibly common. One study found that one in four students in Australia experience bullying face-to-face and one in five experienced it online. Bullying peaks at primary school and during the first year of high school, where it is more likely to be physical and verbal. As people get older, bullying tends to take on subtler and more “adult” forms, like manipulation and exclusion.
My child is being bullied. What can I do?
As a parent, one of the most frustrating aspects of bullying is that it can make you feel vulnerable and helpless. You desperately want the bullying to stop and you probably feel angry about it too. However, while this protective response is an understandable instinct for any parent, taking matters into your own hands probably won’t solve the problem.
So how can you deal with bullying?
Talk to your child
School can, unfortunately, be a rough place where children learn about boundaries. Conflict between kids will arise, but that doesn’t automatically mean your child is being bullied.
When bullying is taking place, there will usually be signs.
- Look out for injuries like cuts and bruises or vandalised and missing possessions and torn clothes.
- Behavioural changes, like excessive withdrawal, abnormal anger or anxiety, bedwetting or loss of appetite may also be indicative of bullying.
- Other signs may include your child not doing the things they usually enjoy and attempts to avoid school (more than usual), particular people or groups, and locations like the school bus.
These signs do not always mean your child is being bullied, but they are signs that something is bothering them. They could be indicative of other issues, like social difficulties, depression or even the normal effects of growing up, especially for teenagers.
If you’re concerned, then talk about it. One of the reasons that your child may not have said anything to you is that they may be worried about how you will respond. This could be because they are embarrassed or ashamed, or they might fear that you will “overreact” or be upset.
So be a good listener (listening techniques for adults are just as important for listening to kids). Keep your cool and think before you respond so that you are calm, rational and supportive.
Don’t lose it
While you may feel angry or indignant, responding with rage is not the right way to deal with it.
Your anger sets an example. They learn from your behaviour, so responding with anger and aggression tells them that this is how problems are solved. Acting this way could even lead to your child behaving like a bully.
Berating or blaming your child by telling them to “stick up for yourself” or fight back is also unlikely to solve the problem. Then again, neither should you dismiss their concerns or ignore their pleas not to “tell anyone”. The bullying may get worse if the bully finds out your child has “dobbed” or told someone.
Lead by example
Remind your child that they’re not alone. Many people who get bullied go on to lead very successful lives (whereas bullies, more often than not, get stuck with the same mindset).
Help them understand the motivations for bullying, whether it’s to raise fragile self-esteem or due to bad guidance in the bully’s life. Emphasize that it’s the bully who is behaving badly and it’s not your kid’s fault.
Make it clear to your child that you will figure out what to do about it together. As their confidant, let them know that they can talk to you about the situation and that you will listen calmly and non-judgmentally. Praise your child for doing the right thing and if the problem looks like it may be ongoing, make time each day to listen what what’s happening in their life.
Teach them confidence and social skills
While you’re leading by example, teach your child good social skills. This will give them the social and emotional confidence that will stand them in good stead — not just during this difficult time, but also later in life.
For example, show them how to be assertive without being overly aggressive. If your child is in kinder or in primary school, teach them how to make a point instead of hitting, crying or throwing a tantrum.
As they get older, show them how to manage strong emotions like anger. It could be how to confidently walk away from a bully or the skills that go with disengaging from provocative behaviour, such as saying “yeah, whatever” or holding a “poker face”. Explain that bullies thrive off reaction and that handling yourself confidently can help stop them being a victim.
Show them the smart way to avoid conflict
Many people who were physically bullied have at some stage fantasised about hitting back. The desire for aggression and punishment is a natural human urge that can be traced back to our early evolution. However, the reality today is that this rarely solves the situation.
It may cause more problems, if a bully who is wronged retaliates, or it could even get your child into trouble. One of the more insidious things about bullying is the way it is often deliberately hidden from teachers or parents. How will they know that bullying is taking place if the only evidence is a bruise on the bully?
Worst of all, physical retribution teaches your child that violence is the best way to solve problems. They may carry this belief into adult life, which could lead to all sorts of problems in their relationships or even with the law.
As mentioned, avoidance strategies and knowing how to confidently disengage can help. A bully who doesn’t get the desired response will (hopefully) move on.
If the bullying occurs online, teach them to keep evidence of the messages and learn how to employ blocking tools. If the bullying is for money or possessions, consider removing the bait by packing their lunch and leaving desirable items at home.
Take it up with school or other parents (if your child is ok with it)
Do you feel that the bullying problem is getting out of hand? With your child’s approval, take it up with the school or the parents of the bully. This may be their teachers, principal or even the school board.
As a last resort, if the school does not act resolve the situation and you believe the situation is serious, consider other avenues. If you believe there is a genuine threat to your child’s safety, consider contacting the police or taking other legal avenues. In extreme cases consider changing schools. It goes without saying that you should thoroughly talk it through with your child before taking action.
You’re in it for the long term
Most importantly, get involved in your child’s life and lead by example. As a society we still have a very long way to go before bullying is no longer a problem. Until then, we will encounter bullies — at school, at work, and at the retirement home.
A child that knows how to handle bullies will become an adult who knows how to handle difficult situations. No one has a greater influence on your child’s behaviour than you, their parent. So show them the right way to go about it.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.