It is heartbreaking to discover that your child is being bullied at school. Although it’s no consolation, recent research suggests one in four Australian school students experience frequent bullying at school. So your child is certainly not alone.
Of course, parents should always immediately alert your child’s school; most schools have internal mechanisms for dealing with bullying.
But what can parents do to help in the interim?
How to ‘block’ a bully
“Children who successfully bully block tell me ‘the other kids respect and play with me now,’” says child psychologist Evelyn Field, who was awarded an Order of Australia for her work in the community to eradicate bullying.
While common advice is to walk away, Field advises this tactic does not always work.
“Dealing with difficult people is a survival skill you’ll need throughout your life,” Field says. “Role-playing with your children is the best practice.” “It’s your reaction, rather than anything else about you, that advertises your vulnerability to bullies,” Field says.
Field advises the best way to deal with a bully is to retain a neutral face, voice and stance. Role-play with your child so they can keep their facial expressions, voice and body language neutral and pleasant, rather than getting angry or scared. Clever comebacks are good, but not necessary.
“Your response doesn’t even have to make sense. If the bully says, ‘You’re stupid, say, ‘Well, I didn’t have my Vegemite for breakfast this morning.’”
Helping hand at home
“Appropriate boundaries, which are neither too strict nor too loose, and social role models are essential to make children strong emotionally and socially,” Field says.
“Have meals and meetings as a family and try and create a social life and go out with other people as a family so your child knows how to make friends.”
Encourage your children to mix with other children; extra-curricular activities at and outside school are a great opportunity for children to make friends.
What about cyberbullying?
Recent research indicates ‘cyberbulling’ goes hand-in-hand with in-person bullying in almost 85% of cases.
Monitor your child's time online or on their phone, if they have one. Put the computer in a communal area in the house and keep copies of your child's passwords (but only for emergencies).
What are potential side-effects of bullying?
Field says the long-term effects of bullying are still being studied, but it can affect students academically, and lead to social and psychological problems in later life.
“Bullying shouldn’t be considered by society to be a ‘normal’ part of growing up,” Field says. “It is incredibly destructive and its legacy can negatively impact the rest of a person’s life.
“If you don’t know how to make friends, you'll be isolated. Humans are a social animal. If we’re isolated, humiliated and ostracised by those around us, our brains wither.”
What if your strategies don’t work?
What if you are unhappy with the way in which your child’s school has dealt with the problem? “It’s time to change schools,” Field says.
While changing schools mid-year can be difficult, it is certainly not impossible. The majority of private schools do accept enrolments year-round.
What if my child is the bully?
Field advises family therapy for children exhibiting bullying behaviour. This is so the child and their parents can address the issue together in a supportive and understanding environment.
“People who were bullies as children can develop psychological problems and difficulty in regulating their emotions, which can make their family and professional life difficult,” Field says.
“Childhood bullies are also more likely to have a criminal record by the time they are 25 and to abuse their partners and children.
“It is essential to handle this problem as quickly as possible.”