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Understanding bullying:

How to recognise and put an end to it

Every parent or carer worries that their child will experience bullying at school. Thankfully, our awareness of its impact is growing every day, and many schools now have effective anti-bullying strategies in place.

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But how can you tell if your child is being bullied? And if you find they are, what can you do about it? The first step is understanding exactly what’s involved and just how far it can go.

What is bullying?

Australia has a national definition of bullying for use in schools: the ‘ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm.’ This misuse of power can be in person or online, individual or group based, and can be obvious or subtle.

The key to understanding the definition is the reference to ‘ongoing’ or ‘repeated’ activity. This means that one argument, or even one aggressive action, between children is not necessarily a sign of bullying. It is not bullying if someone doesn’t like you, for example, disagrees with your opinions or excludes you from a game on a one-off basis.

Bullying may take the form of physical violence, teasing, and stealing or damaging someone’s things. More subtle bullying can involve exclusion, spreading rumours or social media trolling.

How can I tell if my child is being bullied?

Young children can be quick to accuse a classmate of being ‘mean’ to them; whilst older children can instead become defensive and withdrawn when faced with peer aggression. Either way, it can be extremely difficult for parents, friends or teachers to get to the truth behind a conflict situation.

Signs that your child may be being bullied include:

  • refusing to go to school
  • slipping behind in assessments
  • changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • unexplained cuts or bruises
  • frequent mood swings
  • taking money, extra food or valuable items to school from home
  • avoiding going online
  • shutting the computer off when a parent or teacher approaches.

On the other hand, there may be very few signs at all.

How do I talk to my child about bullying?

All families and class groups should have regular, open dialogue about bullying, including definitions, behavioural expectations and discussing options around who to ask for help.

If you suspect your child is being bullied, they may not want to tell you directly. Try asking general questions about their friendship group or how school is going for them. Encourage your child to invite friends home so you can get a sense of their relationships. Take care to read their responses carefully, but don’t over-analyse.

Many parents also retain access to their children’s social media account passwords and take a periodic look at their peer interactions. This can be a good way to get a conversation started about what is, or isn’t, appropriate behaviour online.

If your child begins to open up about a bullying experience, remain positive and supportive. It is of more benefit to your child that you believe their story and work with them on strategies, than for them to see you ‘fly off the handle’.

Encourage your child to:

  • walk away from the bully
  • act unimpressed or unaffected
  • be assertive and say: “No’ or ‘I don’t like it when you speak to me that way.”
  • talk to a teacher or counsellor. If these options are not helping, you may wish to take further action.

Who else should I talk to about bullying?

If your child has confirmed that they are being repeatedly subjected to a ‘misuse of power’, then anti-bullying action may be necessary. Whilst a forceful reaction is understandable, parents and carers need to tread carefully in response to bullying. Next steps may include:

  • Talking to the school. Ask your child’s teachers, or school counsellor, whether they have seen evidence of bullying. Explain your child’s version of events. Discuss your school’s policy on bullying and request action. This will differ between school communities, but may take the form of arranging a meeting between the children, organising counselling for one or both parties, or moving children into different class or activity groups.
  • Talking to the parents. If you know the parents of the child who is bullying your child, a casual conversation can be a good first step. In some cases, parents may be aware of challenges going on at school—they may even be in the process of engaging counsellors or similar professional help for their own child. Understanding the background of the bullying behaviour can be helpful and can give context to situations. If you do not know the parents well, keep in mind that it can be very confronting for another parent to accuse your child of inappropriate behaviour. To avoid misunderstandings, it may be best to arrange a meeting with the parents via a teacher or school counsellor.

Can I get professional help and support?

Finding a resolution to bullying is not easy, but help is available. Consider keeping a reference list of places you can go for professional support – for your child, and for yourself. Here are some suggested resources and support organisations:

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