What is it?
Bullying is when a person behaves in a hurtful or aggressive way, again and again, in order to make others feel uncomfortable, scared or upset.
It is common, but bullying should not be a normal part of growing up. Bullying can significantly impact a young person's mental health and wellbeing. Parents, caregivers and educators can play an important role in intervening if bullying is suspected.
How is bullying different from mean behaviour, conflict, or teasing?
It’s important to know the difference between bullying and a single act of mean behaviour, conflict or teasing. Here is how you can tell the difference:
- Bullying is intentional and done repeatedly. The person doing the bullying means to harm or scare someone else. Bullying is done again and again.
- Mean Behaviour: Saying or doing something on purpose to hurt someone. A child or youth might make a mean comment when they feel angry, frustrated or jealous. Or, they might say something mean to make themselves look better than another person. They often make these mean comments on impulse, and then regret them later.
- "Your clothes are ugly."
- "Get a life."
- "You’re so fat/ugly/stupid."
- Conflict: A disagreement or difference between peers who have equal power. Conflict is common within groups of children or adults.
- Two girls on the basketball team are arguing with each other about losing a game. Each girl blames the other for making a bad play. They continue to fight until their coach gets involved and tells them to stop arguing.
- In this example, both girls have equal power and are disagreeing over the outcome of a game. Neither girl has been threatened or harmed. They are not showing signs of distress or humiliation.
- Teasing: Comments intended to make fun of someone in a playful way. Teasing usually means the person doing the teasing is good natured and being playful. The behaviour is not repeated.
- A boy sees his friend smiling and talking to a girl. He teases him about having a crush on her and mimics their conversation. The friend tells him to let it go, and that she’s just a friend. The teasing continues for a few more minutes, but then they move on to a something else.
Bullying is different from mean behaviour, normal conflict, or teasing. Bullies intend to hurt someone and they repeat their behaviour.
Types of Bullying:
- Cyberbullying is the use of text, social media or technology to hurt or threaten others. Examples of cyberbullying include:
- saying hurtful things about someone on social media
- sending threatening text messages
- spreading rumours online
- Social bullying is trying to embarrass someone or affect their social standing. Examples of social bullying include:
- spreading rumours
- planning hurtful jokes to embarrass someone
- coordinating with other people to leave out or exclude a person – social exclusion
- Verbal bullying is saying hurtful things that are meant to hurt or embarrass someone. Verbal bullying can happen in schools or even within friend groups. Examples include negative comments about the clothes a person wears, their race or sexual orientation.
- Physical violence is hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, pinching, or any physical contact that is unwanted. It also includes damaging another person’s property.
How do I know?
There are different ways to tell if your child is being bullied or if your child is bullying.
How do I know if my child is being bullied:
Each person deals with bullying differently, but there are a few things to look for:
- They become more and more isolated. If your child starts to stay away from friends, school or other activities, it may be a sign that they are being bullied. People who are being bullied may withdraw from a difficult situation.
- They have unexplained injuries. If a child often comes home from school with cuts, bruises, scratches and tells a story that seems unlikely, that can be a red flag for physical bullying.
- Changes in school performance. If your child suddenly begins to perform poorly at school, it may be a sign of bullying. Try to understand why the decline has happened. If you blame your child, they may try to hide the problem and cope with the bullying on their own.
- Missing or damaged personal items. Signs of bullying may include: missing valuables (cell phones), damaged clothing or personal items (mean messages written on their binder).
- Faking illness or avoiding school. If your child worries about or fears going to school or fakes being sick more often, they may be trying to avoid a bully. But faking illness doesn’t always mean your child is being bullied. Talk with your child to understand why they may be avoiding school.
- Difficulty sleeping. Many bullied children have trouble sleeping. They may be afraid of going to school, worried about a rumour, upset about mean messages online, or something else related to bullying. All of these things may keep your child from getting the right amount of sleep.
- Change in attitude or behaviour. Children who are being bullied may show sudden changes in how they act. This can include becoming easily upset or frustrated. They may seem on edge and not want to talk about their personal lives.
How do I know if my child is bullying:
It can be hard to ask yourself, “Is my child a bully?” But, if the answer is “yes”, you can play a major role in helping to change your child’s behaviour. Here are some signs that your child may be bullying others:
- They are aggressive with family members, teachers, pets and friends.
- They don’t seem to care about other peoples’ feelings.
- They come home with money, toys, clothing or other things and don’t explain where they came from.
- They have friends who bully others or are aggressive.
- They have trouble following rules.
If your child is bullying, this does not make them a bad person. It is often a sign that something else is going on that is causing this behaviour. For example, children and youth who bully are often seeking control or power, and may:
- Be insecure or lack self-confidence
- Have low self-esteem
- Have been victim to bullying themselves
- Be going through a hard time at home or socially
- Not be aware they are bullying, or may think it is just a joke
- Are experiencing pressure from friends, or simply want to fit in
What can be done?
There are ways to support your child if they are being bullied, as well as ways to help your child if they are bullying.
Tips if your child is being bullied:
- Talk to your child about what is going on. The signs of bullying can vary from person to person. It's important to be alert and ask about bullying if you see a change in behaviour. For example, ask your child how things are going with peers at school. Is anyone being left out or picked on?
It’s also important to ask your child directly, if you are concerned they are being bullied. They might not tell you unless you ask them directly. If they deny being bullied, they may be going through something else or, they may not be ready to tell you. Ask as needed until you are sure you know what is going on with them.
Try to help your child understand if what they are experiencing is bullying. Or if it is normal peer conflict, mean behaviour, or teasing. Two questions you can ask your child to help them tell the difference are:
1. Did the person mean to hurt you?
2. Is it happening often?
- Acknowledge and accept. If your child tells you they are being bullied, start by acknowledging their feelings. Accept they are feeling left out or mistreated, and offer to work on a solution together. For example, say something like, “I can see that upsets you. If it happened to me, I probably would feel the same way. Let’s figure out what to do to make it stop.”
- Let them know you are there for them. Many children who are bullied don’t reach out for support because they are embarrassed. Remind your child it is not their fault and you know how hard it is to be bullied. Say you want to help them and listen to what they need.
- Talk about healthy coping skills.
- Model healthy relationships. Show them what a healthy relationship looks like - especially between parents. Talk about what makes a healthy relationship (e.g. trust, honesty, respect).
- Teach children about assertiveness, and role play from a young age how to stand up for yourself.
- Let a trusted teacher or counsellor at their school know about the bullying. If you know or suspect your child is being bullied, make an appointment or call the school. Explain your concerns and ask directly what they are going to do about it. Consult your child before you make this call and talk about any concerns your child may have. If your child does not want you to talk to their school, think about what is best for the child and their concerns in the situation.
An older child (in high school) may not want you to contact the school directly. In that case, work with your child to decide on the best way to report the bullying, and explore possible solutions with them:
- Help your child practice ways to respond to the bully verbally or through their behaviour.
- Encourage your child to practice feeling good about themselves (even if they have to fake it at first).
- Encourage your child to identify who their true friends are. If they’re comfortable, suggest that they share what’s happening with friends so they can help your child feel safe and secure.
- See if your child is interested in exploring a new hobby through a school club, or a group outside of school (a religious institution, sports team, etc.) Being part of a group can make your child feel like they’re part of a bigger community. That can help to boost their confidence and self-image.
It helps to talk about bullying and social exclusion even if your child is not being bullied. Your child will learn to include their peers as much as possible, stand up for others, and know where to go for help if they need it.
Tips if your child is bullying:
- Start the conversation about bullying early. Introduce the topic with kindness and understanding. Help your child develop their social skills and build confidence to change their behaviour.
- Listen and explore the situation to try to identify why they are behaving this way. Is your child bullying because of an unmet need? Are they going through something themselves? Are friends influencing their behaviour? Talk calmly with your child and try to understand what is causing their bullying behaviour. Avoid getting angry or yelling.
- Talk about what bullying is, and set up clear and reasonable consequences for negative behaviour. Consequences can be both positive and negative:
- Positive consequences are proactive, and are designed to encourage children to repeat good behaviors. Examples include: praising your child, such as “I really appreciate the way you helped your little brother with his homework today”, or providing tangible rewards such as time to watch TV, or a trip to their favourite store/park.
- Negative consequences are reactive, and are given in response to a behaviour you want your child to change. Examples include: setting limits, or taking something away that they may be misusing (i.e. a device or a privilege).
- Encourage your child to acknowledge their bullying behaviour and apologize. Acknowledging that there is a problem is a brave and important first step towards taking responsibility and changing behaviours. Talk to your child about how everyone (including themselves) has the right to be treated with respect, and feel safe. Reassure your child that even if they have been bullying, they can change and learn how to behave differently and have healthy relationships with other people. If your child admits to bullying, ask them to apologize to the people they have bullied.
- Lead by example. Children mirror your actions. Show respect, care and concern for others.
- Teach other ways to solve problems and deal with frustration. Bullying may be the way your child is dealing with other struggles they are having. Teach them more positive ways to express emotions, deal with conflict, handle frustration and manage stress, such as mindfulness.
- Check in regularly with their school about their behaviour. If you are worried your child’s bullying behaviour may not stop or may get worse, inform their school. Then work with the school to develop ways to deal with the problem together.
- Consider seeking mental health supports. Bullying behaviour usually suggests that the child is suffering in ways they can't express.
Where to from here?
Look for support services that can help if your child is bullying or being bullied. Reach out to school administration, teachers and school counsellors for support.
Your family doctor or pediatrician can help you find the appropriate support if you believe bullying is impacting the mental health of your child, or if your child is struggling with a mental health challenge.
Looking for more information on this topic? Connect with a parent peer support worker at the Kelty Centre to discover additional resources, learn more about support and treatment options, or just to find a listening ear.