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How to Support Children Through Bullying

What is Bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying is not impulsive, but rather, it is done on purpose and is pre-planned. Bullying is a complex behavior that has biological, psychological, and social roots. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t one type of bully; many factors can influence whether a child will be prone to bullying behavior.

There are different types of bullying, including physical violence, verbal bullying, social bullying, and cyberbullying [1]:

  • Physical violence includes hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, pinching, or any other physical contact that is unwanted. Physical violence also includes damaging another person’s property.

  • 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 a person’s looks, abilities, their race or sexual orientation.

  • 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

  • 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

How Do I Know if My Child is Being Bullied?

There are different signs that a child is being bullied, which may include [2]:

  • Becoming more isolated, such as by staying away from friends, school, or other activities.

  • Having unexplained injuries, such as cuts, bruises, or scratches, and attempting to explain this away with unlikely stories.

  • Changes in school performance. Try to understand why this decline in performance has happened and avoid blaming your child. They may be hiding the problem and coping with the bullying on their own.

  • Missing or damaged personal items, such as missing cellphones/electronics, damaged clothing, or mean messages written on a binder.

  • Faking illness or avoiding school. If your child worries about going to school or starts faking sick more often, they may be trying to avoid interacting with a bully. However, this does not always mean that your child is being bullied. Be sure to talk with your child to try to understand why they may be avoiding school.

  • Difficulty sleeping. Many children who are bullied have trouble sleeping as they may be afraid of going to school, worried about a rumour, upset about mean messages online, or something else.

  • Change in attitude or behavior. Children who are being bullied may show sudden changes in their actions, which may include becoming easily upset, frustrated, on edge, or they may not want to talk about their personal lives.

How Can I Prevent Bullying From Happening?

There are various things that parents can do to help prevent bullying, such as fostering empathy, teaching your children about healthy friendships, and building their communication and conflict resolution skills.

Early emotional experiences between children and their caregivers are crucial to developing empathy. Children who receive empathy and feel safe and secure in their relationships tend to be more sensitive to others’ emotional needs. To foster empathy, caregivers and their children can engage in volunteer activities together, help their neighbors or perform random acts of kindness. In this way, children and adolescents are learning kindness by doing it as opposed to simply talking about it. In addition, teach your child what healthy friendships are [3]. Friendships are a strong protective factor for both engaging in, and being targeted by, bullying behaviour. Encourage your children to think about who they can count on at school, who they can sit with at lunch, and who they can walk to class with. If your child does not feel as though they have friends, try looking for ways to help them create and maintain friendships with children with similar interests.


It is also important to teach children how to resolve conflicts with peers, and to avoid solving the problem for them. We want children to resolve problems on their own so they can develop conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, teach your child to recognize and manage emotions in order to respond to conflict in calm and assertive ways. In order to handle conflicts effectively, children need to be able to recognize when they are getting angry, and learn to calm themselves before reacting. Children who frequently bully others tend to have trouble managing anger and to strike out aggressively. Research has found that children who are the angriest are the most likely to bully others [4]. Additionally, children report that the need to relieve stress and having a bad day are the primary reasons they bully others [5].


What If My Child Is Bullying Others?

If your child happens to be bullying other children, it is important that you talk with your child about the situation [6]. This may help you understand why this is happening and what steps must be taken in order to stop the bullying [6]. Consequences can also be implemented, such as loss of electronic privileges if your child is cyberbullying [6]. However, consequences should be meaningful and limited in order to be effective [6]. Lastly, it is important that the home environment reflects behaviors that you want your child to engage in [6]. For example, if children are exposed to aggressive or unkind interactions at home, they are likely to repeat these behaviors [6]. In addition, studies have shown that a protective factor against being bullied or becoming a bully is having parents who are warm and responsive to their children and encouraging of appropriate levels of autonomy, as opposed to being controlling or overly permissive [7].


How Do I Respond if My Child is Being Bullied?

When a child is being bullied, it is not uncommon for the caregivers and/or siblings to also be affected. Caregivers often experience a wide range of consequences including feeling powerless to fix the situation, alone, and isolated. It also is not uncommon for parents to feel a sense of failure when their child is bullied. They may worry that they somehow missed the signs of bullying or that they did not do enough to bully-proof their child earlier.


It is important to remember that no one can predict who bullies will target. Caregivers can do everything right and still find out that their child is being bullied. As a result, they should never feel responsible for the choices a bully makes. Instead, they should focus on helping their child heal from bullying. There are different strategies that you can use when responding, some include:

  • Increasing supervision during unstructured times, as bullies tend to stay away from the watchful eyes of adults.

  • Don't ‘ignore’ the bullying. Instead, build your child’s capacity to respond confidently and assertively.

  • Take a collaborative role. Ask your child, “What can I do to help?”

  • Foster and encourage your child’s participation in activities where they feel successful and competent. Give them opportunities to ‘toot their own horn.’

  • Similarly, provide opportunities for your child to be a leader. They can use their experience to support others or build awareness in school or within the community.

  • When it comes to cyber-bullying, stay informed about the apps your child is using. Role play possible issues that can arise in online interactions.

  • Help your child learn to manage their emotional responses to avoid reacting to bullies.

  • Lastly, don’t encourage them to fight back or get revenge. Retaliation can lead to serious consequences and there are healthy alternatives to confronting bullying behaviour.

*The information contained in this blog post is based on a narrative review of available literature. Some studies may have been unintentionally omitted. You are advised to speak with a healthcare professional to determine if the information is appropriate to your specific circumstances.*


References

[1] Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2017). Bullying and suicide fact sheet. Retrived from https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/resource/bullying-and-suicide-fact-sheet/

[2] Stomp Out Bullying. (2023). Signs your child is being bullied - tip sheet. Retrived from https://www.stompoutbullying.org/tip-sheet-signs-your-child-being-bullied

[3] Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2022). Proactive prevention: Activating an entire school community (parents, peers, education workers) can reduce the nefarious long-term impacts of bullying — a look at promising models to create kinder environments for kids. Retrived from https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/catalyst/proactive-prevention/

[4] Bosworth, K., Espelage, D. L., & Simon, T. R. (1999). Factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 19(3), 341–362. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431699019003003

[5] Swearer, S. M., & Cary, P. T. (2007). Perceptions and Attitudes Toward Bullying in Middle School Youth: A Developmental Examination Across the Bully/Victim Continuum. In J. E. Zins, M. J. Elias, & C. A. Maher (Eds.). Bullying, victimization, and peer harassment: A handbook of prevention and intervention (pp. 67–83). Haworth Press.

[6] Katz, B. (2022). My child is a bully: what should I do? Child MInd Institute. Retrived from https://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-if-your-child-is-bullying/

[7] Rodriguez, T. (2016). Harsh parents raise bullies - so do permissive ones. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/harsh-parents-raise-bullies-so-do-permissive-ones/



Blog post written by Carmen Gietz and Kassandra Burk


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