How to talk to your children about bullying

By Sandra Craig in Blogs

Parents are often told not to wait for bullying to happen before they have a conversation with their children about it. But how best to do this? And what do we say?

Where to talk?

Sometimes the best times for conversations with your kids are if you can ambush them when they are doing something else! As a parent and teacher, I’ve found ‘transitional times’ – when you’re in the car, or cooking a meal together – can produce surprisingly deep disclosures.

For boys, especially teenagers, I found the best discussion results happened when we sat at the same level side by side - definitely not face-to-face.

You might start by talking about a movie or game you’ve both seen or played. How would they describe the way characters behave? Would they would like to be treated in this way? Is it bullying? How would the character have felt? If they were re-writing the scene, how could it be different?

What is bullying, anyway?

You need to know what bullying is so you can talk about it confidently.

Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power, which can be verbal, physical, psychological or social. It can happen in person or online and can be obvious or hidden. It’s conducted by a more powerful person or group against a less powerful person or group of people who is/are unable to stop it from happening.

Single incidents and conflicts or fights between equals are not bullying.

Think about following up the earlier conversation with something a bit more specific.

Ask if they have seen bullying happen. How did they know it was bullying (it happened again and again, it was meant to be hurtful). How did this make them feel?

We know that kids don’t like to see bullying happen. We also know if it’s not stopped, even uninvolved kids feel unsafe and kids who bully think this is condoned.

Ask if they have even been bullied and if they talked to anyone about it. If not, why not?

Kids typically don’t tell parents or teachers when they’ve been bullied. They often feel shame about the situation or that telling won’t make things better. (They’re often right). Your genuine interest in their school life will encourage them to share what is going on.

Can you tell if your child is being bullied without them telling you?

Changes in behaviour are often a sign something is wrong.

Watch for differences in eating and sleeping, if they become unhappy or socially withdrawn, angry without apparent reason, do less well at school, have unexplained bruises or scratches, ‘lose’ or damage belongings, or pretend to be sick so they can stay home from school.

But if they do tell you …

If they tell you they’re being bullied, prepare to experience emotions of your own – like anger or sadness – perhaps because of your own experience with bullying. Try not to show these as it can prevent your child from opening up to you. Put them aside to deal with later.

So … keep calm and listen. Don’t interrupt. Allow your child to tell you the whole story. Reassure them it’s not their fault, but if nothing is done, the situation will continue.

But the problem needs to be sorted out where it’s happening.


Working with the school

Contact the school and make an appointment. Please don’t just turn up there.  Teachers may not know about the situation and will need time to investigate. Your child probably hasn’t told them and most bullying takes place away from the eyes of adults.

Try to keep the relationship on a friendly basis. It’s important to explain what your child has told you, but like all social situations, there are two sides to the story. The main thing is for your child to be safe and the bullying to stop. Ensure there’s a follow-up meeting.

Standing tall

Some strategies can help your child with face-to-face bullying.

Body language is very important. It’s a good start to help them to practise standing tall and not showing their emotions, as a fearful, angry, or tearful response can encourage further bullying. Another technique is for them to act unimpressed, not bothered or, if they feel confident enough, even pretend to agree with what is being said.

What if it’s online?

We know 83 per cent of students who bully offline also bully online; 84 per cent of students bullied online are also bullied offline.

This tells us the motivation for bullying is the same whether it’s face-to-face or through digital devices and so, the problem is behavioural, rather than technological.

If your child is bullied or abused online, counsel them not to respond to the message or image, screenshot or print the evidence, block or delete the sender and change privacy settings. They can also report the situation to the internet service provider or phone service provider who can help block messages or calls. They might take a short break from social media – do offline stuff with friends and finally, if needed, contact the police.

Two ‘don’ts’ for you

Don’t advise your child to fight back as this can escalate the situation and your child might end up the one in trouble.

Don’t confront the parents of the bullying child personally.

A final word

You’ll have noticed I haven’t used the terms “bully” and “victim”. It’s best to avoid labelling children; as they mature, they grow out of much undesirable behaviour. Bullying situations also tend to be fluid and roles are sometimes reversed, especially when children go from primary to secondary school and form new social groups with different power structures. The bullying student can become the target of bullying overnight – and vice versa.

Children watch us all the time and imitate the behaviour they observe. Are they observing kindness, tolerance and empathy?

Keep lines of communication open. Enjoy your talks!

Sandra Craig is the manager of Alannah & Madeline Foundation’s National Centre Against Bullying.

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