mother watching over son on computer

If you’ve recently learned that your child may have been bullying others, it is completely normal to feel shame, embarrassment, disappointment or maybe even guilt. It can be hard to believe that your teenager could be engaging in this kind of behaviour. The fact is, most of our kids will have the experience of playing the role of the bully, bystander and target during their years in primary and high school. There are always two sides to any situation, and it is important to take time to understand the full situation as to what has happened. Whatever your feelings are about what you’ve heard, this moment is a red flag to look closer at your teen’s behaviour.

Try to remain calm when you approach them about the situation. Let your teen know that there’s a problem and that you want to help them work it out..

What is bullying?

Bullying happens when a person or a group of people repeatedly and intentionally use words or actions to cause distress and harm to another person’s wellbeing. There’s also a power imbalance in the situation. This imbalance could be due to age, physical size, popularity or something else. It isn’t the same as a ‘normal’ conflict between people (such as having an argument or a fight) or simply disliking someone. It’s more about repeated behaviour by someone who has power or control over someone else.

Bullying behaviour can include:

  • talking badly about someone behind their back (online or in person)
  • teasing someone, calling them names, giving nasty looks or making rude gestures
  • spreading rumours or lies about someone (online or in person)
  • hurting someone physically by pushing, hitting, slapping, ganging up on or restraining them
  • excluding someone from a group (online or in person)
  • harassing someone because of their race, sex, religion, gender or a disability
  • sharing embarrassing photos of someone online
  • posting mean things about someone on social media
  • stalking someone online with texts or instant messages, or in person by intimidating them or following them.

Why do teenagers bully others?

Some common reasons that teenagers may bully others are related to issues or delays in developing the following skills. Thankfully, all of these can all be worked on and improved upon:

  • awareness of and ability to manage their own emotions
  • understanding and recognising other people’s feelings
  • an ability to manage pressure from peers
  • respect for others and acceptance of difference
  • an ability to deal with conflict
  • problem-solving.

What should I do first if I have learned about a bullying incident?

If there’s been a bullying incident involving your child outside of the home:

  • Find a good time to talk to your child. It’s best not to start the conversation when emotions are running high. Taking them out for a snack or activity can help.
  • Describe the bullying behaviour you’re seeing or have been told has happened.
  • Ask them about it. Were they aware of what they were doing? Try and get them to do the talking.
  • Listen carefully and try not to jump to conclusions or judgements. If you do, your child is likely to react defensively.
  • Ask them to imagine how the person they bullied feels.
  • Ask them what they think they should do next. If they’re not forthcoming, ask whether they think it would be helpful to apologise and take other appropriate actions.
  • Close the conversation by acknowledging your child’s courage to own up to their bullying behaviour and their willingness to take steps to make amends.
  • Remind them that bullying is a negative pattern of behaviour they've engaged in, but that doesn't make them a bully. Point out their strengths and examples of their positive behaviours to reinforce that these are what you expect to see more of.

Then:

  • Check in with them to see if they have followed through on what they said they would do. if they have, acknowledge that it was the right thing to do.
  • If your teenager is unwilling to approach the person they have been bullying to make amends, have them write an email to the person concerned to apologise.
  • Your child needs to take responsibility for their bullying behaviour, insist that they do the right thing.

Some other ways to address a persistent bullying problem include:

  • Discuss their friends and their influence. Sometimes, someone else may be encouraging or supporting your teenager to engage in bullying behaviour.
  • What else is going on in their life? Is something causing anxiety, or fear? If they are acting out because of something else, you may need to identify it in order to help.
  • Is your teenager exposed to arguments, conflicts or relationship problems? This could be having a very negative effect on their behaviour.
  • What is your teenager watching? Are they playing or watching violent video games or movies? You may need to talk about what cannot be translated to real life.
  • Are they bullying to communicate anger, sadness or other emotions? Consider discussing effective communication skills.
  • Learned prejudices can lead people to bully. Do they have negative perceptions and beliefs about others that need to be addressed?
  • An aggressive temperament can be a contributing factor. Encourage them to consider some of the ideas at ReachOut.com about anger management. Consider engaging a counsellor if this is a consistent problem.

How do I handle bullying at home?

When bullying at home gets physical, results in injury or is impacting the mental wellbeing of your family through yelling or name-calling, then it’s time to take control and put a stop to it.

Sit together as a family and discuss your family values. State your expectations clearly. This is a time to be specific and firm. There is no excuse for people to feel unsafe in their own home. They need to know that bullying isn’t O.K., that you’re aware of it and there will be consequences if the bullying continues.

The bottom line is that everyone takes responsibility for their behaviour by agreeing to show each other kindness and respect.

If the bullying behaviour in your home is beyond this sort of family intervention, seek help. You can sign up for ReachOut Parents One-on-One Support which is a free, professional service run in partnership with The Benevolent Society here. You could also organise family counselling through Relationships Australia for a face-to-face option.

What do I do if my child continues to bully?

Bullying is serious, so it’s important that your child finds ways to positively manage relationships rather than trying to dominate, control or exclude others.

Teaching them conflict resolution skills and how to develop a greater awareness of their own feelings can help them pause and take a different path. Helping your child learn emotional skills like empathy for the feelings of others is another great place to start.

If you don’t see an improvement, it’s time to get additional support. You could access ReachOut Parents One-on-One Support, talk to the wellbeing staff at your teenager’s school, contact Relationship Australia or have a chat to your GP to find out your options.

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