Starting the conversation with your children about bullying

Kinderling News & Features

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?

Some of the best times for conversations with your kids is if you sort of ambush them when they are least expecting it because they are doing something else! In my life as a parent and teacher, I’ve found ‘transitional times’ – when you’re in the car, or cooking a meal together - often produce surprisingly deep disclosures.

Boys don’t respond as well when you’re standing over or facing them. I found the best discussion results happen when we sat next to each together - definitely not face-to-face.

You might be talking about a situation in a movie or a game and how people behave in certain social situations and interact respectfully with one another – or don’t.

The conversation might go something like this (and try not to make it an inquisition):

  • What did you think about the way the people in the movie, game TV show etc. acted towards each other?
  • Was it bullying? Why or why not?
  • What do you think ‘bullying’ is?
  • Or were the characters in conflict? Is bullying different? How?
  • How would that character have felt? Why?

What is bullying, anyway?

Let them know what bullying is. 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, conflicts or fights between equals are not bullying.

Listen to Kinderling Conversation:

You could follow up (not necessarily at the same time, though):

  • Have you seen bullying happen?
  • How did you know it was bullying?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • Has it ever happened to you?
  • Did you talk to anyone about it? Why? Why not?
  • Have you or your friends ever left other kids out on purpose?
  • Do you think that was bullying? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever tried to help someone who is being bullied? What happened? What would you do if it happens again?

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

One thing we know from the research is that most children don’t tell their parents either through shame or the feeling that they will be unable to get help. Ensure you keep up a genuine interest in their school life and encourage them to share what is going on. That way, they’re more likely to tell you. But keep a watch out for changes in their behaviour that might indicate that something is going on:

  • Changes in in eating and sleeping
  • Social withdrawal, unhappiness
  • Anger that seems to be without a real cause
  • Decline in school grades or work performance
  • Unexplained bruises or scratches
  • Damaged or lost belongings
  • Absenteeism or school refusal
  • Unlikely explanations for any of the above

But if they do tell you … 

If your child does comes to you and discloses they are being bullied, prepare for emotions of your own to surface, like anger or sadness. These could be related to your own childhood experiences of being bullied. Remember these feelings have nothing to do with your child and if you give in to expressing them, 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. This will allow the child to tell you the whole story. Reassure them that they are not to blame but if nothing is done, the situation will continue.

The next bit can be tricky. They may not want you to contact the school. Most kids just want the bullying to stop. They don’t necessarily want the culprit punished (You do! But it’s not about you!) as they know this will probably make it worse for them.

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

Working with the school

Contact the school! Don’t be angry if they don’t know what’s going on. Maybe your child hasn’t told them (they don’t tell teachers either) and anyway, most bullying takes place away from the eyes of adults.

The school staff are your allies in this situation. Give them time to investigate. Try to keep the relationship on a friendly basis. Ask for an appointment and – stay calm! It’s important to explain what your child has told you, but like all bullying, this has happened in a social setting and there are two sides to the story.

Ensure you know what will be done to keep your child safe and that the situation will be addressed. There are a number of ways this can happen, such as a restorative meeting. Rules of privacy mean that the school can’t reveal what has happened to the other child/children. The main thing is for the bullying to stop. Ask for a follow-up meeting.

Standing tall

You can also discuss and practise strategies with your child for face-to-face bullying. Body language is very important. It’s a good start if you child can practise standing tall and not showing their emotions (a fearful or angry or tearful response can prolong the bullying). Another technique is for them to act unimpressed, not bothered or, if they feel confident after some practise, even pretend to agree with what is being said. “Yes, I do have red hair. I tried dying it green but it looked even worse”, or something simpler like “Whatever you say”. This offhand approach can be successful as one of the purposes of bullying is to get an emotional response.

They should also be counselled to avoid the part of the school where the bullying child/children lurk.

What if it’s online?

We know that 83 percent of students who bully others also bully other online and 84 percent of students who were bullied online are also bullied offline. This tells us that the motivation for bullying is the same whether it’s face-to-face or through digital devices and so, it’s a behavioural rather than a technology problem. Some advice:

  • Don’t respond to the message or image
  • Save the evidence
  • Block or delete the sender
  • Report the situation to the internet service provider or phone service provider; they can help block messages or calls
  • Think of taking a short break from social media
  • Tell other people—teachers and police if necessary.

A ‘don’t’ or two for you

Don’t advise your child to fight with the other child 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.

Don’t dash straight to the school and demand a solution. It’s a workplace and should be treated as such – with respect. Teachers have complicated and busy working lives and you will need to make an appointment. 

You’ll have noticed I’ve not used the words “bully” and “victim” in this blog. It’s best to avoid labelling children, particularly as bullying situations are very fluid and roles are sometimes reversed – especially when children go from primary to secondary school and form different social groups with different power structures. The bullying student can become the target of bullying overnight – and vice versa.

Taking another perspective

It’s worthwhile also talking through the emotions your child is feeling and that they wouldn’t want another child to feel like this, so not to be tempted to pass it on.

A final word

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

Ensure the lines of communication are open and respectful listening is normal. Enjoy your talks!

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