Children who bully at school

Understanding school bullying
School bullying is a serious problem in many countries. Bullying is observed across gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. It is prevalent in all grades and all schools – and can be mild, moderate or severe.

Bullying is now widely considered as a systematic abuse of power, that is, the intention of bullying is to put the victim in distress in some way. Bullies seek power. While definitions in the literature vary, especially with new forms of bullying being identified, the majority of definitions include all or most of the following elements:

  • aggression;
  • intentional hurtfulness;
  • abuse of power (asymmetric conflict); and
  • repetition.


Importantly, bullying is distinct from interpersonal conflicts or “rough play”. While disagreement, teasing and conflict are part of growing up, bullying is an extreme form of peer conflict or teasing and can be harmful, both physically and psychologically.

Examples of school bullying include:

  • physical fighting;
  • name calling;
  • social exclusion;
  • spreading rumours and gossip; or
  • distributing hurtful or embarrassing messages or pictures.

It can take place in face-to-face encounters, through written words (e.g., notes), or through digital media such as text messages, social media, and websites


How common is bullying?
Bullying has been the focus of considerable international research and policy development. In one large Australian national study, approximately 1 in 6 school students (between the ages of 7 and 17) reported being bullied at least once a week. The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study reported that 1 in 4 students (in a sample of 20,832 Australian students aged between 8 and 14 years) reported being bullied every few weeks or more.


What do we know about bullies?
A significant number of young people who bully others have been bullied themselves.
Researchers suggest that children who bully are self-focused, highly competitive, exhibitionistic and aggressive. Others propose that children who bully lack empathy and tend to be manipulative and self-seeking in their interpersonal relationships.

children who bully can be grouped by their level of involvement:

  • ringleaders – organising a group of bullies and initiating the bullying;
  • followers – who join in the bullying once it is started; and
  • reinforcers – who do not actively join in, but reinforce more passively by watching and laughing or encouraging the bullying.


Criminal offending as an adult
There is now strong evidence for a substantial link between children who bully their peers and later offending and depression. Bullying others at school is a highly significant predictor of a child growing up to be a criminal offender, on average six years later in life.


Did you know?
Children who bully are more likely to:

  • do poorly in school;
  • turn to violence as a way to deal with problems;
  • damage property or steal;
  • abuse drugs or alcohol; and
  • get in trouble with the law – Young people who bully have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30.

It can be a shock to discover your child is bullying others. But if it’s happening, you need to step in. You have an important role to play in helping your child learn about caring and respectful relationships with others. This is a vital step towards changing the bullying behaviour.


What does bullying look like?
Bullying is when your child deliberately and repeatedly upsets, frightens, threatens or hurts someone or someone’s property, reputation or social status. Bullying in adolescence often goes undetected and is generally less physical than bullying in younger children.

There are several different types of bullying, including:

  • verbal bullying – for example, insulting, threatening, ridiculing or mocking
  • bullying behind someone’s back – for example, playing nasty jokes, spreading rumours, or encouraging peers to exclude someone
  • cyberbullying – using technology such as mobile phones and the internet to bully
  • physical bullying – for example, pushing, tripping or hitting.

How bad bullying is varies widely, as does its impact. What might be a bad day at school for one child could be devastating for another. While the vast majority of bullying is fairly mild (for example, unpleasant teasing rather than assault or social exclusion), all bullying is hurtful and upsetting. It can sometimes be very disruptive or even harmful.


Signs your child is bullying
If you suspect your child is bullying, there are some signs to look out for. For example, your child might be:

  • talking about the other kids at school in an aggressive or negative way
  • having money, electronic goods or things that don’t belong to them.
  • being secretive about communication devices, including computers
  • systematically excluding others from her friendship group.

None of these signs means your child is definitely bullying. But you might want to talk to your child to find out if they have been having any problems getting along with other children at school.


What to do: first steps
The first step is to acknowledge that your child is bullying others.
This involves
talking with your child. She needs to know that you know about the bullying. Make it clear that bullying is always wrong, whatever the circumstances.

Not all bullying behaviour is deliberate. Some young people show bullying behaviour without realising the harm they’re causing. Generally, this sort of bullying will stop when your child is shown that what he’s doing is wrong or hurtful.

Tell your child that you want to work with her to stop the bullying. Talk with her about reasons she might have for showing bullying behaviour, and discuss options and strategies to change things together.

Your child needs to know that you’re taking the matter seriously and that you’ll support him to change his behaviour.


Your role
You are the best role model for your child. You can use your everyday interactions with other people to teach your child about being respectful, empathetic and responsible. For example, you can model the behaviour you want your child to use by showing respect and caring

You are the best role model for your child. You can use your everyday interactions with other people to teach your child about being respectful, empathetic and responsible. For example, you can model the behaviour you want your child to use by showing respect and caring towards others – in your family, with your friends, out shopping, and so on.

Your child can learn from you about expressing anger or negative emotions in healthy and constructive ways. For example, if you feel angry, you could say something like, ‘I feel really angry just now. Could we talk about this later when I’ve calmed myself down?’

If you have a conflict with your child or somebody else, it can be a chance to show your child how to resolve conflicts constructively. For example, think about how you react when your child breaks the rules or upsets you. Use these times to talk through what happened and involve your child in coming up with ways to resolve the issue.

This all lets your child know that you can talk about feelings, rather than having to act on them.

How you relate to your children at home can have an influence on bullying behaviour. A child who is fearful of the adults in her life might be more likely to bully others to try to get a sense of control and power. On the other hand, a child who is given few boundaries by her parents is also more likely to bully others. It’s important to be neither too strict nor too relaxed. 

How your children relate to each other is also important. Bullying among siblings is quite common, and there’s a clear link between bullying at home between siblings and bullying at school.


What to do if the bullying continues

  • Share your concerns with your child’s school. All schools are required to have strategies in place to manage bullying. Working in partnership with your child’s school is likely to be the most effective strategy.
  • Discuss your child’s friends and their influence – both with your child and with the school. Bullying can sometimes be a result of the influence of others.
  • Think about what else is going on in your child’s life. Is there a situation or a recent event in your child’s life that could be causing anxiety or fear? Bullying others might be a way to get control over these feelings.
  • Consider whether your child is frequently exposed to arguments, conflicts or relationship problems at home. Some young people develop inappropriate ways of reacting to and coping with stress when they’re exposed to behaviour at home that models bullying behaviour. Your child might be copying negative adult behaviour.
  • Discuss situations that have occurred in real life or on TV, to explore issues from different people’s points of view. This can help your child develop empathy.
  • Think about how you handle discipline with your child and how you solve problems as a family. Some young people learn that negative events can be handled only in physical ways, rather than through talking and working on problems to find solutions. The next time your child hurts you or breaks the rules, involve your child in solving the problem together. This teaches him that he has some control over situations and that you value his input.
  • Think about what your child is watching. Is your child being exposed to violence or inappropriate images on TV, in video games or on the internet? Young people who see too much violence in the media can learn that this is how you behave and solve problems.
  • Consider your child’s communication skills . Is your child using bullying to communicate anger or sadness? Speaking with your child and a school counsellor about these issues might be helpful. Give your child plenty of chances to learn how to solve problems through healthy, open communication.
  • Consider your child’s social and emotional skills. Is your child bullying because she doesn’t know how to interact appropriately with others or how to form friendships? Speak with your child and a school counsellor about these issues. You might like to read more about social and emotional changes in adolescence.


Developing positive, resilient young people
When you model respectful and caring behaviour, you help your child build the skills he needs to develop positive relationships and feel good about himself. These skills include:

  • awareness of and ability to manage emotions
  • empathy for others
  • ability to manage peer pressure
  • respect for others
  • acceptance of others’ differences
  • ability to deal with conflict
  • problem-solving
  • good decision-making
  • how to get what he needs without bullying.

Some children might need extra help to develop these skills. Speak to your child’s school counsellor, or a psychologist or GP for help if needed.


Resources and support
There are many programs, resources and supports out there to help you to support and guide your family. These include:

  • your child’s school – you can approach your child’s teachers, principal, school psychologist, school counsellor or guidance officer
  • confidential telephone counselling services such Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline
  • health professionals such as your GP or a psychologist or counsellor

Sourced information: Raising Children, Australian Studies – Australian Institute of Family Studies, Kidspot