Today, Friday March 15, is the ninth National Day of Action Against Bullying – a day dedicated to showcasing the work that Australian schools do to counter bullying and violence.
It’s no secret that bullying is a major social crisis. Recently released statistics by ReachOut show that bullying has caused 16 per cent of young people to use drugs or alcohol to help them cope, while a further 17 per cent use prescribed medication. The research also found that 65 per cent of young people in Australia said that bullying had a moderate to major impact on their health and wellbeing.
But with so much data and media attention around the word ‘bullying’, it can be hard to know what it actually means – and even harder to try to stop it.
According to Dr Kerrie Buhagiar, director of service delivery at ReachOut Australia, bullying is the repeated, deliberate use of words or actions to harm someone’s wellbeing.
“It is intended to intimidate, threaten or control someone who is less powerful,” says Kerrie. “And the thing is, it can happen anywhere.”
Shane Warren is a registered psychotherapist and mental health consultant who is practised at dealing with situations in which people have been victims or perpetrators of bullying.
“I always speak of bullying in the context of ongoing actions where someone’s intentions are hurtful, and they choose to continue to do the said action even after they have been asked, or warned, to stop,” says Shane. “I am also very conscious to differentiate between hurtful behaviour and meanness as opposed to bullying.”
This is a problem a lot of parents face – is the behaviour your child has told you about genuine bullying, or simply childhood fights or disagreements?
“Bullying is more than disagreeing with or teasing someone,” says Kerrie. “There are two key questions you can consider: ‘is there a power imbalance?’ and ‘does the behaviour continue, even if the person has been asked to stop?’. If the answer to either question is ‘yes’, then this is likely bullying.”
“When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful, and they only do it once, that is not nice. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that is mean,” explains Shane. “But when someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it, over and over again, even when you tell them to stop or that you are upset… that is bullying.”
Kerrie explains that bullying can take different forms. It could include spreading rumours or lies about someone, making negative comments about a person online or in a text message or email, physically intimidating or harassing someone, or targeting a person’s sexuality, religion, race, gender or disability to make them feel alone or different.
With so much bullying going on both in-person and online, how can you know if your child is being bullied? Shane explains that there are many signs that your child could be experiencing a bullying situation. They include, but aren’t necessarily limited to:
- Being withdrawn, or spending more time alone in their room
- Being more aggressive than they normally would be
- Getting frustrated or angry without a clear reason
- Refusing to talk to you and explain what is happening with their friends
- Falling behind in their school work or their grades are slipping
- Unexplained missing items or damaged clothes
- Starting to get into fights
- Being highly sensitive about certain things
- Raising concerns about teasing
- Not wanting to go to school or social events, or having little desire to socialise at all
- Changes to their sleeping patterns
Kerrie agrees that it’s important for parents to look out for changes in their children’s behaviour as this could indicate that they are being bullied, and adds that one simple way to check in with your teenager is to use the wellbeing scale.
“Ask them to score how they’re feeling from a low of 1 to a high of 10,” says Kerrie. “It’s as simple as checking in to see what their number is on any particular day. If their score drops suddenly or remains low for a few days, they may be struggling with an issue such as bullying.”
So, once you have determined that your child is involved in a bullying situation, what can you do to help?
“Different situations will require a different response, but an open conversation is the first important step,” says Kerrie. “Take your child seriously and make sure they feel safe and supported, as they’ll be more inclined to open up about what’s going on. You could start a conversation in the car, where less eye contact is required, or email them some information to read before you talk face-to-face. “
“The key to addressing a bullying situation is listening to your child, and helping them find a solution,” Shane says. “It’s not beneficial to rush and rescue. Great life lessons can be achieved by letting them find a solution, although you might need to give them some suggestions.”
Rushing and rescuing, Shane explains, is when a parent jumps in to ‘solve’ the problem for their children – and it’s one of the least beneficial steps a parent can take to address bullying.
“If we are always jumping in to solve our children’s problems for them, we are not really helping them to be able to manage such situations when we are not there,” says Shane.
But what if it isn’t your child that is being bullied, but rather, your child who is doing the bullying? Both Kerrie and Shane say that there will be signs to look out for if you suspect your child might be the perpetrator in a bullying situation.
“Make a note if they suddenly have unexplained items in their possession, or bruising they cannot explain,” says Shane. “But, more generally, look at the way they engage with their peers. Are their peers happy to see them, or is there a level of reservation when your child is around?”
Kerrie adds that things like a lack of compassion for others’ feelings, a difficulty expressing their own feelings, talking about others in an aggressive or negative way, calling people names (either face-to-face or online), a need to be in control, low self-esteem or hanging around peers who have a reputation for bullying could be even more signs that your child is bullying someone else.
Once you have surmised that your child is being a bully – or, worse, if you have been told about it by another parent, child or teacher – you will need to find out why it’s happening. What is motivating your child to act in this way?
“Talk to your child about the situation and next steps, but don’t start the conversation when emotions are running high – try to remain calm, and to focus on the negative behaviours,” says Kerrie. “Teenagers who bully need help in recognising and managing their behaviours and emotions, and you can support them to change by asking questions that build empathy and help them see their behaviours from the other person’s perspective.”
If the bullying is a significant problem, Kerrie adds that professional counselling can often help. Ultimately, strong self-esteem and a good support network can help your child develop social intelligence (sensitivity to others’ feelings, and a capacity to nurture and navigate relationships) and emotional intelligence (self-awareness and the ability to notice and manage their thoughts and emotions).
“If possible, undertake a restorative justice approach with the other child, allowing them to explain the hurt and pain they have experienced from the actions of your child,” Shane says. “It’s hard, but as the parent we really do need to accept shared responsibility for the actions of our child and take a leadership role within resolution, communicating openly and honestly with everyone involved. Denying it when the facts are all there will only make it worse.”
But ultimately, the best way to deal with bullying is to stop it before it starts. Talk about difference and diversity with your kids to encourage them to accept everybody equally, and discourage any attempts to assert their value over someone else’s. From a young age, motivate them to share their skills, wisdom, insights and, most importantly, toys, with their peers.
“Remember that there is no magic formula to make the situation go away,” says Kerrie. “However, you and your teenager can take steps together to come up with an action plan that you both feel comfortable with.”
What resources are available to help you deal with bullying?
The Dream Guards Mobile App // this free app – which launches today – features valuable resources and links to a number of support services to provide kids, teens and adults with support at their fingertips. With beautiful meditations and mindful breathing activities, this app will also give you and your children the chance to relax, unwind and de-stress. There are also fun videos by The Dream Guards demonstrating their unique P.E.A.C.E tools empowering people to build resilience and self-confidence.
The KiVa Program // KiVa is a research-based antibullying program that has been developed in the University of Turku, Finland, with funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture. The effectiveness of KiVa has been shown in a large randomized controlled trial. In Finland, most comprehensive schools in the country are registered as KiVa schools and implement the program. In Australia, you can access all of the information on their website.
Reach Out // ReachOut is a free digital service that helps young people and their parents with whatever life throws at them, including bullying. Parents and young people can go to ReachOut.com to access videos, articles, tips and stories from others who have been through similar situations. ReachOut also has Community Forums for young people and parents, where they can discuss their experiences anonymously, and telephone coaching for parents, where they can get more personalised, tailored support. All of ReachOut’s resources are free and are available online 24/7.