What do I do if my child is being bullied?

When your child or teenager is being bullied – at school or online – you may find it very challenging. Your first instinct may be to go into battle for your child.

Or you may believe that bullying is just a normal part of growing up and kids need to learn to deal with some of life’s unpleasant realities. The truth is, that bullying is never acceptable, and can be very damaging.

Bullying can lead to:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fall in academic performance
  • health problems
  • lack of confidence
  • loneliness
  • low self esteem
  • poor social skills
  • relationship problems
  • suicidal feelings
  • truancy.

Schools must play a role

Schools must treat bullying as a serious matter. Under the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) schools must "provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students". Schools must be invested in the wellbeing of their students, because wellbeing is vital to learning, as well as students’ mental and physical health. If your child is being bullied, they won’t thrive.

While some kids may be equipped to manage the situation themselves, it’s important to offer your support.

Callum, from Rainbow Youth’s Generation Queer group says: “Be open to understanding your kids. Give advice about what to do, but let them make their own choices. Snatching away a cell phone or banning a computer might prevent bullies from getting to them, but many of us have really strong online communities that are a huge support to us – don’t take that away.”

Constable Adele White says in the first instance, parents should try to let schools manage the problem internally. If this is ineffective, she says parents are within their rights to consult school policies around bullying and take their concerns to the Board of Trustees. See the the how schools can help section for more.

What about cyberbullying?

When it comes to cyberbullying, Jack Goodfellow, Dean at Linwood College, believes that too often, parents are completely in the dark about the activities their kinds are engaging in online.

“I try and gently educate parents about what their young person has been doing at 11 at night when they think they’re in bed – I encourage parents to monitor internet use where they can. I know with smartphones it’s hard, but just take an interest in what your young person is doing and don’t assume they’re tucked up in bed sleeping.”

While many parents believe that the answer to cyberbullying lies in restricting access to technology, former Mental Health Foundation Chief Executive Judi Clements cautions that doing so can cut off their connections to support systems that may be vital to their wellbeing.

“Often people – particularly young people – find it easier to talk with strangers across a computer or phone screen,” she says. “And most people they connect with will want to help them. Humans are naturally hard-wired to help, to provide support and encouragement.

“Tell your children that you won’t be taking their phone or computer away from them – we know that often young people don’t disclose cyberbullying because they’re worried they’ll lose their connection to the outside world!”

If your child is being bullied

The next step is to encourage them to open up to you about it. Many children will need some help from their parents to open up and talk about any bullying or issues. Sometimes, the best (or only) approach might be to change schools. However, this may be a difficult transition for your child, and you will need to have a support plan in place.

  • Listen to them. Reassure them that they have done the right thing in coming to you, that they don’t deserve to be bullied, and pay attention to what they’re telling you – take them seriously.
  • Let them know it’s not their fault, and they don’t need to feel ashamed. Tell them that you’re not disappointed in them.
  • Find out the facts – what’s happening, who’s doing it, when did it start, etc – it may help to write this down together.
  • Ask how you can help – sometimes young people don’t want you to directly intervene, your support might just need to be in the form of simple advice and encouragement.
  • Make a plan: have an agreement with your child about how they will manage the situation, and let them know you will have to step in if the situation escalates to a certain point.
  • Talk to your child about who they can go talk to get help when bullying occurs, and what they could say to that person, eg, walk away, ask them to stop, stick with friends. If the bullying is online or via text messaging, take screen shots or print out any evidence, and take it with you.
  • Talk to your young people about what’s appropriate to post online, and be mindful of their online activities.
  • Go with your child to the school, and make sure they remain involved in any future conversations regarding the situation.
  • In some situations, if your child doesn’t want you to talk to the school, it might be appropriate to alert a teacher to the situation, so they can monitor it privately. Use your judgement here – your child’s safety is important, but so is maintaining their trust.
  • Find out about your child’s school’s position on bullying, and talk to staff the school’s bullying and harassment policy.
  • Advocate for your child – if you feel that your child’s school isn’t taking their situation seriously, contact the principal, or Board of Trustees.
  • If your school arranges a meeting between your family and the family of any other children involved, go along with an open mind. Try not to get into arguments, or make the situation more uncomfortable for your child. Remain calm, listen, and do your best to work with everyone else to resolve the situation.
  • Assist your child in identifying safe places, such as home, a friend’s house, the school library, etc.
  • Get them help – if your child is being affected by bullying, they might need to talk to a counsellor – help them to find someone they trust and feel comfortable talking to, and then step back.
  • Encourage your child to take part in activities they enjoy, and support their friendships with people who make them feel happy.
  • Keep checking in – make sure your child knows you’re there for them any time, and periodically ask how they’re coping.
  • Watch your child – if you’re seriously concerned about their mental health and welfare, take direct action. Take them to a GP or counsellor, and tell them you have serious concerns.

Warning signs

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, young people don’t want to approach their parents about being bullied. Look out for:

  • anxiety
  • avoiding situations like taking the bus or participating in after school activities
  • being secretive
  • being submissive or withdrawn around other children
  • changes in behaviour, sleeping patterns or eating habits
  • depression
  • irritability
  • low self-esteem or insecure
  • negativity or anxiety around going to school
  • taking more time off school
  • talking about not having any friends, or not being liked
  • talking about wanting to get back at someone.

If you notice these signs, the first thing to do is to talk to your child. Get some specific advice from a GP or a counsellor, and find a way to reach your child and let them know you’re there. Ensure they know that if they don’t want to talk to you about it, there are other people to reach out to – such as teachers, neighbours, siblings, grandparents, aunts or uncles, or someone at church.

  • Cyberbullying

    Cyberbullying is bullying that makes use of Facebook, Tumblr or other social media, email, chat rooms, blogs and mobile phones. Sometimes, it can be easier for bullying behaviour to happen using technology because people can remain anonymous or pretend to be someone else. It can also be easier to be cruel to someone when you don’t have to see how upset they become. Often, this type of bullying can feel worse for the target because they can’t escape the messages and posts or pictures can be spread around very quickly to a lot of people.

    If someone is bullied at school they are also more likely to be cyber-bullied.

    More information on cyberbullying

“Effective bullying prevention involves the whole school community staff, students, parents and whanau. It means having well-planned responses in place for when bullying does occur.”

Mike Williams

Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand (SPANZ).