Bullying at school - supporting your child

Bullying can have a serious impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as affecting the whole family and school.

Andrea Scanlan, Principal of Konini Primary School, Wainuiomata and a member of the cross-sector Bullying Prevention Expert Advisory Committee, comments on some ways parents can support their child with bullying issues.

Bullying is something everyone hopes they won’t have to deal with, but unfortunately is a reality for a lot of kiwi kids.

Anyone can be a target of bullying and it’s not unusual for individual students to play different roles, sometimes the target, as a bystander, or as the child doing the bullying.

That can be difficult sometimes for parents who might believe only ‘bad’ kids do ‘bad’ things.

Parents come in worried, concerned, even agitated and angry that their child is feeling overwhelmed, scared or hurt. All parents feel for what their child is going through. So it’s really important to listen without interrupting, acknowledge what they are saying is important, take it seriously and do something about it.

It can be confusing for parents to understand what bullying is.

Bullying is deliberate and harmful. Importantly bullying is not just something that happens once, but repeats, or has the potential to occur again and again. It can be an accumulation of different things that leaves the target of bullying feeling anxious, scared and unsafe.

Be mindful too that something they enjoyed before, may not be okay for them now.

Arguments and disagreements can be as hurtful, but need to be dealt with in a different way to an ongoing pattern of bullying behaviour.

Parents often ask me what to look out for.

It’s not that easy as most bullying takes place away from adults and most kids won’t tell. It’s about observing what they do and say, and noticing changes in behaviour or usual routines.

Are they anxious and worried coming to school? Children might start to avoid friends. They can suddenly seem to struggle with school work, or come home hungry after ‘skipping’ lunch. With older children, they might be anxious or behave oddly around computers or mobile phones which could be a flag for potential online bullying.

Recently, one Mum noticed her young daughter hesitated to retrieve her jacket from the classroom. Later at home, after some listening and gentle probing, the Mum understood that a classmate was pulling faces, shouting at her and making her feel scared.

One of the first things I’ll do is talk with the child.

Sometimes children are worried about telling because they think more damage or harm will be done, so it’s important to put their minds at rest and be prepared for them to deny anything is wrong at first.

Avoid asking a lot of interrogation-type questions like what happened? then what did you do? then what happened next?

Be prepared to listen without interrupting and let a child just talk.

Try not to fill a pause with another question – often a child is gathering their thoughts. Tell them that bullying is not OK, and it’s not their fault. Acknowledge what they say and that you can see they are upset. It’s our job as adults to take them seriously, understand and help them make sense of what has happened.

I also think it’s important to ask a child what they think is the next best thing to do and avoid jumping in with a solution. It gives the child a voice and gives them back a sense of control, that this is something that can be managed and that we can get through together.

Some of the common mistakes I see parents make are things like telling children to tough it out, harden up or hit them back. Children are telling you because they can’t deal with it alone.

Equally, it’s also still important to get up and go to school; otherwise children can fall into a situation where they stay home, continue to worry and the fear grows.

As one Mum put it to her child, “It’s important you go to school, you like it there. It’s important you feel safe, so I’ll talk to the school to make sure that you are.”

Sometimes, what adults think is important is not what the child is most worried about.

Or what seems appropriate action has other consequences. With online bullying it may seem simple to take away their technology, but this can separate a child from their friends and support networks, and make them feel they are being punished for something that’s not their fault.

It’s a hard time for everyone concerned and parents understandably can be emotional.

But the best thing parents can do to support their child is to stay calm, keep a record of events and be clear on the facts. Make an appointment to see the teacher, guidance counsellor or principal and agree a plan of action.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution – what works in one situation may not be the best approach in another.

Bullying issues can take time to work through, so keep talking with the school and checking in on your child.

In general, all adults need to be more observant about what they see and hear children do and say to each other. And not just when there is an incident, but at any time there’s an opportunity for children to talk about bullying, think through their actions and develop their understanding.

Adults have to intervene more – if our children are not going to tell us, how else will bullying be addressed?

It’s the adults’ job to listen, engage and notice, to identify and name bullying behaviour when they see it, and tell children it’s not OK.

If we want to grow kids who are happy in themselves and happy and concerned for others, we need to teach them how to do that well.

Share this story

Last reviewed: Has this been useful? Tell us what you think.