What is school-related bullying?
Bullying is a common experience amongst school aged children in Australia.
A survey of schools in approximately 40 countries found that Australian primary schools were amongst those with the highest reported incidence of bullying in the world, where 25% of students in Year 4 are affected by bullying. The rate peaks during the final years of primary school where 32% of students are targeted.
This Hot Topic aims to help parents and carers understand bullying and how they can support their children who are, in one way or another, involved in this kind of behaviour. (For concerns about cyber-related bullying and harassment or concerns about other forms of harassment or assault, ie. outside of school or in the cyber world, refer to our Cyberbullying Hot Topic and Bullying, Harassment and Physical Violence Info Sheet.)
What is school-related bullying?
Bullying has three main components:
- A deliberate intent to harm
- A power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim
- (Often) repeated behaviour.
School-related bullying is defined by Kids Helpline as the deliberate psychological, emotional and/or physical harassment of one person by another person (or group) at school or in transition between school and home. Based on evidence, bullying is the sixth most common reason why children and young people in Australia seek help from children's help services. In 2014, Kids Helpline counsellors reported that one in 20 contacts from young people aged 5 - 25 were about bullying.
What is the impact?
The impacts of bullying on the bullied child are varied and may include:
- Loss of motivation and concentration at school
- Avoidance concerning attending school or school refusal
- Shyness, social isolation and/or the development of a social phobia
- Poor self-esteem and loss of self-confidence
- Physical health issues, anxiety or panic attacks, depression, suicidality and self-harm (see Suicide and Self-Injury Hot Topics).
Conversely, being a bully increases the risk of short-term and long-term negative outcomes. Studies have found that those who have a history of being a bully are more likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system by the age of 30, as they are more likely to have been involved in anti-social behaviour compared to their non-bullying peers. Former bullies are also more likely to develop anti-social personality disorders (see Violence Hot Topic).
On the other hand, bystanders or witnesses to the bullying behaviour may feel anxious and think that they may be targeted next time. They may also feel guilty about not trying to help. According to research, the bystander may experience high psychological and physiological stress levels, similar to that of the victim.
Why do people engage in bullying?
Some identified reasons why young people bully include:
- Perceived power and strength gained from bullying others
- As a way to be popular and get known at school
- Because they're scared, so they try to scare others to hide their feelings
- Because they're unhappy and take it out on others
- Because they're being bullied themselves.
According to an Australian study, in order to effectively tackle bullying, we need to know and understand the three main roles played out in bullying situations and the key behaviours associated with each role. The three roles are that of the bully, the bullied and the bystander.
1. The 'bully'
Research has identified three types of bullying behaviour:
- The 'lone bully' - they are generally motivated by a strong personal desire to control others and may feel further empowered to bully when bystanders appear to support their bullying behaviour. They appear not to care about fairness or another person's feelings, and most were found to have experienced abuse or neglect themselves.
- The 'bully-victim' - No one is a bully or a victim all the time. A significant number of young people who bully others had also been bullied in the past or are currently experiencing it. The 'bully-victim' may be experiencing anxiety or depression due to their own previous experience of being bullied.
- The 'bully under the influence of others' - It's common for 'bullies' to bully others when their peers are around, and usually, the victim suffers more intensely when this is the case. When members of a particular group believe that they are better than those outside their group, they tend to demonstrate this perceived 'superiority'.
It's important to note that not all young people who bully have obvious behavioural issues. Some may have good social skills, making it difficult to understand their involvement in bullying.
2. The 'bullied'
No one deserves to be bullied. A child being bullied should not feel any personal responsibility for this situation.
Bullying is driven by the desire of the bully to exert power over others. However research has indicated that perceived differences may increase the risk for some children of experiencing bullying. These perceived differences include:
- Ethnicity and/or physical differences (eg. hair colour, disability, developmental spurt/delay, accent)
- Being new to an area or group
- Sexual orientation
- Resistance to peer norms to behave in a certain way
- Achievements in class or school (someone who is easy to envy and resent) or the low achiever (someone who is easy to criticise).
3. The 'bystander'
- The bully's helping hand or the 'followers' - those who see bullying as a positive thing and they join in
- Those who cheer and encourage the bully - they are the ones who openly support bullying through their cheering or laughter but they do not take an active part
- The possible defenders - they may dislike the bullying but do nothing to help the victim; they believe they should do something and may resolve to help the victim in the future
- The defenders of the victim - those who do not approve of any bullying behaviours and offer support to the one being bullied
- The disengaged bystanders - these young people do not join in nor take a side, and may feel completely indifferent.
Gender differences in bullying behaviour?
Bullying behaviour may be expressed differently between boys and girls. Boys may be more likely to engage in physical forms of bullying such as assault. In contrast, girls may be more likely to engage in verbal, emotional and social (may be done online) bullying ie. banter, hurtful remarks, spreading malicious rumours and excluding someone from the group.
What can I expect to see if my child is being bullied?
- Unexplained cuts or bruises or pencil marks on the skin
- Being quiet or withdrawn
- Reporting vague headaches or stomach aches
- Ripped, stained or soiled school clothes
- 'Losing' lunch money or other things at school
- Falling out with previously close friends
- Being moody or easily distressed
- Not wanting to leave the house or reluctance to go to popular places such as malls or parks (they may be trying to avoid the bully)
- Not wanting to go to school
- Experiencing difficulty in sleeping at night
- Becoming worried about a lot of things
- Showing sudden changes in eating behaviour.
What can parents or carers do to help?
If your child is being bullied:
- Regularly talk to your child about their school life and about any emerging issues. Encourage them to talk about any bullying they may be experiencing
- Remain calm if they disclose they are being bullied
- Believe what your child is telling you and explore how they may be emotionally reacting to the bullying. Recognise that this is an important issue for them
- Tell them that bullying is not acceptable and that it's not their fault
- Help the child or young person understand the power dynamic involved in bullying. Discuss ways to stop giving the bully power, for example, walking or turning away from the bully
- Reassure them that you will help to stop the bullying from continuing
- Find out what, when and where it happened and if anyone was present. Contact the school and make sure the teacher is aware of the problem and work out with them how to stop the bullying
- If the school has no policy on bullying, suggest they need to consider developing one
- Discuss with the child any experiences you may have had about being bullied and how you overcame this issue
- Boost your child's confidence by encouraging them to join activities they are good at eg. sport, art, music
- Try to get support from other parents who have faced similar problems.
If your child bullies another child:
- Acknowledge that your child is engaging in bullying behaviour but do not blame yourself for their misbehaviour
- Do not threaten or get angry - remain calm and listen to what they have to say
- Share your concern for the bullied child and firmly insist that the bullying must stop
- Discuss with your child why the bullying occurred and look at ways to reduce the likelihood of this behaviour occurring again
- Actively promote and model appropriate behaviour and respect for others
- Work with the teacher and school authority to solve the bullying problem (see Kids Helpine @ School).
If your child is a bystander and/or a witness:
- Discuss with your child about the ways they can make a difference (eg. helping the victim or reporting the bullying to the teacher or school authority)
- Let them know that you'll support them should they decide to step forward
- Give examples of how helpful bystanders have shown courage and made a difference in real-life bullying situations.
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
Alternatively, you may encourage your child to contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 for free and confidential counselling sessions available 24/7.
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Updated: August 2015