How do I spot if my child is being bullied?

by Darran Heaney
What exactly constitutes “bullying”?

Bullying can take many forms. It does not have to be physical to be considered bullying. More subtle forms, such as social exclusion, teasing and name calling can be considered bullying and are often difficult to spot but can have a lasting negative effect on the target. These forms of bullying can also take place online or through a device and is referred to as cyberbullying. This type of bullying is increasingly common and is continuously evolving. It can happen at any time and does not have to be repeated to constitute bullying. Bullying is often related to social position and that those who are seen as less powerful or as outsiders can be more prone to being targeted.

Is there an age group when bullying among children tends to be more prevalent?

Ireland is experiencing a heightened focus on bullying and online safety issues. This focus is justified when we consider that a recent Government study found that 17% of 9-17 year olds reported that they had experienced some form of bullying, either online or offline, in the past year. The highest number of reports came from 13–14 year olds, 22% of whom report having been bullied in the past year. Furthermore, 11% of all children say they have experienced cyberbullying in the past 12 months with 18% of 13–14 year olds reporting the highest levels of being cyberbullied. The data suggests that girls are more prone to being bullied and experiencing online safety issues (NACOS, 2021).

Among primary school children, what are the most common forms?

There are different forms of bullying which are prevalent among primary school children. Verbal bullying, where a student is called mean names, has hurtful things said to them/about them or has rumours spread about them. This can often be linked to their physical appearance, race and identity. Physical bullying can also take place in primary school. This is more traditional and involves physical contact intended to hurt the target, such as kicking or punching. Exclusion, where a child is regularly left out of activities or lunchtime groups or friendship circles can have a devastating and lasting impact on a young person’s confidence and self-esteem. Use of devices amongst 9-13 year olds has also led to an increase in cyberbullying.

Does that change in the teen years?

As children transition from primary school to post-primary school, the bullying may manifest in an online form. A recent study in Ireland found that 62% of children and young people, aged 9-17 years, use social media. This rises from a quarter of 9–10-year-olds to nearly 90% of 15–17-year-olds. Navigating the online world can be challenging for young people. Hurtful and mean content can spread quickly online and is often difficult to contain. Parents might often feel helpless when it comes to online bullying, because they are in different spaces to their child. It is vital that parents keep an open line of communication with their children about their online activity. Encouraging honest and open discussion with your child will help them to speak about any negative experiences they may encounter online.

What sort of signs might suggest my child is being bullied?

Parents may notice a change in their child’s mood or behaviour. They may appear down or sad after spending time at school, with friends or online. They may display signs of anxiety but refuse to explain what is wrong. Changes in their eating habits or sleep pattern could also indicate that they are experiencing negative, unwanted behaviour. Parents may notice their child’s ability to concentrate on their schoolwork affected by bullying, leading to decreased academic performance.

In the case of physical bullying, parents should watch for unexplained bruises or cuts, damaged clothes or belongings. Their child may complain of illness to avoid attending school or sports training and their mood could change and become more withdrawn or frustrated.

How do I help them if they refuse to talk about it?

Try to remain calm. Getting frustrated or angry about it will only lead to your child disengaging in the conversation. Your child needs to feel confident that you will deal with this without getting angry or possibly making the situation worse. You want them to feel comfortable to tell you what they are experiencing, so creating a trusting space for this to happen is important. If they are refusing to talk about it and you suspect something is wrong, talk to parents of their friends or other family members, or go directly to school to see the teacher if you believe that the bullying is happening there. Encourage your child to speak to another family member, friend or their teacher if they refuse to talk to you. It is important that they tell someone so help can be provided and reinforce this to them whenever possible. Remind them that once someone knows about it, they can support them through the experience and deal with it to get it resolved.

Removing your child’s device/mobile phone might feel like the quickest way to stop the bullying and protect them, however in doing this you are cutting your child off from their friends, leaving them with no way to communicate. Maintain communication and trust with your child at all times. Also, talk to the teacher in the school if you believe that the bullying is happening there.

How should I approach it with the school and what sort of action can I expect?

Parents should contact the school and make them aware of the bullying. It is important to stay calm and approach school staff in a non-confrontational way. Ask the school for help. Everyone should have the best outcome and resolution for the children involved as their priority. Research has shown that this can happen efficiently if parents and school staff work as a team.

Your child’s school may have an Anti-Bullying Coordinator or relevant teacher who is responsible for dealing with this. Explain the situation calmly and clearly, giving as much information as possible including times, dates, nature of bullying. Ask for advice from the teacher/principal on how they will manage this within the school. As stated in the Department of Education Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post Primary Schools, there is a requirement on all schools to have an anti-bullying policy within the framework of their overall code of behaviour. These procedures also clearly outline the responsibility of the school to prevent and address school-based bullying behaviour and to deal with any negative impact within school of bullying behaviour that occurs elsewhere.

The school Anti-Bullying policy should outline the schools key principles of best practice for both preventing and tackling bullying and should be reviewed on an annual basis.

What can I do at home to support my child through this?

Listen to your child and talk to them about how they are feeling. Seek professional support for your child if you feel it is needed. Encourage them to stay in a group or with friends they trust during school time if they have concerns about being targeted when alone. Reassure your child that it is not their fault. Educate them that the bullying behaviour is the responsibility of the person bullying and that it is not personal.

I know hindsight is a wonderful thing but are there parenting techniques that might have lessened the chances of a child being bullied?

Research shows that some parenting styles are less helpful than others and are even a predictor of a child being a target for bullying – overly controlling and/or punitive approaches should be avoided, equally a totally hands off approach is not very helpful, parents should convey that they are in charge and can be relied on to help when things get tough, but they should not take total control away from their child either, tackling bullying is a team effort, parent, student and school, can do it altogether.

I have heard there is a danger that bullied children can in turn become the aggressors, what would be the signs of that and can it be prevented?

In some cases children who are targeted for bullying can cope with this by acting out bullying behaviour on someone else. These “bully-victims” can be emotionally very stressed and need plenty of support and reassurance while at the same time showing them that bullying behaviour is always wrong.