What to do when your child is being bullied

THE Safe Schools program is a talking point among politicians, but what should parents do in the real world if their child is being bullied?

The statistics are grim. More than one in five children are regularly bullied and according to the Victorian Coroner, 40 per cent of suicide victims were bullied at school.

Bullies themselves don’t fare much better. In higher year levels when their peers start to focus more on academic achievement, many bullies struggle to cope, are more likely to drop out of school early and are more likely to find themselves ostracised.

“Anyone who bullies another person was at some point made to feel unacceptable,” writes clinical psychologist Shefali Tsabary in her book Out of Control: why disciplining your child doesn’t work. “Such children dump their feelings of self-hatred on individuals they sense aren’t going to fight back.”

While it may help your child to understand that ‘bullies are hurting too’, it’s not much comfort in the moment they’re being victimised.

When my cousins were bullied at a school, my aunt’s response is now family legend. She roamed the school corridor with a sledgehammer while classes were in session bellowing “Next time I hear some c***’s been threatening my kid I’ll be back here to f***ing kneecap the lot o’ ya.”

While her technique certainly worked (my cousins were never bullied again), Dr Tsabary says the key to prevent children from becoming victims is to teach them to be assertive without being aggressive. The trouble is, when parents have weak boundaries or lack assertiveness skills themselves, they may struggle to pass them on to their children.

“Besides, how can parents expect kids not to bully when it’s rife in our own workplaces?” says Melbourne psychologist Evelyn Field.

“Schools have their own bullying issues among staff and they’re time poor, with very few resources. Research states that schools are a lot more aware of the issue, but the rate of bullying is not going down.

“Often a school will follow a fad around tackling bullying, but if it’s a one-off workshop and you don’t invest in making sure the program is implemented, the kids are not going to integrate it back into the class.”

Dr Field says instead of relying on schools to deal with the issue, parents need to teach their children to ‘block bullies’ themselves.

While parents have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children, Dr Field says by the time it gets to court, the damage to the child or teenager has already been done.

“When parents see their child bullied they can feel guilty and powerless — or it reminds them of their own difficulties. But suing the school doesn’t do very much,” says Dr Field. “So often parents will the find money to pay for lawyers, when you’re better off investing in getting help for your child.”

Dr Field’s book Bully Blocking coaches parents in techniques to stop their child being bullied.

“Traditional methods of either ‘Fight back’ or ‘Ignore it’ don’t work. You can teach a child bully blocking techniques in just a couple of sessions, but early intervention is essential. I don’t think people understand the extent to which bullying can damage a person’s brain.”

So what can parents do?


“When children aren’t used to getting their needs met, they lack the skills to rally the support they need,” writes Dr Tsabary. “In so many cases our children are screaming for our intervention yet their pleas go unheard.”


“Showing a bully they’ve scored makes them come back for more. You wouldn’t show your fear to a dog or a horse so why show it to a bully? Parents need to empower children not to show that feeling,” says Dr Field.

“It’s OK to be vulnerable with people you trust, but we need to teach children to make smart choices about who is safe and who is not.”


“Instead of showing fear or anger, we need to help children become more neutral. Role play situations where they stand tall and give a neutral retort.”

In the moment of bullying, however, the ‘fight or flight’ response can derail a child’s best efforts so activities like martial arts can help them get used to feeling strong and grounded in their body.


It may sound lame. But, says Dr Field, “when you’re in the situation, acting neutral is tough so it’s important to practice. Role play scenarios where bullying occurs and go through ways they could behave — for example looking at the bully with a neutral face and saying something like ‘and?’”

Bullies are an unavoidable part of life, and many continue to bully in the workplace. Teaching children to be respectful and assertive, to be wise about who they reveal their vulnerabilities to, and to feel strong in their bodies is a great gift — one that could hopefully reverse the toxic legacy of bullying altogether.


  1. Juliette Norwood

    I think that there is a problem with the widespread assumption that the main way to deal with bullying is to ‘bullyproof’ a child. That to me is handing back the responsibility for averting and dealing with the bullying to the child. There is another way, which genuinely addressed this.
    The Finnish government. In 2009 they funded a nationwide study into school bullying and then went further funding the development of the KiVa program that, when implemented, reduced bullying significantly. Teachers are crucial to this. They bear responsibility for what is taught and seen as acceptable behaviour and attitude. In subsequent follow-up it was found that where teachers accepted and implemented the program conscientiously, bullying was reduced. In schools where teachers refused or failed to engage the program, bullying was not reduced.
    As a teacher I often found that the attitude of teachers was crucial. When they were uncaring or (sadly too often) hostile to the targets of bullies, bullying flourished. In addition, Australian school policies that sought to minimise bullies’ responsibility (even asking victims to reflect on what they had done to bring it on themselves) have often doubled down on the damage done to victims.
    All schools now have bullying policies, have done for at least 25 years. Hardly any of them implement them meaningfully. There are kids being tortured every day, psychologically and physically, and people who should be protecting them turn a blind eye because the perpetrators are very often the most popular and privileged students in the school. And teachers are part of this.
    KiVa researchers found that bullies will bully to reinforce their own high status. The silence of onlookers and the participation of cronies is the key factor. Bystanders are the largest percentage. When their empathy is is raised by education, they are many times more likely to support a victim and thereby reduce the reward and status of the bully.
    We need to be aware of this: gay kids, fat kids, thin kids, poor, spotty, neglected, nerdy, needy, shabby, sensitive kids: all at risk from the shambolic situation that currently exists. I love what your aunt did. We helped one of our sons by sending him to Judo and it worked. The other one we changed schools and watched like a hawk. Nothing is easy. But schools need to get it right. And teachers need to stop supporting the easygoing, charming, witty, good-looking, clean and vicious bullies that run the schools like an alt-right elite.

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