In focus: Bullying and child mental health


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Bullying is a common childhood experience: about one in four children report experiencing it in person and one in five have experienced online bullying (cyberbullying).1 The effects of bullying on child mental health and wellbeing can be significant, both for those being bullied and those engaging in bullying behaviour. Bullying is not ‘a normal part of growing up’ nor is it ‘just something kids do’. But there are things you can do to support the children in your care and protect them from the harmful effects of bullying.

This resource aims to help parents (and other adults caring for children) understand childhood bullying, how it can impact children (both those who experience it and the children engaging in the bullying), the signs of bullying to look out for, and what you can do to address it. It includes advice from:

  • families whose children have been involved in bullying; and
  • health professionals with experience supporting children who have experienced or engaged in bullying and their parents.


Key things to remember

  • It’s common for children and teenagers to experience bullying. Bullying can seriously effect the mental health of children who experience it and also those who engage in it.
  • It’s important for all children and parents to know about childhood bullying and what to do if it occurs.
  • Knowing the signs a child might be involved in bullying helps you spot it and address it early.
  • If you have a close relationship with your child and talk openly about all sorts of topics they are more likely to tell you if they are involved in bullying, and that will reduce the impacts.2
  • There are things you can do to help protect your child from experiencing or engaging in in bullying and the harmful effects that it can have.

Before you read on, watch the following video (1 minute, 39 seconds) to hear what some children told us they need from the adults in their lives to support them.

What is bullying?

It can be hard to know when behaviour is considered bullying. The bullying definition used in Australian schools includes three elements that separate bullying from one-off incidents or children just not getting along. These are:

  • a misuse of power (like physical size or social status)
  • behaviour that is ongoing and repeated
  • the intention of the person engaging in the behaviour is to cause physical, social or psychological harm to the person they’re targeting.

Your child’s understanding of bullying may be different to yours.

  • Adults are more likely to think about aggressive physical behaviours as bullying, but children often mention social isolation – being left out of a group or an activity – and psychological bullying, like being teased or called names.
  • Children can see ‘power’ when someone who is older or bigger is targeting a smaller or younger child, but they may not think it’s bullying if the person doing it is around the same age and size to them.
  • Children also don’t tend to focus on whether the bullying behaviour has been repeated: if it’s happened once, the fear of it happening again can be enough to upset them.

Watch the following video (2 minutes, 12 seconds) to hear parents and a researcher talk about different understandings of bullying.

People have varied beliefs about bullying. Some adults think that childhood bullying is ‘a normal part of growing up’ or ‘just something kids do’ – but it’s not. Bullying involvement can significantly impact on a child’s mental health – at the time, for weeks or months afterwards, and even later in life. So it’s important to take it seriously.

Some adults think that childhood bullying is ‘a normal part of growing up’ or ‘just something kids do’ – but it’s not.

Words to avoid

Leaders in child mental health recommend we don’t use the words ‘bully’ and ‘victim’.3,4 Like all labels, these words can be damaging. If a child is labelled as a ‘bully’ or ‘victim’ it can impact on their sense of who they are and become part of their identity.

  • A child who is called a victim might blame themselves or feel helpless and that they can’t do anything about the situation.
  • If a child is labelled a bully or treated as aggressive or ‘bad’, it can make it harder for them to change their behaviours.
  • Instead, talk about children who experience bullying and children who engage in bullying behaviour.
  • To help younger children understand you might talk about ‘the person who did the bullying’ and ‘the person who was bullied’.

Instead of labelling a child a bully it’s important to think about the factors that influence a child’s behaviours and talk to your child about these in an age-appropriate way. They often understand that children who engage in bullying may be dealing with difficulties at home or have trouble understanding what is acceptable behaviour.

Leaders in child mental health recommend we don’t use the words ‘bully’ and ‘victim’.3,4

Types of bullying

There are different types of bullying – and they can impact children differently.

  • Verbal bullying (sometimes called psychological bullying) – includes name calling, teasing or making insulting comments about someone’s physical appearance or characteristics, abilities, cultural background or sexuality.
  • Physical bullying – like hitting, shoving or intimidation; or damaging, stealing or hiding someone’s belongings.
  • Social bullying – such as ongoing exclusion, spreading untrue stories or sharing images with intention to cause harm.
  • Cyberbullying or online bullying is verbal or social bullying behaviour using technology. It can happen via online gaming and social media, or any other online or mobile phone app, service, website or platform, and be in the form of texts, chat, email, comments, photos, videos, livestreams or memes.

Some bullying behaviours are more obvious than others. Physical violence and its effects, like bruises, are easy to see but other types of bullying, like preventing a child from joining in a game or spreading lies, are not. Cyberbullying can be even harder to spot.

In younger age groups, verbal bullying, like hurtful teasing or name-calling, is more common. Tweens and teens (around 10 to 15 years old) are most likely to be involved in online bullying. Often children who are bullied online have also experienced bullying in person.

A lot of bullying happens at school, but it can happen anywhere. According to the Speaking Out Survey 2019, children report that bullying most often occurs:

  • during school break times (79.8%)
  • in the classroom (62.9%)
  • somewhere other than school (45.2%)
  • at home by students from school (38.4%); and
  • on the way to and from school (31.7%).5

Children can also experience bullying in other places, like at sports training and even at home on their phone or computer. Cyberbullying can occur anywhere, at any time.

In the following video (2 minutes, 19 seconds) children talk about what bullying is like for them.

Note: The quotes featured in this video are taken from The Bullying Project,6 Voices of hope: Growing up in Queensland,7 and the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians ACCG Joint Participation Paper.8

Effects of bullying

Without appropriate support, bullying can have serious effects on a child’s mental and physical health – for children who experience bullying, who engage in bullying behaviour, and especially for those involved in both.

Experiencing bullying can shake a child’s confidence or their feelings of self-worth. If a child thinks they’ve been targeted because there’s something wrong with them, you can help them understand that the bullying is not their fault.

Sometimes children experience physical effects because of bullying. They might have headaches, stomach pains, or trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. Some might start to wet the bed, or become ‘clingy’ or withdrawn.

If a child who is experiencing bullying starts refusing to go to school, or is worrying or withdrawn at school over an extended period, their learning, academic outcomes, social development and relationships with friends can be affected. Sometimes children who respond in these ways are wrongly thought to be naughty or lazy, and if they take on these labels it can increase the chance they’ll develop mental health difficulties.

Children who experience and/or engage in bullying behaviour are at a higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health difficulties both in childhood and later in life. We know from research that young people involved in bullying (experiencing, engaging in or both) are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts.9

If you are worried your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact Kids Helpline for advice – call 1800 55 1800.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your child’s risk of being involved in bullying and limit the impact if they are.

Protecting children from the impacts of bullying

The best things you can do to protect your child from bullying and its harmful effects are:

  • Talk openly and often
  • Help your child develop lots of positive connections
  • Be curious about their social world
  • Be aware of their online activities; and
  • Talk about bullying and make sure they know how to seek help.

Most importantly, make sure your child knows:

  • bullying can happen to anyone
  • they don’t have to put up with it; and
  • how to report it and seek help if they need it.

Talk to your child about the adults in their life they could talk to if they experience bullying or see it happening to someone else. Remind them that these people take bullying seriously and will help them work out what to do.

Further advice on what to do if you think your child is involved in bullying is available at the end of this resource.

Talk openly and often

When children feel comfortable talking about the day-to-day things happening in their life they are more likely to talk to you about problems like bullying if they come up. Spend time listening and asking questions when children tell you about their day, so they know you are interested. Get to know their friends’ names and take notice of the children at school they often talk about. This can help you pick up on when things might be rocky with a particular person.

‘[Parents should] ask the kid what their friendships are going like, if there’s anything going on. And make it [clear] that their kids can talk to them and feel like they have a safe space and can talk about anything.’

Lila, age 10

Explain to your child that bullying behaviour is not OK, but also talk about the fact that usually there are reasons behind it and sometimes children make mistakes. This will encourage them to open up if they or one of their friends engage in bullying.

It’s also important to talk about emotions, and help your child understand and safely express their feelings. Children who understand and can manage their different emotions – and recognise the feelings of others – are also better able to navigate bullying experiences and form healthy relationships.

Create opportunities for conversation – having dinner together as a family as often as you can is a great way to stay connected. Also, make time for one-on-one chats with each of your children – they don’t have to be long ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations, just regular check-ins.

What you can do

Building a positive relationship with your child is important in helping them to feel safe to talk about things going on in their life. An approach that supports positive connection is finding an allocated time each day where you give your child (or each of your children) 100% of your attention. Even if you have a busy schedule, try to find small but consistent times where you are fully present with your child.

  • If your child is young (4–8 years old), you might call it their ‘special time’ when they get to choose whatever activity they want to do with you. During this time ignore everything else and do whatever they want to do. Children will often tell stories about what’s happening in their world outside the home through play or their drawing/colouring.
  • With older children, ask them to tell you about the good things, and any bad things, that happened in their day. If they struggle to come up with one good thing, try prompts like ‘Did anything happen that made you laugh?’ or ‘What was your favourite class today?’
  • With young people, often the best opportunities to chat are when you’re doing something else, like walking the dog or driving somewhere together.

It’s helpful to think about what you’re already doing that will support your child during these times.

‘The best thing you can do is definitely listening, taking that extra five minutes out of your day, just to check on your kids and say “How was your day? What happened? Name two good things, name two not so good things.” And I don’t always do that, but maybe once a week I’ll say to them, “Oh, what was the two best things this week?” and then “What was something that was hard this week?” And I find this is a great way to open up that communication. If there is something bad going on, you can sort of form a pattern and notice if it keeps coming up.’
– Vanya, mum of two

There are more tips for communicating with children in different age groups on the Raising Children Network website:

Help your child develop positive connections

Children are less likely to be involved in bullying, and cope better if they do experience it, when they have good relationships with their family and peers (other children around the same age). When children who experience bullying feel supported by their parents, carers or other family members, and especially a sibling, they can cope better and are less likely to experience mental health difficulties.

Having a group of supportive friends, rather than just one ‘best friend’, can also protect children from the harmful effects of bullying like anxiety or depression. Children who have a few different ‘quality’ friendships at school and in other places (e.g. their sports team or other hobbies) may be better protected from the impacts of bullying involvement because they have a wider network of support.

In the following video (2 minutes, 29 seconds) parents talk about how children’s friendships change and the importance of supportive friendships.

Some ways you can help your child build connections with a wide range of friends include:

  • Spending time with extended family and/or family friends who have children of a similar age
  • Organising after school play dates at your home or in the park
  • Asking them to think about other children at school who they’ve noticed have similar interests or think they might like to be friends with – and brainstorm ways they could spend time getting to know them a bit better, like working on an assignment together
  • Finding out if there are clubs or activities at school they might be interested in
  • Encouraging them to play a team sport or join in a group activity, e.g. choir or art class; and
  • Getting the whole family involved in neighbourhood/community groups or events.

To support your child’s connections it can help to know what socialising and friendships generally look like for children at different ages.

  • For toddlers and young children (about 2–7 years) friends are generally the other children they spend the most time with and who like to play in the same way.
  • Primary school aged children (about 7–12 years) mostly form friendships based on common interests and activities they do together. At this age children can have strong desire to be accepted in friendship groups. Some children form strong attachments with ‘best friends’ which can lead to jealousy and tricky negotiations about who to play with. At this age bullying can be related to ‘rules’ in a group about how children look, dress or behave.
  • In adolescence (from around 12 years up) friendships become more about emotional closeness and trust. Peer acceptance is very important – young people might change how they behave or dress to ‘fit in’ with a particular group. Older children are usually more tolerant of differences. Bullying can sometimes develop out of the breakdown of a previous friendship.

Be curious about your child’s social world

One of the best ways to identify bullying early is to actively listen whenever your child talks about their social world. Pay attention when they talk about other children at school, or in their team or club.

Older children and teenagers might share less often, so be sure to tune in whenever they do open up about their social world. You can show you’re interested without seeming too eager by asking follow-up questions like: ‘Oh, that sounds pretty frustrating; what happened then?’ or ‘How did you feel when they reacted like that?’

Think about what you’re already doing to form a strong connection with your children.

‘You need to make that connection with them, talk about who their friends are when there’s not problems as well as when there are … You get to know who’s who, and you’ll be like, “Oh, that kid, I thought they were a friend of yours. That doesn’t sound like good friend behaviour, does it?” Then you’ve got that opening to have a conversation because you’ve remembered who they are, you remembered the last time that they interacted.’
– Jess, mum of one

Showing your child you’re a good listener and open to talking about anything makes it easier to communicate about problems like bullying if they come up.

Be aware of your child’s online activities

This doesn’t mean following or spying on them, but making sure they know what’s acceptable and that they can come to you if they are ever involved in cyberbullying. Teenagers especially want their privacy. But you can explain your concerns about safety and how harmful online bullying can be. Make time to sit down together and agree on some rules that will help them manage their social media use and screen time.

If children think you’ll take away their phone or computer, or ban them from using certain apps, they’re less likely to tell you about any bullying involvement. Instead, be curious about what your child is doing online and which social media platforms they’re using. Find out what they’ve learned at school about staying safe online and regularly remind them about how the information or photos they put online could be used.

For tips on helping your child manage their online safety and screen time, check out our podcasts:

Talk about bullying

It’s important to talk about bullying so children can recognise it and know what to do.
You don’t have to wait for bullying to happen to talk about it. Look for opportunities to start a conversation about bullying, for example:

  • With younger children, rather than talk about ‘bullying’ you can talk about behaviours that aren’t OK. It’s good to start talking about the types of behaviours that are acceptable, or OK, and those that aren’t OK, before your child starts school.
  • With older children, try asking what they’ve learned about bullying at school. Ask what types of bullying have been talked about.
  • Consider starting the conversation by saying something like: ‘Someone at work was telling me today about her son being bullied at school and that it happens to lots of children. Has that happened to anyone you know?’
  • Discuss stories in the media about bullying. There are often reports about the impacts of bullying, especially cyberbullying. But raise the topic in a way that is gentle, not confrontational. Rather than asking your child ‘Do you do this?’, check if they’ve seen or heard about the issue, and ask ‘What do you think about this?’ or ‘Have any of your friends experienced something like this?’

Sometimes children don’t realise that what they’re experiencing is bullying and that it’s not OK. It’s important to really tune in to what your child is saying and be curious. For example, if a child says: ‘Oliver was mean to me today’, their parent might think it was a minor disagreement and think ‘Oh, that’s just kids being kids’. But if they’re curious they could ask questions like: ‘Hmmm, what did Oliver do that was mean?’, ‘Has he done that before?’ and ‘How did you feel when that happened?’

The YouTube video Bullying is NEVER OK! (3 minutes, 18 seconds) is a great explainer of bullying for children in primary school (around 9–12 years).

Signs of bullying

Children who are experiencing bullying don’t always tell an adult.

In most cases it’s because they feel afraid or ashamed, or don’t want to worry you. Sometimes it’s because they have tried to tell a trusted adult in the past and got an unhelpful response, like being told ‘stick up for yourself’ or having the adult confront the person engaging in the bullying.

So again, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in your child’s world and look out for the signs they might be experiencing bullying, engaging in bullying or both.

  • Physical signs can include cuts or bruises, or things being lost or damaged at school.
  • Some signs can also be harder to spot, like changes in your child’s mood, behaviour or appetite. Children might start staying in their room for longer periods or seem withdrawn.
  • You might notice friendship changes or breakups, or your child picking on their sibling(s).
  • A major sign is suddenly not wanting to go to school or do things that they used to enjoy.

Check out our detailed list of signs of bullying to look out for with tips on what to do if you do notice any.

In the following video (2 minutes) children talk about why they might not tell an adult about bullying and what they want adults to notice.

Note: The quotes featured in this video are taken from The Bullying Project2 and the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians ACCG Joint Participation Paper.4

More information

On the Raising Children Network website you’ll find further information about:

What to do if your child has experienced or been involved in bullying

If you’ve just found out your child is experiencing or engaging in bullying (or both), or you think they could be, you may be feeling some strong emotions – like anger, guilt or worry – and uncertainty about what to say or do next. These are completely understandable reactions. Emerging Minds Families has developed a series of tip sheets with advice from children, parents, health professionals and school counsellors about what to do next.

Step 1

First, take a moment to read Finding out your child is experiencing or engaging in bullying which will help you to address your feelings, prepare your response and focus on your child’s needs.

Step 2

If your child has experienced bullying, take a look at the following resources, preferably in order:

If your child has engaged in bullying behaviour, take a look at:

How you respond makes a big difference to how your child responds – and how you handle this challenge together.

When to seek help

Bullying can have serious impacts on a child’s mental and physical health – both for children who experience it and those who are engaged in bullying behaviour. Our tip sheets provide lots of suggestions on what you can do to help reduce the risk.

It’s important to seek help if you notice changes in your child’s mood, behaviour or appetite, or if they stop wanting to do things they used to enjoy or are refusing to go to school. Speaking to your family doctor/GP another health professional or school counsellor/wellbeing officer is a great place to start. If you are worried they might harm themselves contact one of the following phone/online services as soon as possible for immediate support and advice:

By understanding bullying, being aware of the signs, talking about it with your child and knowing what you can do if they are involved in bullying, you can help protect them from the harmful effects and support them to develop positive friendships.

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  1. Jadambaa, A., Thomas, H. J., Scott, J. G., Graves, N., Brain, D., & Pacella, R. (2019). Prevalence of traditional bullying and cyberbullying among children and adolescents in Australia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 53(9), 878–888. DOI: 10.1177/0004867419846393
  2. Ttofi, M. M., Farrington, D. P., Lösel, F. & Loeber, R. (2011). Do the victims of school bullies tend to become depressed later in life? A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 3(2), 63–73.
  3. McDougall, P. & Vaillancourt, T. (2015). Long-term adult outcomes of peer victimisation in childhood and adolescence: Pathways to adjustment and maladjustment. American Psychologist, 70(4), 300–310.
  4. Burns, S., Maycock, B., Cross, D., & Brown, G. (2008). The power of peers: Why some students bully others to conform. Qualitative Health Research, 18(12), 1704–1716.
  5. Commissioner for Children and Young People Western Australia. (2019). Speaking Out Survey 2019. Perth: Commissioner for Children and Young People WA.
  6. Commissioner for Children and Young People South Australia. (2018). The Bullying Project: What South Australian children and young people have told us about bullying. Adelaide: Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
  7. Queensland Family and Child Commission. (2020). Voices of hope: Growing up in Queensland 2020. Brisbane: Queensland Family and Child Commission.
  8. Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians. (2018). ACCG Joint Participation Paper. Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission.
  9. Wolke, D., Lereya, S. T., Fisher, H. L., Lewis, G. & Zammit, S. (2014). Bullying in elementary school and psychotic experiences at 18 years: a longitudinal, population-based cohort study. Psychological Medicine, 44(10), 2199–2211.

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