Understanding and addressing your child’s bullying behaviour

Emerging Minds, Australia, September 2023

Related to Bullying

Resource Summary

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It can be hard for a parent to believe their child has been involved in bullying. If someone has told you your child has been engaging in bullying behaviour, or you think they could be, you might be feeling shocked, disappointed, angry, confused or defensive. These are all understandable reactions.


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.

It’s important to talk to your child about bullying as soon as possible. But first, take a moment to check how you’re feeling and think about how you’re going to approach the conversation. Read our tips in Finding out your child is experiencing or engaging in bullying first, so you can be calm, and able to listen to and support your child.

Be curious about bullying behaviour

When children engage in bullying behaviour, there is usually a reason behind it. They may be trying to fit in socially or get attention from their peers or adults. It could be a sign that they need some help dealing with a problem or emotional difficulty.

Are there any big changes or things happening in your child’s world that they might be finding difficult to manage?

‘Often when a child begins bullying, it is an indication that they’re carrying too much on their own, that they have tried to handle difficult experiences and feelings all on their own. They’re often keeping it inside and it’s coming out in the act of bullying.’

– Dr Miriam Webb, Clinical Psychologist

It’s also important to remember that children often communicate through their behaviour. So be curious about what emotions and thoughts might be going on underneath the behaviour and what they might be trying to tell you.

Some children don’t realise that what they are doing is harmful to someone else. They may have trouble picking up social cues, understanding what behaviours are inappropriate or controlling their impulses. It’s important to seek support from people in your life who know your child and their needs, such as support groups, educators or health professionals who support them in their everyday lives.

Often kids who engage in bullying are experiencing, or have experienced, bullying themselves.

What you can do

  • Understand that the behaviour is a form of communication and doesn’t define your child. Especially if you’re feeling disappointed or angry about what has happened, it’s important not to label or think of your child as a ‘bully’.
  • Instead, play detective – notice and talk with your child about what’s going on in their life and try to identify any experiences, thoughts or feelings they might be having trouble dealing with.
  • When your child is explaining what’s been happening, listen for clues about anything worrying them at home, school or elsewhere. Are they upset, jealous or stressed about something?
  • It can be helpful to talk to your child’s teacher, coach or other adults in their life. Ask them if they’ve noticed whether your child has seemed:
    • angry or sad a lot of the time
    • stressed because of exams, or trials or an upcoming competition
    • isolated; or
    • to be having trouble making friends or ‘fitting in’?
  • Thinking about what’s happening at home/in the family, consider:
    • Could your child be worried about something going on at home, like parents arguing or separating, an unwell loved one or a sick pet?
    • Is their sibling or someone else bullying your child?
    • Are they jealous of a sibling or other kids?

Try to step into your child’s shoes when trying to understand their behaviour. The reason behind it may seem small and unimportant to you – perhaps the way someone looked at them in class was upsetting or they got tackled playing footy and their peers laughed – but may feel big to them.

Think about what you might have noticed in your child’s recent behaviour. Is there anything unusual in their reactions or responses?

‘I think if you’re both on the same side, you and your child, and you can talk about it and it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about actually unpacking what’s going on. I think you’re more likely to make headway with that.’

– Jess, mum of one

Understand your child’s experience

Don’t leap into action mode before you get the facts and fully understand what has happened or is going on from your child’s point of view.

What you can do

  • Find a time and place you can be comfortable and uninterrupted. Straight after school is usually not a good time because children need to unwind.
  • Be curious. Give your child a chance to explain what’s been happening. Instead of starting with an accusation like: ‘Your teacher called and told me you’re bullying. What are you doing?’, try something like: ‘Your teacher called me about some stuff going on at school. Do you know what they are talking about?’
  • Ask questions like:
    • ‘What happened?’
    • ‘Why do you think your teacher felt they needed to call me about it?’
    • ‘What might the other kid be saying, or why might they see this as bullying?’
    • ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you?’
  • Shouting or talking about consequences before a child has had the opportunity to be heard isn’t helpful.
  • Stay calm and listen without judging so your child is more likely to open up and tell you what has been going on.
  • Don’t push. If your child is clearly uncomfortable talking about it now, try again later. Reassure them that whatever has happened, you want to understand and help.

Children often deny, minimise or try to justify their bullying behaviour when they’re first asked about it. They might feel ashamed, be worried about consequences, or it might be because they have a different understanding of bullying or don’t understand the impacts of their behaviour.

Help your child understand that the behaviour is bullying and reassure them that you’re going to support them to stop the behaviour.

Help your child understand the impacts of their behaviour

It’s really important for a child who has engaged in bullying behaviour to take responsibility for it.

Children who engage in bullying behaviour generally don’t want to behave in ways that hurt other children, and might not realise they have. You can help your child understand how their behaviour impacts others in the following ways:

  • Start with questions about how they feel when someone treats them poorly. This can have the effect of ‘switching on’ their empathy and helping them imagine how others might feel.
  • Be clear and direct. Explain that someone feels hurt or upset by their words or actions.
  • Help your child think about what the child experiencing the bullying behaviour might have been thinking and feeling. Try asking questions like: ‘Why do you think X might feel upset?’
  • When talking about the behaviour, be curious about your child’s thoughts and feelings about it as well. For example, if they said what they did was ‘just a joke’, ask why they thought it was funny or harmless.
  • Again, you can help your child to develop empathy by asking follow up questions like:
    • ‘If you were X, do you think you’d see it as a joke?’
    • ‘What about the other kids you shared it with – did they think it was funny?’

Resolving the situation

It’s important to take bullying seriously. Don’t dismiss the behaviour as a ‘one off’ or ‘just something kids do’. Positive comments about bullying behaviour like ‘He was just standing up for himself’ can encourage kids to keep doing it.

Help your child understand that it doesn’t matter if they thought it was a joke or the other child was mean to them first. Someone has been hurt or upset by what they said or did, so it’s important to understand that and take responsibility to resolve the situation.

Every situation is different, so you and your child will need to talk through how to respond, but the following tips might help.

If it happened at school or involved a student at school:

  • Ask about the school’s process for dealing with bullying and for a copy of its bullying policy.
  • Make sure you know what disciplinary or other action has been taken or will be imposed on your child.
  • Talk to your child about the bullying resolution process at school and what else they might need to do – like apologising directly to the child they’ve hurt or upset.
  • Ask about the availability of mental health supports, such as a school counsellor/psychologist your child can talk to. You might also be able to talk to that person if you want some advice about how you can support your child to prevent any further bullying behaviour.
  • Don’t make direct contact with the child who has been bullied or their parents. This could embarrass your child or make the situation worse.

If the bullying behaviour was online:

  • Encourage your child to apologise and delete the content that was posted or shared. Suggest they say something like ‘I’m sorry my post upset you. I’ve deleted it’.
  • Your child should ask others to delete it, stop sharing it and stop commenting too. If they are not able to stop the spread of the harmful content, tell or help them to report it to the site, game or app that was used. See the eSafety Commissioner’s guide for advice on how to do that.
  • Talk with your child about what they have learned from the experience and what they will do differently in the future. You might need to explain why things intended as ‘a joke’ aren’t always seen that way by others, and the importance of thinking hard before commenting or sharing an image.

The eSafety Commissioner’s website has resources to help kids understand how online bullying harms others, and what they can do to make things better.

Support your child’s mental health

Being involved in bullying can have serious impacts on a child’s mental health and wellbeing. It can be upsetting and embarrassing for a child to be called a bully or called out for their behaviour.

Encourage your child to contact Kids Helpline or another confidential counselling service:

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 or another health professional is a great place to start. If you’re concerned your child might harm themselves, contact Kids Helpline as soon as possible for immediate support and advice – call 1800 55 1800.

Even if you’re disappointed or angry about their behaviour, your child needs to know you want to understand and help them. By focusing on what they can learn from this experience – like empathy (understanding how others feel) – and having the courage to be accountable and apologise, you’re helping your child develop important skills for life.

What to do next

Now that you’ve had a chance to explore the feelings and experiences that might be behind your child’s behaviour, and help them understand its impacts, learn how you can support your child to stop their bullying behaviour.

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