Working with families to prevent bullying

Antony Gates, Parenting Research Centre, Australia, July 2022

Resource Summary

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Key messages

  • Bullying is a prominent problem with serious impacts on child wellbeing. A community-wide response is required to protect children.
  • Social connections play a key role in protecting children from bullying and its impacts.
  • Parents and practitioners can support children’s interpersonal wellbeing by increasing their social connections.
  • We recommend that practitioners raise the issue of bullying with parents of children from a young age, especially because children under age 12 typically receive less attention around bullying.
  • Practitioners can play an important role in empowering parents to be involved in their child’s social world and to seek support when needed.

This resource was written for health professionals. If you are a parent who needs information about childhood bullying, please check out our Emerging Minds Families resources.

A note on terminology

In this resource we use the term ‘parent’ to refer to anyone playing a significant caring role in a child’s life, and acknowledge that this could include biological parents, grandparents, other relatives, adoptive parents, adults in blended families, kinship carers and many other roles.

What is bullying?

Bullying is defined as repeated behaviour that causes harm to another person in the context of a real or perceived power imbalance (Nansel et al., 2001). This power imbalance could be based on physical intimidation or social status. Some bullying behaviours are overt and more readily observable, such as physical violence, while others are more subtle, such as excluding another child from activities. Bullying can occur in person, or remotely via technology which is referred to as cyberbullying.

Note that while this definition is commonly agreed upon, in practice human interactions are complex and exist within rich contexts. It can be difficult to clearly determine whether any given behaviour or pattern of behaviour constitutes bullying and attempting to do so may be ultimately unproductive (Mishna, 2004; O’Brien, 2019).

Impacts of bullying

Bullying is recognised as a major cause of poor mental health across the lifespan. It can contribute to significant psychological and physical issues in children, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal behaviour (see Box 2).

The impacts of bullying can last a lifetime and have been found to persist for many adults even decades later (see Box 3). Approximately 15–30% of children in Australia report having experienced bullying during the past 12 months (Jadambaa et al., 2019).

Children who engage in bullying behaviour are also at risk of poor mental health outcomes. Katsaras et al (2018) found that children who engage in bullying others were 2.5 times as likely to experience suicidal ideation. Children who both experience and engage in bullying behaviour are likely to fare worst of all, being at 3.5 times the risk of suicidal ideation.

Box 2: Impact of being bullied during childhood

Children who experience school bullying are more than twice as likely as other children to experience each of the following:

  • Depression
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • specific phobias
  • specific psychiatric symptoms
  • psychotic symptoms
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • binge eating
  • suicide attempts.

Sources: Katsaras et al. (2018), Moore et al. (2017)

Box 3: Lifetime impact of bullying involvement

  • Of lifetime anxiety disorders in Australia, 9.57% are estimated to be attributable to experiencing bullying behaviour.
  • Children and young people who experience bullying during the school years (ages 8–18 years) are 1.74 times as likely to develop Depression.
  • Of lifetime depressive disorders in Australia, 13.13% are estimated to be attributable to experiencing bullying behaviour.
  • Of lifetime intentional self-harm behaviours in Australia, 15.34% are estimated to be attributable to experiencing bullying behaviour.
  • Children and young people experiencing bullying behaviour are twice as likely to develop later psychotic symptoms than those who have not experienced bullying.

Sources: Cunningham et al. (2016), Jadambaa et al. (2021), Ttofi et al. (2011)

Bullying is a serious health concern. It is increasingly recognised that bullying is not ‘just a normal part of growing up’; however, this view does persist, even amongst health practitioners (Hutson et al., 2019). The severity of its impact means that all who work in the child wellbeing space must consider their role in addressing bullying.

Current responses to bullying

Most recommended bullying responses are currently focused in schools. The ‘gold standard’ for bullying interventions involves building awareness of the issue by holding regular classes for all students on increasing empathy while encouraging supportive, pro-social behaviours towards peers (Bradshaw, 2015). This is usually combined with procedures to address instances of bullying, such as: ‘shared concern’, where children who engage in bullying behaviours are confronted with the impact of their behaviour on the child who is experiencing the bullying; or mutual problem-solving approaches where the two (or more) children involved are brought together to discuss any issues in their relationship and what they will do to improve things.

Evidence shows that when effectively implemented these approaches can reduce bullying impact significantly. Unfortunately, 72% of children report that they wouldn’t raise a bullying concern with their teacher, and of those who have done so, only 27.8% report that this helped the situation (Cross et al., 2009). It may be that the gold standard school-based intervention is difficult to effectively implement because of the intensive resources required to deliver regular classroom-based sessions for all students throughout the school – or that a number of children are still falling through the gaps.

Additionally, practitioners outside the school environment may be left wondering how they can contribute to addressing bullying when they are not embedded in the school system. These practitioners may observe the negative impacts of bullying on children they work with but lack methods of providing direct support, instead relying on referrals to schools to address the issue, or to mental health professionals to help the child cope with ongoing bullying.

While the bulk of incidents occur in the school environment, bullying shouldn’t be seen as exclusive to these settings. Forty-five per cent of students report having experienced bullying somewhere other than school; 38% reported experiencing bullying at home; and 32% experienced bullying on the way to or from school (Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, 2020). With increased access to and use of technology, such as mobile phones and social media, children are at even greater risk of bullying outside the context and reach of school; cyberbullying can occur anywhere and at any time (National Centre Against Bullying, n.d.).

Focus of this resource

This resource describes how practitioners from a range of fields who are employed outside the school system can help protect children from bullying. Approaches include raising parents’ awareness of bullying as an issue and looking at how building social connections can help.

Importantly, these approaches can be applied early in a child’s life, within the 0–12 year range. This age group is often neglected in research and program delivery, representing a missed opportunity (Condon et al., 2019).

This resource is focused on bullying prevention. While all children, including those currently experiencing bullying behaviour, can benefit from increased attention to their social relationships, children who are currently experiencing bullying will require additional supports, which are beyond the scope of this resource. Suitable supports involve intervention from adults to address the behaviour itself and one-to-one therapeutic intervention that responds to the effects of bullying behaviour.

Conversation points

This section includes suggestions for key phrases you might use to address topics related to the prevention of bullying.

Raising the topic of social connections

  • “And how’s Reuben going socially?”
  • “Tell me about how Leena is around others.”
  • “Relationships are a really important part of a child’s development. Could you tell me about some of these? Who is Michael close to?”
  • “Have you noticed Mika forming any friendships yet? Does she show any preferences for playing with a particular child, or children?”
  • “What sort of things does Noah most like to do with you? How about with other people?”
  • “Do you have a sense of what’s going on for Niamh socially? Does she have friends? What are they like?”

Raising the issue of bullying

  • “As Santo grows and develops and makes new friends, one thing to be aware of is the issue of bullying. Unfortunately, it’s quite common, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for it.”
  • “Have there been any issues in Samantha’s friendship group or with other children at school?”
  • “How familiar are you with bullying? Do you know what to look out for?”
  • “Bullying is something that I know comes up a lot for children at Dom’s age. Do you know much about bullying?”
  • “I just want to take a moment to check in with you about the topic of bullying. It’s a challenge that comes up for many children and it can be quite problematic when it does, so I want to make sure you’re well informed.”
  • “Bullying is something that we need to take seriously. If you get the sense that Elle’s involved in bullying, it’s important to do something about it. We shouldn’t leave it up to the young people to sort out.”
  • “There are some warning signs to look out for. They’re available on this website. Let’s just go over them together now. However, remember that these aren’t always present so it’s important to stay in touch with what’s going on for Feng socially.”

Increasing social connections

  • “One of the best protections against bullying a child can have is strong connections to family and friends.”
  • “Fortunately, Masie’s much less likely to be impacted by bullying if she has one or more close friends.”
  • “Why don’t we see if we can think of some ways to help Omar spend more time with other children? Making friends is a great way to build up a child’s wellbeing and resilience, plus it helps protect them from bullying.”
  • “I can see why you’re concerned about Isa not having any friends. Generally, children and young people make friends best by spending time interacting with other children. Do you have any ideas about activities or groups we could get her involved in?”
  • “You mentioned you’ve noticed some concerns in how Chima plays with his cousins when he sees them. I know a lot of children learn how to behave around others in places like kindergarten – do you think that could be helpful for him?”
  • “Hmm, that’s interesting that Anne complains that no one likes her at school. Perhaps the school can help her get involved in some group activities – I recall she’s really into art…?”

Empowering parents to get involved in their child’s social world

  • “It’s important to stay in touch with what’s going on in Abdullah’s social world. I know some parents aren’t sure if this is appropriate or necessary, but it really is fine to ask regularly about his friends and classmates, and any issues he might have noticed.”
  • “What kind of conversations do you have with Camilla? Do you ever talk about her friends, or what the other children at school are like?”
  • “The drive home from school can be a great time to check in about what happened that day, including with other children.”
  • “If you’re not too sure about what’s going on with Daniel, a good place to start is just to increase communication generally. This is important for his overall wellbeing, and can also give you opportunities to learn about anything that’s concerning him.”
  • “Just talking regularly about how things are going is one of the best things you can do, even if she doesn’t want to say much.”
  • “Is Tommaso on social media? Have you discussed rules with him about what he does on there? Is there a way you can supervise or get a sense of any issues that might happen there?”
  • “I know at this age many children want privacy and might not want you looking at what they do online, but you’re absolutely within your rights to set rules about being able to see what she’s doing. It’s best to sit down together and have a talk with her about how this will work.”

How to raise concerns

  • “Suppose Dario did experience bullying at some point – would you know what to do about it?”
  • “How confident would you feel about taking action to support Mia if she was being bullied?”
  • “If Robert was experiencing bullying at school, how would you approach the school about it? What would you expect them to do?”
  • “Don’t be embarrassed about asking the school to do something – it’s an essential part of their job.”
  • “Sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s really going on between young people. It’s OK if you can’t tell whether something’s actually bullying – it’s enough that there’s a concern there, so you should take action anyway.”
  • “Bullying can occur in a range of settings, not just at school. If there are adults supervising those settings, they’re expected to take bullying seriously.”
  • “If you’re not happy with a responsible adult’s response to a bullying concern, there are often ways you can escalate it – such as approaching the school principal directly.”
  • “Remember you can always seek professional help if you become concerned about bullying. I’d be happy to check in about it in the future.”

Talking to children directly

  • “[To parent:] Maria, sometimes young people find it easier to talk about any social problems without their parent present. How would you feel about that? [To child:] And Cynthia, how would you feel about that?”
  • “Tell me about your friends. What are their names? What do you like to do together?”
  • “Do you ever have problems with other kids?”
  • “How is school [or other social setting] going? Is there anything that’s worrying you about it?”
  • “You mentioned an older boy says mean things to you. How often does that happen?”
  • “Do you know about bullying? Have you seen or heard something like that?”
  • “If you were upset about something, would your friends support you?”
  • “How do you feel about the teachers at school? Do they care about you?”
  • “If something was bothering you at school [or in another setting], who would you tell? What would you say to them?”

Further resources

For more on bullying, refer to the following Emerging Minds resources:

  • Understanding childhood bullying and mental health online course
  • Exploring bullying in context: Children’s relationships, friendships and social functioning practice paper
  • Supporting families to navigate school responses to bullying practice paper


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