Teenage bullying: what to look for and how to help

Teenage bullying: what to look for and how to help

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What is bullying?

Bullying is when someone deliberately and repeatedly upsets, frightens, threatens or hurts someone else or their property, reputation or social status.

Bullying can be:

  • verbal bullying - for example, insulting, threatening or making fun of someone
  • bullying behind someone's back - for example, playing nasty jokes, spreading rumours, or encouraging peers to exclude someone
  • physical bullying - for example, pushing, tripping or hitting, or damaging property
  • cyberbullying - using digital technology to deliberately harass or humiliate.

All bullying is hurtful. When it keeps going, it can cause long-lasting harm.

If friends or peers disagree or even argue, or if someone says something mean once, it can be unpleasant and even nasty. But it isn't bullying. Bullying is mean and hurtful behaviour that happens over and over again.

Spotting the signs of bullying

Teenage bullying can be hard to spot.

It's often less physical than bullying among younger children. Also, your child might try to hide it from you and others. Your child might feel ashamed and afraid or might not want you to worry or make a big deal. Often teenagers just want bullying to go away without drawing attention to it.

But there are signs of teenage bullying that you can look out for. For example, a child who's being bullied might have problems with school, or show emotional or physical signs.

School problems
Your child might:

  • refuse to go to school, or make excuses not to go
  • be unhappy or anxious before or after school
  • say 'I hate school' or express fear of school
  • start doing poorly at school.

Emotional signs
Your child might:

  • become more and more isolated from others
  • show noticeable changes in behaviour or emotions, like anxiety
  • have trouble sleeping
  • seem low on self-confidence.

Physical signs
Your child might:

  • have physical injuries he can't or won't explain - for example, bruises or torn clothing
  • come home with damaged or missing belongings
  • regularly tell you he has a headache, stomach ache or other physical problem

Your child might be experiencing some of these signs for other reasons, so it's best to talk together about the signs you've noticed.

Bullying doesn't happen only at school. It happens at home, at social or sports activities, and in workplaces.

Supporting a child who's being bullied

Here are some ideas for supporting your child at home:

  • Show your child lots of love. You can show love in a way that suits your child's age and maturity. It might be a hug or a pat on the back, or just telling your child you love her.
  • Actively listen to how your child is feeling - for example, 'It sounds like you're being left out of a lot of things. That must really hurt'.
  • Let your child know that what's happening won't last forever - for example, 'Things will get better. You can talk to me anytime, and I'll help you make sure it gets better'.
  • Make sure your child knows that the bullying isn't her fault. She needs to know that she hasn't done anything wrong and that she's a likeable person. For example, 'It isn't OK for someone to treat you like that. You're an awesome person, and you don't deserve it'.
  • Tell your child that you'll help him sort it out. For example, 'Let's talk about what we can do to help make things better for you. Do you have any ideas?'
  • Help your child to identify safe places and supportive adults at school. For example, you could use a map of the school to find safe places. You could also get your child to write down the names of three adults at the school she could go to if there's a problem.

Sometimes your child might not want to talk with you about the bullying. You could suggest he talks to another trusted adult, like a relative or family friend. Or he could call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.

Working with your child's school on bullying

If your child is being bullied at school, it's important to get the help of the school as quickly as you can.

Schools must take bullying seriously. Your child's teachers should be trained in spotting and handling bullying. They can work with you to try to prevent further bullying.

Here's how to involve the school in a positive and constructive way:

  • Let your child now that you're going to involve the school. Ask if she'd like to be with you when you talk to the school, and what she wants you to say.
  • Make an appointment to see your child's teacher, the year coordinator, or the head of pastoral care.
  • Discuss the problem with the school representative, put forward the facts as you know them, and ask for the school's views.
  • Be assertive - not angry or accusatory - and be ready to listen.
  • Ask for a copy of the school's policy on bullying and ask how the policy will be put into action in your child's situation.
  • End the meeting with a plan for how the situation will be managed and a time for a follow-up meeting.

What if your child doesn't want the school involved?
Your child might be embarrassed or worried that involving the school will make the bullying worse. It's important to listen to your child's concerns and see whether there's anything you can do to make him less worried. For example, you might be able to make an appointment at the school at a time when other students are less likely to notice.

But in the end, you're the best person to decide what's in your child's best interests, even if that means involving the school against her wishes.

It's best not to contact the young person or people who have taken part in the bullying behaviour, or their parents. This is likely to make the situation worse. It's always safer to work with the school than to try to solve bullying on your own.

What to do if the bullying continues

If the bullying carries on, it's still safer to work with your child's school than to take matters into your own hands.

At this stage, it's important to have a record of what's going on. So when there's a bullying incident, get your child to write down:

  • exactly what happened
  • the name(s) of the person or people who did it
  • when and where it happened
  • what your child has already said or done to try to stop the behaviour.

If the bullying involves physical harm, you or your child can take photos.

You can take screenshots if the bullying involves posts on social networking sites, comments on instant chat, emails or text messages.

Your child can give a copy of this record to the teacher he most trusts to help.

You need to get the school involved again, and this time you can use your child's record of what happened and when. You might want to ask for your concern to be addressed in writing. And you could ask to speak to the school principal or the school board.

If you're not satisfied, you can ask to see the school's grievance procedure.

It takes time for behaviour to change, so you might not see overnight results.

When you need more support than the school can give

If the bullying is violent, if criminal offences have occurred, or if you think the school has treated you unfairly or unreasonably, you still have options:

  • Seek legal advice.
  • Tell the police.
  • Apply to the Children's Court for a restraining order against the bully.
  • Contact the education department or the ombudsman in your state or territory to make a complaint.

Why bullying happens

Children and teenagers bully for many different reasons.

They might have seen aggressive behaviour at home or somewhere else, or they might have learned to be prejudiced towards certain groups of people. They might have experienced physical or emotional abuse.

Also, when children are starting secondary school, they sometimes look for ways to feel more socially important or powerful. They might be mean to others or exclude them as part of this.

Bullying can also happen in toxic friendships. This is when children make fun of or socially exclude someone in the group. The behaviour is often very subtle, and the child who's being bullied can feel very confused about what's happening.