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Advice about the signs of bullying and what you can do if you think a child is being bullied

Photo of a girl, hiding from a bullyBullying is hurtful behaviour, usually repeated over a long period of time. It can happen at and outside of school, such as on the way to school or in clubs and groups.

Bullying can also take place online. Sometimes called cyberbullying, it can happen through social networking websites or on mobile phones. Because it can occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a child may feel that there is no escape.

What is bullying

Types of bullying include:

  • verbal abuse, such as name calling and gossiping
  • non-verbal abuse, such as hand signs or text messages
  • emotional abuse, such as threatening or intimidating someone
  • exclusion, such as ignoring or isolating someone
  • undermining, by constantly criticising or spreading rumours
  • racial or sexual bullying
  • physical assaults, such as hitting and pushing
  • online through social networking, or using mobile phones, also known as cyberbullying.

Signs and symptoms of bullying

It can be hard for adults, including parents, to know whether or not a child is being bullied. A child may be too frightened to tell anyone in case the bullying gets worse or they might believe that they deserve, or are responsible for, the bullying that they have experienced.

Bullying can affect a child's health, and it can cause emotional and behavioural problems. As it is often non-physical the effects may not be visible.

However, there are several warning signs that you can look out for in their appearance and behaviour – although no sign indicates for certain that a child is being bullied.

Signs you may notice could be that a child:

  • has their belongings taken or damaged
  • is over-tired and hungry from not eating lunch (if their dinner money or lunch has been taken)
  • is afraid to go to school, is mysteriously 'ill' each morning, or skips school
  • suffers a drop in performance at school
  • asks for, or steals, money (to pay)
  • is afraid of travelling on the school bus or on their own to school
  • is nervous, loses confidence, or is distressed
  • stops eating or sleeping
  • begins to bully others
  • refuses to say what's wrong or is withdrawn
  • is physically injured.

The effects of bullying can be devastating on children and sometimes endure into adulthood. At its worst, bullying has driven children to self-harm and suicide.

Causes of bullying

Children who bully may be older or bigger than their victim, or they may have some other advantage which gives them a sense of power. On the other hand, they may feel powerless themselves and bully others to gain a sense of power.

They may have had a difficult upbringing in which they have learned aggressive behaviours. They may be used to getting their own way, or they may have learned these behaviours through being bullied themselves.

Some children who bully may not be conscious of their motives and they may not even realise how badly their behaviour is affecting others. They may imagine a variety of reasons for targeting their victim. The victim may be someone who is constantly targeted: some victims seem to attract negative attention wherever they go, others are not used to dealing with bullies and are easier targets. Many who experience bullying just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What you can do about bullying

If you know a child is being bullied there are some practical steps that you can take to stop it.

Your first approach should be to sit down with the child and explain what bullying is and ask if they are being bullied. Remain calm, patient, and be understanding. Remember, it can be hard for a child to talk about bullying because they sometimes fear what may happen if they tell. They may fear parents going to the school, for example, and creating a scene. They may feel ashamed that it is happening to them, or they may fear upsetting their parents.

It's important that you gather as much information as possible, before taking any action, so that you can assess the scale of the problem. Don't jump to conclusions or assume there is only one version of events.

If the bullying seems mild it may be that you can help the child learn strategies for dealing with it. If the bullying seems moderate or severe you may need to take the matter further with the school, organisers of the setting in which it's occurring, or get help from elsewhere.

Tips for dealing with bullying

You could try the following to help a child deal with bullying:

  • Encourage a child to walk away, or stay in a group – as they are less likely to be bullied when others are around.
  • Help a child with making new friends.
  • Make sure a child knows that they have the right to ask for help, and that they know who to ask for help in different situations, like a teacher or a nearby parent.
  • Help a child to learn assertiveness skills, like learning to shout 'No!' and to display more confident body language.
  • Act out some role plays, so the child can practise what to do when confronted with bullying.
  • Encourage a child to hide their feelings from bullies – if a child can look calm, neutral or bored, they are less likely to be bullied.
  • Encourage a child to talk about their feelings at home, or somewhere they feel safe.
  • Help a child to rebuild their self-esteem by giving them opportunities to do things that build their confidence and make them feel good about themselves.

These strategies may be very difficult for a child who is upset, frightened or traumatised by bullying. If a child is unwilling to talk to you, they could be encouraged to contact ChildLine.

Talking to the school

If a child is being bullied at school and you have discussed it with the child, you may decide to talk to the school in an attempt to have it stopped.

All schools have a responsibility to protect pupils from bullying. However, how the school responds will depend a great deal on the staff, the character of the school, and the school's anti-bullying policy. If you approach the school you should:

  • arrange to meet with the classroom or form tutor (primary schools), or Head of Department (secondary schools)
  • take a notebook to jot down the main points of what is said at the meeting
  • make it clear that you will not tolerate bullying, and tell the teacher what effect it is having on the child
  • ask for protection for the child by asking:
  • • the teacher for confidentiality in order to protect the child from any recriminations by the bullying child for 'telling'

    • that members of staff keep an eye out for the bullying

    • for adequate supervision of play areas and extra supervision, if necessary

  • ask how the school intends to deal with the bullying
  • ask for a copy of the school’s anti bullying policy, if you’ve not been given a copy already
  • follow up to see what progress has been made
  • if you are unsatisfied by the teacher's response, take the matter to the head teacher
  • if you are still not satisfied, write to the school governors.

Other places to get help

If you are not satisfied with the school's response, or if a child is being bullied somewhere other than school, you will probably need to seek help elsewhere. Depending on the circumstances, you could:

  • contact your local authority's education department
  • write to your MP
  • take legal action against the school
  • transfer the child to another school, or consider educating the child at home
  • contact a Police Community Liaison Officer
  • seek professional counselling through your doctor
  • get advice from the Children's Legal Centre
  • contact the NSPCC.

Further help and advice

NSPCC: Advice and support for adults concerned about a child.
Police: Emergency and non-emergency police services.
Anti Bullying Alliance: Organisation working to stop bullying.
Kidscape: Anti-bullying helpline for parents of bullied children.
The Advisory Centre for Education: Support and advice for parents whose children have problems at school.


38% of young people have been affected by bullying online, through social networking websites or mobile phones.

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