understanding bullying - for friends and family

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Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, and/or social behaviour by one or more people towards someone where there is an intention to cause fear, distress or harm.

Usually this involves a person or group of people exerting their power over someone who feels less powerful. Bullying is not just ‘playing around’ or harmless fun – it can be very damaging to a young person’s mental health.

Bullying can take many forms. It can be physical (e.g., hurting people or their property) and/or verbal (e.g., name-calling and threatening others) and it can occur in many different environments, such as face-to-face, over the phone or online (cyberbullying). Bullying can also be hidden or ‘covert’, for example, by deliberately excluding others or spreading rumours. This type of bullying can be much harder to pick up on and understand.

Unfortunately, bullying is quite common, with around 1 in 6 Australian school students aged 7 to 17 reporting they have been bullied at least once a week.

Family and friends can play a critical role in supporting young people involved in or experiencing bullying. Positive relationships can help protect young people from the negative consequences associated with being bullied. Family and friends also play a key role in the development of young people’s social and emotional skills, their relationships with peers and their coping skills. These skills can help young people to understand and respond to bullying more constructively.

Why does bullying happen?

There are many reasons why bullying happens. Someone who bullies others may not value or feel good within themselves or they may have experienced bullying or violence themselves. They might use bullying as a way of making themselves feel more powerful or to ‘look cool’ in front of others. Bullying behaviour can also be motivated by jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear or misunderstanding.

Sometimes people bully others because they feel threatened in their social group and are trying to feel more secure. The person bullying others can have a lot of social power within their group, but may be using this in a damaging way to hurt others.

What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying is not simply ‘a normal part of growing up’ and learning how to stand up to others. Young people who have been bullied may feel alone, unsafe, afraid, stressed, humiliated, ashamed and rejected. Often they will feel that there is no escape and may take measures to ‘fit in’ by changing their appearance or acting differently, or hurting themselves or others.

Research shows that being bullied can have serious effects on a young person's physical and mental health, and their performance at school and at work. Bullying also has negative effects on a young person’s family and the broader community. Severe bullying, especially peer bullying, can be very traumatic for young people, as peer relationships are particularly important at this stage of life. Experiencing bullying can also increase the risk that someone will develop depression and anxiety in the future.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that uses electronic types of communication (e.g., text messages, email and social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube) to carry out the behaviour.

This type of bullying can be anonymous and reach a wide audience. Unlike face to face bullying, cyberbullying can go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so people don’t get a rest from it.

How to talk about bullying

Finding out if a young person is involved in, or experiencing, bullying can be difficult; often parents and carers do not know, or underestimate the frequency or severity of the situation. Remember, family members are often in a good position to notice changes in behaviour, mood and general wellbeing as well as early signs of mental and physical health issues. Not all young people will ask for help and it may take time for a young person to speak about their experiences.

What you can do about bullying

A good place to start a conversation about bullying is to get to know your young person and show that you are interested in the young person's life, relationships and hobbies, including the people they speak to online and the technology and social networking sites they like to use.

If you suspect that bullying is an issue for a young person close to you, ask them about their situation and try to understand using questions, such as:

  • What is lunchtime like at school? What do you do?

  • Have you ever noticed kids at school calling each other names or hitting or pushing each other?

  • Do you ever feel lonely at school or left out of activities? What happens and how do you feel?

  • Do kids ever tease you? Talk about you behind your back? Hit you? Push you around? Say things about you online? What happens and what is that like?

Remember to be respectful and understand that they may not necessarily feel like answering. Persistent questioning can be stressful for some young people and may make them less willing to talk. Encourage them to speak to someone they feel comfortable with and don't take it personally if they want to speak to someone other than you.

If they want to speak to you about their experiences, here are some suggestions on how you can respond:

  • Show that you believe them and listen to them without judgment and without panicking. You could ask questions like:

    • That sounds really difficult, how are you coping with that?

    • Do you think anyone else is aware that is going on?

  • Let them know they are not alone. It may help them to know that a lot of other young people experience similar difficulties.

  • Reassure them that they can get support to deal with bullying and things can get better.  They don’t have to handle this situation by themselves. You might say:

    • It sounds like a really tough situation. Do you think we could talk a bit more together to figure out how I might be able to best support you? What would you like me to help you with?

  • Help them decide how to approach the situation in future. This can increase their self-esteem and discourage strategies that are unlikely to be helpful (e.g., revenge tactics, starting a fight).
  • Discuss who they could talk to at school or in the workplace about the bullying, such as a trusted adult. If they are experiencing online bullying, this can be reported to the website moderators, mobile and/or internet service providers. If necessary, the bullying can also be reported to the Children’s eSafety Commissioner and/or the local police (Google ‘police’ along with your suburb and state for contact details).
  • Look into bullying policies at their school, workplace and/or online with your young person to understand what avenues they have to stop the bullying, and the consequences of bullying.
  • Make sure they are safe. Sometimes this may require taking action they are not happy with. Be up front with them if this might be the case, in the long run they will usually understand that you are acting in their best interests. If the bullying is occurring in or around the school, talk to the school about your concerns and seek advice on what to do. Remember, schools have anti-bullying policies and are required to respond to bullying incidents.
    • Documentation will be useful if the issue needs to be taken further (i.e., with the school, police or support services), so keep a record of events including when it occurred, who was involved, what happened, where it happened, whether anyone else saw it happen, what type of bullying occurred (physical, verbal, online), whether anyone intervened and whether it has happened before. Take screenshots of online bullying.
    • Encourage them to use privacy settings online and make their information visible to friends only. Consider making a family agreement that outlines household rules about technology use.
    • Support them to make new friends and maintain existing positive relationships, both online and offline. Encourage them to spend time with others away from where the bullying is happening.
    • Support them to seek professional help. If the bullying continues to affect your young person’s wellbeing, they may need professional support. Their general practitioner (GP), eheadspace (online and phone support) or their local headspace centre is a good place to start. For more information, see How to support a family member.
    • Be aware of your own responses to the bullying. The thought of your young person bulling others or being left out or victimised can be very distressing, and you might feel responsible for the bullying or want to take drastic measures to protect your child. Take time to look after yourself and seek help from someone you trust, such as a close family member, a GP or a mental health professional.

Parents or carers are usually shocked and upset to find out their young person has been involved in bullying. Remember, these young people also need you to listen, love, support and offer suggestions to help them to change their behaviour. Here are some suggestions:

  • Discuss with your young person the importance of respect, communication and caring about other people’s feelings.

  • Provide opportunities for them to be involved in positive social situations that foster cooperation and social skills.

If someone you know is involved in or experiencing bullying, visit eheadspace (online and phone support) or find your nearest headspace centre.

For support with how you or your young person are feeling:

  • Lifeline

  • Kids Helpline

  • Parent helplines (in every State and Territory of Australia) – Google ‘Parentline’ along with your State or Territory


For more information about bullying:

This content was developed in partnership with the Telethon Kids Institute.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 26 June 2017

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