What to do when your child is being bullied or is the bully

What to do when your child is being bullied or your child is the bully. Image: Getty/Gallo Images
What to do when your child is being bullied or your child is the bully. Image: Getty/Gallo Images

Lerato Mathole's* eight-year-old son has been bullied by the same boy since he was six. "In the beginning, he thought they were just playing. But, when he would tell us about his day, we started picking up that something wasn’t right. So, we had to explain to him that friends don’t hurt each other. They are the same age, but Sipho* is bigger in build, and often pushes him around," she explains.

Mathole approached the teachers at the pre-primary school, but was told that they were just being boys and that they would keep an eye on the situation.

"It would get better, and then get worse. My son would come home with a bruise and say that Sipho pushed him off the scooter or that he said he was going to kill his dad and me. It haunted him. In grade 1, we found out that Sipho was in the same class as my son, and we were not thrilled. The year started off fine, but before long my son started saying that Sipho had started bullying him again – ripping his shirt, tripping him, locking him in the bathroom as well as punching him and grabbing his school bag while it was on his back so that he would fall."

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Mathole eventually met with her son’s teacher, who informed her that Sipho had anger issues and was seeing a therapist. "But, that did not solve the situation," she says. "We are completely against fighting, but eventually we told our son that if Sipho punched him again, he should punch him in the nose, just once. We told him to stand up for himself, and that Sipho would get such a fright that he would leave him alone." 

Why they don't tell you

As a parent, what do you do about this?

"Do you teach your child to fight so they can defend themselves? Doesn’t that make it worse or more dangerous? Do you meet with the other child’s parents? And, what happens when you aren’t around and it’s just your child and the bully, and they get even angrier because they got into trouble? Kids often don’t tell their parents when they are targeted by bullies, which is why it is important to look out for the warning signs," says Johannesburg educational psychologist Anita Decaires-Wagner.

Reassure them that they were right in telling you, but don’t promise to keep it a secret

"My son was bullied at his crèche, and I could see a change in him," Barbara Town* says. "He started getting very aggressive and hitting his sisters. I only realised what was behind it when he left the crèche a few months ago. He told me how one child told the others to make a circle around him while they each take a turn to beat him up. He asked them to stop, but they wouldn’t. I was shocked! I asked him why he didn’t tell me when it happened, and he said he was scared that it would make the situation worse," she explains. 

The signs to look out for 

  • Sudden changes in behaviour, such as withdrawal from friendships or a reluctance to speak about school or friends.
  • Resisting going to school.
  • Sleep difficulties. 
  • Missing or broken items, torn clothing and unexplained injuries or bruises.
  • Lowered self-esteem; seems withdrawn.
  • Mood changes and aggressive behaviour towards siblings.
  • Sudden drop in performance. 

What is bullying?

Bullying is when there is an intent to harm, and there is a power imbalance between the children, Decaires- Wagner explains. "So, before you take action, make sure that bullying is indeed what is happening because this is an extreme word that is often used too easily.

We should be careful of the label – exclusion is not necessarily bullying, and parents usually only hear one side of the story. Some kids are very sensitive to teasing even when it’s playful. I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe what your child tells you – just gather all the information before you react." 

Types of bullying 

Physical bullying:

Sometimes bullies get physical. They hit, punch and kick or steal and break things.

Emotional bullying:

This is less overt. It's name-calling, saying nasty or humiliating things, spreading untrue rumours or encouraging others to exclude someone from the group.


This is becoming common as it gives the bully a degree of anonymity. It includes posting nasty pictures and messages on the Internet and Facebook or Twitter. 

"Broadly, I would say that bullying between boys is more overt and physical whereas among girls, it is more covert and relational. If you suspect that something may be wrong – ask! Listen to your child and take what they say seriously. Reassure them that they were right in telling you, but don’t promise to keep it a secret!" Decaires-Wagner advises. 

What should I do?

According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, a child experiences more severe and lasting health implications the longer he or she is bullied. Researcher Laura Bogart, who led the study, believes that intervention is key. "The sooner we stop a child from being bullied, the less likely bullying is to have a lasting, damaging effect on their health down the road."

Our research shows that long-term bullying has a severe impact on a child’s overall health, and that its negative effects can accumulate and get worse with time," she explains.  Decaires-Wagner advises that you contact the school if that’s where the bullying occurred. She adds, "Ask a teacher to check it out – all schools have anti-bullying policies. If the story turns out to be true, it’s important to get the kids into a win-win situation. Call them both in, and try to get them to talk it out. There should be consequences, but an overly harsh punishment will just cause the bully to resent the victim, which may even lead to retribution."

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Until the issue is resolved, advise your child to avoid situations where they are alone with the bully. Tell them to play near the teacher, and stay with their friends as much as possible. And, if they’re going home by foot, make sure that there’s a way for them to do so with others. "Additionally, strengthen the child who is being bullied," she says. 

"Kids who are socially okay are rarely picked on, so work on developing their self-confidence, assertiveness and social skills. Enrolling them in extramural activities can also help to widen their social circle." 


If this is the case, be careful about harshly punishing them. "Parents are usually embarrassed when they find out that their child is bullying, and often overreact. This can worsen the situation and create even more conflict. So, stay calm and get the facts," cautions Decaires-Wagner. First off, make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that bullying is not okay. Then, try to figure out why your child is doing this. 

"What is the unmet need? For some kids, bullying is a way of expressing their own feelings of powerlessness. For instance, when they themselves are being bullied (usually by an older sibling) or are feeling highly stressed by their circumstances at home – perhaps because of a new baby, a move or an illness," she explains. "With others, it has to do with a lack of empathy or poor impulse control – perhaps they don’t know how to resolve conflict. Children who bully are often dealing with big emotions, so it is important to get to the root of the problem."

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Bullies may need counselling – teach them how to deal with anger and frustration in non-violent ways. 

"Physical activity can help to release emotions, and a creative outlet can also be soothing," she adds. "Sometimes it’s even as simple as making sure that they are gainfully employed: kids who have something to do during break times are much less likely to get into trouble." 

Can you bully-proof your child? 

The best solution to bullying is to increase bystander involvement, says Barbara Coloroso, a parenting expert and bestselling author. Where bullying occurs, three groups are usually involved – the bully, bullied and bystander. "But, there are no innocent bystanders." She believes that the best way to end bullying is to teach children to occupy a fourth category – the ally. Bystanders are usually in the majority, and witness or hear about the bullying.

Part of the bully’s power is creating the impression that bystanders support their actions, which is why it is up to them to intervene. Passive bystanders usually don't get involved as they fear retribution from the bully and their supporters, while others are apathetic as they don’t believe they will be able to influence the situation.

Having a strong-willed child can be difficult at times. But, praise-dependent and reward-dependent kids make wonderful henchmen

In both cases, the bully wins as they have power over both the victim and bystanders. On the other hand, an active bystander or an ally knows that, as they are in the majority, they have power if they band together. Kids are often locked in a tribe of comradeship, which makes it hard to stand up and speak out. So, how do you teach yours to become an active bystander? 

The key, she says, is raising kids who are not praise-dependent. "Having a strong-willed child can be difficult at times. But, praise-dependent and reward-dependent kids make wonderful henchmen. Reward-dependent kids will do things to please you when they are little, but do things to please their peers when older." Your role is crucial as bullying is largely learnt behaviour. If your child is bullying others or passively standing by and watching as others are bullied, it is time to take a long, hard look at how you behave. 

"How do you treat hired help, the new neighbour who looks different or somebody moving through the grocery store slower than you’d like? Your kids are watching," she says. "We all have bigoted relatives in the family tree. Some are round the dinner table, spewing thinly disguised racist and sexist comments. Can your children hear you saying: 'I’m bothered by that?' or 'That was cruel' when all the other relatives roll their eyes and say, 'What, can’t you take a joke?’ Your kids need to see you standing up for values, and against injustice when it’s uncomfortable to do it." 

Bullying is often seen as 'part of growing up' or brushed off as 'boys will be boys'. But, trying to fault the target is part of the problem

Schoolyard bullying might not seem like a problem in the grand scheme of things, but Coloroso says that it should be taken seriously. "It’s a short walk from schoolyard bullying to hate crimes. Bullying is a conscious, wilful act intended to harm, where you get pleasure from someone’s pain. And, it is often continuous and repeated. Hate crimes start with bullying and escalate to criminal bullying," she cautions. "And, often it all starts with verbal bullying; dehumanising another person. 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me' is a lie." 

A study published in Psychological Science showed that those bullied in childhood were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder, smoke, struggle to keep work and have difficulty maintaining friendships. "Bullying is often seen as 'part of growing up' or brushed off as 'boys will be boys'. But, trying to fault the target is part of the problem. You don’t have to like every child. But, you must honour their dignity and self-worth," she says. ¦ 

*Not their real names 

This article was originally published in the 2020 TRUELOVE EDU GUIDE 

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