Last updated: February 18, 2021
Bullying is intentional, hurtful and aggressive behaviour that makes others feel uncomfortable, scared or upset.
A person who shows bullying behaviour usually picks on another person’s culture, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, looks, religion, or sexual orientation.
Thought: Bullying doesn’t happen at our school.
Reality check: Bullying is serious – it affects more people than we realize.
- 1 in 3 Canadian teens say they’ve been bullied recently
- Almost half of Canadian parents say their kid has been bullied
- Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, two-spirited, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) are discriminated against three times more than heterosexual students
It’s important to know the difference between bullying and single acts of aggression or conflict. Not all mean or rude behaviour or conflict is bullying.
Understanding the difference helps when it comes to knowing how to intervene.
Mean: Saying or doing something on purpose to hurt someone without consistency
Mean behaviour aims to hurt someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize things about another person (e.g. clothing, intelligence, coolness, etc.). Usually, mean things are said impulsively and then often regretted later.
Mean behaviour can be triggered by feelings of anger, frustration or jealousy. A kid might say something mean to make themselves look better in comparison to another person.
Being mean can sound like:
- "Are you seriously wearing that sweater again? Didn’t you just wear it, like, last week?"
- "Get a life."
- "You’re so fat/ugly/stupid."
- "I hate you!"
Mean behaviour causes damage. It’s behaviour that should not happen – it should be discouraged and stopped.
Conflict: A disagreement or difference between peers who have equal power
Conflict is an inevitable part of a group dynamic.
Here’s an example of conflict: Two girls on the basketball team are arguing with each other about losing a game. One of the girls blames the other for letting the opposing team knock the ball out of her hands before she could throw it. The other girl is saying it’s her teammate's fault because she didn’t pass the ball during the last few seconds of the game. They continue to fight until their coach gets involved and tells the girls to stop arguing.
In this scenario, both girls have equal power and are disagreeing over the outcome of a game. Neither girl has been threatened or harmed, and neither is showing signs of humiliation or distress.
It would be considered bullying if one of the girls continued an intentional campaign of blame against the other to hurt her feelings or alienate her from her friends. This could include several actions over the course of a few days or weeks – doing things like calling her names, taunting her outside of the gymnasium, or even getting others to gang up on her.
Age-appropriate behaviour: Negative actions that can be a normal part of growing up
A normal part of child development includes occasionally being mean or rude. Children can do unkind things to others and have no intention to hurt them and also don't get any pleasure from hurting them.
This is because, during preschool and early elementary years, kids have limited ability to manage their behaviours. They may use negative actions as a part of testing boundaries and figuring out their place.
For example, a young child might shove another child because they feel frustrated or they don't know how to ask to play. It's not necessarily bullying.
Some degree of socially imperfect behaviour is normal – not everything needs an adult response. Use these moments as an opportunity to teach how to communicate or how to express anger or anxiety acceptably.
When bad behaviour happens, if the child on the receiving end is only upset for a little while but then seems fine, it’s probably not bullying. But if that child becomes withdrawn, doesn’t want to go to school, or is worried about why the other child does not like them, you should investigate.
What is bullying - A persistent pattern of unwelcome or aggressive behaviour that hurts others physically and/or emotionally
For a situation to be considered a bullying incident, three indicators are usually present:
- Power – children who bully acquire their power through physical size and strength, by status within the peer group, and by recruiting support of the group
- Frequency – bullying is not a random act. It is this factor that brings about the anticipatory terror in the mind of the child being bullied that can be so detrimental and have the most debilitating long-term effects
- Intent to harm – children who bully generally do so with the intent to either physically or emotionally harm the other child
A person who shows bullying behaviour says or does something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse – even when it’s obvious that they’ve hurt a person or when they’re asked to stop.
These are a few signs that could indicate the need to check-in with your child and start a conversation.
Signs that your child is being bullied
Kids who are being bullied by others will often display a change in behaviour or emotions, like:
- Not wanting to go to school or participate in extra-curricular activities
- Anxious, fearful or over-reactive
- Having low self-esteem and making negative comments about themselves or a former friend
- Regular complaints of stomachaches, headaches, and other physical symptoms without any particular cause
- Less interest in school (i.e. drop in grades, development of learning issues)
- Injuries, bruising, damaged clothing or broken items
- Unhappy and irritable
- Trouble sleeping, nightmares, bedwetting
- Frequent crying
- Threatens to hurt themself or others
- Significant changes in social life (i.e. no one is calling or inviting them out)
Signs that your child is engaging in bullying behaviour
Kids who exhibit bullying behaviour may show signs that they are using power aggressively, such as:
- Little concern for the feelings of others
- Aggressive with siblings, parents, teachers, friends and animals
- Bossy and manipulative to get their own way
- Coming home with unexplained objects or extra money
- Secretive about possessions, activities or where they've been
- Easily frustrated and quickly angered
- Believe aggression is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts
- Abuse others physically or verbally
- Get into fights and blame others for starting them
- Have a need to dominate others
- Have two or three friends who are also aggressive
- Hang out with increasingly younger children
- Quick to interpret accidents or neutral events as deliberate hostile acts
Hitting, kicking, tripping, pinching, pushing, damaging property
Name-calling, insulting others, teasing, intimidating others, making homophobic or racist comments, verbal abuse
Social and emotional (or relational)
Doing things to harm someone else’s reputation or make them feel embarrassed or humiliated – doing things like:
- Spreading rumours
- Making mean facial gestures
- Playing mean jokes
- Mimicking others in a mean way
- Excluding someone
This type of bullying is one of the most harmful. It leaves victims feeling rejected or depressed – with no way out.
It’s also difficult to recognize this type of bullying because it can be done behind someone’s back.
Teasing or humiliating a person online using:
- Social media
- Cruel websites (e.g. posting photos of others on rating websites)
- Video games
- Chat rooms
- Instant message or texting
Cyberbullying is constantly evolving and changing with new technology and social media sites. It can happen at any time of day or night and can reach a person even in the privacy of their own home.
Bullying is serious – the effects can be traumatic and long-lasting. Victims can show a range of emotional, behavioural, physical and relationship problems.
Kids who get bullied can end up feeling:
- Different from their peers
- Weak or unable to defend themselves
- Depressed or anxious
- Like withdrawing from friends or family
It can also cause them to have:
- Low self-esteem, loneliness and social anxiety
- Health problems
- Problems going to school regularly
- Suicidal thoughts
Some adults who were bullied in their youth report extended psychological harm into adulthood, like continued distress, self-blame, fear, and internalized problems like depression.
You have the power to stand up for what’s right and stand up for each other. Someone showing bullying behaviour loses their control if they don’t have an audience watching them.
If you see bullying, you can stop it within 10 seconds of getting involved. You could try:
- Saying something like, “leave him alone,” or “cut it out.”
- Defending the victim
- Directing attention away from the bullying
- Getting support from friends to stand up against bullying
- Reporting the bullying to adults
Don’t be a bystander and encourage bullying behaviour by:
- Laughing, cheering or recording it
- Forwarding bullying photos or texts
- Visiting websites that target a specific person
- “Liking” mean comments or photos on social media
- Joining in on the bullying
You become part of the problem by watching bad things happen and not doing or saying anything about it.
Work together. Parents, students and school staff all need to work together to create a school environment where everyone feels safe, accepted and respected – regardless of their gender, race, culture, religion, or sexual orientation.
Stand up for yourself. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Tell the person to stop bullying. Don't fight or plan any acts of revenge.
Be smart. Stick close to your friends and avoid being alone. Don’t delete messages, photos, texts or emails – they can be used as evidence.
Get help. Tell an adult what happened – try to provide as many details as you can. They'll be able to offer support and get involved in a positive way. It's normal to feel scared, angry or confused – you can ask for counseling or support with this.
Parents, be a support. Here are some ways parents can help fight bullying behaviour.
Here are some tips to help you start the conversation.
If your child is being bullied
- Choose an appropriate time to talk with your child – use open-ended questions, for example:
- "What did you like the most about your day?"
- "What was the most frustrating part of your day?"
- Listen – let your child do the talking, encourage them to describe the bullying in as much detail as they can and document it
- Make sure your child knows that its okay for them to feel the way they do
- Paraphrase what you heard – this will help them feel understood and open to having help
- Give them tips and tricks on how to handle bullying behaviour or how to resolve conflict in a non-aggressive way and show them how to get help
- Act out a scenario and have your child confidently handle the situation
- Create opportunities to make new friends – for example, enrol your child in different programs or activities
- Encourage your child to stay away from anyone who shows bullying behaviour
- Make sure your child knows that it’s okay to stand up for themselves, but it’s not okay to be violent or aggressive
If your child is exhibiting bullying behaviour
If you suspect or have been told that your child is exhibiting bullying behaviour, you need to take it seriously and address the situation in a calm, open-minded manner.
- You should make it very clear that the bullying behaviour must stop immediately
- Ask your child about their friends and what they do together
- Find out if something is happening at school or at home that is causing them to act out
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to open up
- Paraphrase what you heard and have them take ownership over their actions
- Set appropriate consequences
Work with your school to intervene in bullying behaviour and support the children involved. Ultimately, kids who feel connected at school tend to do better – it promotes positive mental health and wellness. Also, schools are in a good position to offer support:
- They have codes of conduct and policies that address bullying and inappropriate behaviour
- They have staff who are trained to deal with bullying intervention and know about resources you can use
Know the policies, procedures and escalation process in your school district and find out what is best for your child’s circumstance. Make sure you get a copy of the code of conduct from your child’s school. This is often found on the school district website.
Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher, principal or school counsellor and give them the details of the incident. Ask them what their policies are for dealing with bullying and inappropriate behaviour and find out how they are going to address the incident and when. Here are some questions:
- How can we work together to stop my child from being bullied?
- What steps will you take to investigate the bullying?
- What type of disciplinary action would you consider appropriate?
- What can I expect in terms of follow up and resolution?
- What policies do you have in place that support children like mine, and discourage bullying and other violent behaviours?
Allow the school to investigate the incident and notify the parents of the students involved, if this hasn’t already been done. The school will determine appropriate disciplinary action, if required, and will come up with an intervention plan to support the children or youth involved.
Parents should stay connected and check to see if the situation has improved. As a parent, you can expect action and support from your school. Ask to be kept in the loop on progress and action, and involved in conversations about support for your child.
If you don’t feel the school is taking your report of bullying seriously, you can report it to school district staff (e.g. safe school coordinator, superintendent).
If you’re not satisfied with the school’s response, you can appeal the decision to the board of education. If that doesn’t resolve your concern, you can appeal the matter to the superintendent of achievement.
If you feel your child is not safe, report the situation to your local police and the school.