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About Sickkids
About SickKids

September 15, 2011

SickKids Expert Alert: Bullying = a relationship breakdown

One of the most complex things kids must learn isn’t in a textbook


Both at home and at school, kids learn that C-A-T will always spell cat and 1+1 will always equal two. What often isn’t taught, though, is that when it comes to learning how to get along with others, the answer isn’t always the same. Building relationships is one of the most complex things a person can learn to do and yet we receive very little formal training for this task.

Bullying often occurs because of relationship problems. When we learn to read, write and calculate there are multiple opportunities for practice. Mistakes are made and we learn from them, but when social mistakes are made, instead of providing a learning opportunity, the response is often punitive. Just as kids need practice with their ABCs and 1-2-3s, they also need practice solving social problems, connecting with others and becoming positive leaders.  

Dr. Debra Pepler, Psychologist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), is an expert in the field of bullying.

Pepler is also Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University and co-leads PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network; www.prevnet.ca ) which has produced many tools for parents, teachers, and youth.

Below you’ll find a Q & A with Pepler about what to do if your child is being bullied, how to handle the situation if your child is doing the bullying, and much more.

Let’s talk bullying with Dr. Debra Pepler- Quick Tips

What types of bullying are there? Is some bullying more detrimental than anothers?
How do you know if your child is involved in bullying?
How can parents address bullying?
What should parents do if they suspect that their child is responsible for the bullying?
What are the warning signs that your child could become a bully? Are there ways to correct these behaviours and prevent your child from becoming a bully?
If another parent or teacher notifies you that your child is bullying another child, what should you do?
Should children who bully be punished for their negative behaviour?
What should parents do if they suspect that their child is being bullied? How can parents help their child solve the bullying problem?
Are certain children more likely to be victims of bullying? 
If your child is being bullied, should you intervene or let the kids handle it themselves?
Should a bullied child be taught to fight back?
Don’t kids just grow out of bullying?

What types of bullying are there? Is some bullying more detrimental than anothers?

Bullying is the use of power and aggression over others. Children can do this in many ways including physically, verbally and socially. It can also be racial, about a disability, or sexual bullying, which we commonly call sexual harassment.  With social media, children have a new channel for bullying; cyberbullying. By using the internet, facebook or instant messaging, they can quickly spread rumours and negative comments or pictures about someone.

The general thought is that physical bullying is the worse type, and this is the type that educators most often notice. But when you ask children, they say that social bullying is the most hurtful and most damaging to the relationships with their friends and classmates. Social bullying, including cyberbullying, is the hardest to see but it can hurt the most. 

For more information about cyberbullying please see, What parents need to know about cyberbullying.

How do you know if your child is involved in bullying?

Children who bully others at school often bully at home. It is important to observe your child with siblings, friends, and even how they are with you as a parent. This will help ensure that he or she is not using power aggressively or that the aggressive behaviour is not being reinforced when children get their way or become the centre of attention.  

Children who are victimized often demonstrate a change in behaviour due to the stress it causes. They may lose interest in going to school, doing their homework, hanging out with friends, and participating in after-school activities. This type of behavioural change signals that the child is worried or anxious about something. Some children even refuse to go to school because they don’t feel safe.

How can parents address bullying?

The approach to bullying is different depending on the role that your child plays. If your child has bullied others, it is very important to provide opportunities for your child to learn why it’s wrong, the impact of his or her behaviour on others, and what they can do differently to gain attention, status and positive power in the peer group.

For parents of children who are victimized, it is important to acknowledge your child’s courage in telling you about the victimization and to stay level-headed when listening to the child describe what has happened. Parents can talk about what, if anything, their child has done to try to stop the bullying and whether it has worked. If it hasn’t worked, then the child needs support to end the bullying. A visit to the school to discuss this with the teacher is often the best strategy.

If your child shares concerns about bullying they’ve seen at school, speak to the child about what he or she has done, if anything, when they’ve seen the bullying. Encourage your child to speak to a trusted adult about their concerns after witnessing bullying.

Parents of children involved in bullying must work with the school to ensure that their children are learning in positive environments. For more information, please see Making a Difference in Bullying: what parents of young children need to know.

What should parents do if they suspect that their child is responsible for the bullying?

Parents who have a child who is bullying others can reach out to the school and help the child learn about healthy relationship strategies. The child who bullies others has not learned how to get status and positive power in positive ways. A lot can be done with that child and in the child’s peer group to shift the dynamics so that he or she learns positive leadership styles.

What are the warning signs that your child could become a bully? Are there ways to correct these behaviours and prevent your child from becoming a bully?

In early childhood all children are aggressive because they haven’t learned more sophisticated ways of solving problems by using words and being positive to achieve their goals. Children must learn to control their emotions and behaviours in order to interact successfully with others. A child who has difficulty doing this is more likely to also have trouble controlling aggression with their peers. There are also some children who learn very early that they can use their power aggressively to gain status. These are very socially skilled children who understand hierarchy and social dynamics. These children need to learn about positive rather than negative leadership. One way of resolving the issue is to ensure that more aggressive children consider the perspective of the other child and can think about how a child feels when he or she is at the receiving-end of bullying.

If another parent or teacher notifies you that your child is bullying another child, what should you do?

I think a parent should say ‘thank you’ although this is probably a difficult thing to say. Without intervention a child who bullies may go on to use power and aggression negatively in relationships throughout his or her life. Research shows that children who bully may be at risk for becoming physically aggressive with their dating partner and sexually harassing their peers.

Working together with the school, parents can think about positive strategies to help the child avoid using power aggressively and find opportunities to use power in positive ways.

Should children who bully be punished for their negative behaviour?

Children who bully need lessons in how to relate positively to others. If we use harsh forms of punishment with children who bully, they learn the wrong lesson. Consequences that teach are the best approach when addressing bullying. Some examples are writing a letter of apology, reading a section of a book and describing how bullying hurts, doing a presentation on bullying in class, spending time with younger children to learn about positive leadership, or maybe spending time away from peers who encourage the bullying. 

For more information, please see Formative consequences for children who bully.

What should parents do if they suspect that their child is being bullied? How can parents help their child solve the bullying problem?

Communication with children is a very important parenting strategy. Having a quiet time every day to catch up with your child about both the good and bad things that have happened in your day and in his or her day is one way of keeping the lines of communication open. To find out if your child is potentially being bullied, parents can ask their children questions such as; who did you have lunch with or who did you play with at recess? This will help the parent get a sense of their child’s activity and also get a sense of their isolation, which is a risk factor for victimization. If you learn that your child has been bullied it is important to speak about strategies to solve the problem. A child who is bullied is not safe and this will impact his or her learning.

Are certain children more likely to be victims of bullying?

Most children have experienced victimization at some point in their life, but for most children it doesn’t last very long. There are some children who have a difficult time defending themselves and are vulnerable in the eyes of their peers. These vulnerabilities may arise because the child is socially anxious, has some type of disability, or low self esteem. Surprisingly some kids who bully and are uncontrolled in their bullying are also at risk of being victimized. They have dual roles. These are the children we should be most worried about.

If your child is being bullied, should you intervene or let the kids handle it themselves?

A power imbalance is key to the definition of bullying. This implies that as the bullying goes on, the child being bullied loses the power in the relationship and it becomes harder and harder to escape the bullying. After listening to what your child has done to try to stop the bullying (such as walking away, ignoring it, and talking it out) it is very important that the child seeks help if the bullying has not stopped.

We don’t recommend that parents confront other parents about bullying because it is such an emotionally-laden situation when your child is at the receiving end. It is too hard to remain level-headed. Address it with the teacher, coach or whoever is responsible for the activity in which the bullying takes place.  

Should a bullied child be taught to fight back?

In our research we were able to code children’s responses to bullying and we found that when a child fought back the bullying lasted much longer. This is not a strategy that we recommend because it prolongs the bullying and it also may increase the aggression.

Don’t kids just grow out of bullying?

Some children learn the lessons that we want them to learn about positive relationships. In our own research we found a group of children who bullied at a high rate in elementary school and who decreased in high school. This group of adolescents developed positive relationships with parents and peers during high school and learned critical relationship lessons. There is a group of children however, who do continue to bully through elementary and into high school. These are the youth who are physically aggressive with dating partners and peers. Other research suggests that they will be aggressive with their marital relationship, with their children and that their children may also be involved in bullying others.

Bullying is a problem that can be most easily addressed in the early years. The earlier we intervene, the more likely we are to be successful in moving the children away from negative aggression and towards using positive strategies to build healthy relationships.

Check out other facts and myths about bullying.