…..or worse, is s/he a bully?

 These worrying questions cause many parents sleepless nights. So, what can you do about it?

People sometimes use the term “bullying” to describe all negative interactions between children; between adults; and between adults and children. But are all negative interactions bullying?

What are the essential characteristics of “bullying” behaviour?

  1. Bullying involves a power imbalance e.g. physical size, number, status etc.
  2. There is intent to cause distress.
  3. The ‘victim’ experiences distress.
  4. Without intervention, the bullying behaviour is repeated over and over again.

All four characteristics must be present, for the behaviour to constitute ‘bullying’.

Typically, boys use direct physical attacks or threats or verbal taunts, while girls use verbal taunts and social exclusion.

It can be difficult at times to distinguish bullying from boys’ rough-and-tumble play fighting.  Boys’ physicality is often an important part of their ‘makeup’ as a male – hence their interest in and passion for physical gross motor activities such as sport.  On the other hand, girls’ social communication skills are often an important part of their ‘makeup’ as a female and are well-developed at an early age.  These gender differences are not mandatory for each individual boy and girl, but are commonly noted among different gender groups.  They’re neither good nor bad; they just are.  However, both physicality and social communication skills can be misused, to the detriment of others.

So, when your child comes home from school and says – Fred hurt me or Mary was mean to me – don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that your child is the ‘victim’ of a ‘bully’, and that the ‘bully’ needs to be punished and kept away from the ‘victim’.

How else can you respond as a parent?



  • Listen attentively, whenever your child is relaying events/experiences/feelings…
  • Acknowledge the situation without judging it, e.g. That sounds tricky – what did you do? Are you feeling OK now? If not, Who could you talk with, to help you work out what to do next? In other words, try to keep your own emotions under control, particularly the desire to hurt the other child/ren yourself!
  • Support your child to talk to the teacher about the situation, so they can discuss the situation and work on strategies together. If your child refuses, alert teaching staff to your child’s comments and ask if they can help your child to work through it + ask if they have any tips for you.
  • Because bullying involves a power imbalance, it’s important to see your child as powerful or potentially powerful, rather than sending them the message that you see them as a powerless victim. The challenge is to help your child to find the strategy/ies that enable them to have power.  


  • Underestimate your child’s potential to work through their relationship difficulties, and their ability to seek adult assistance (when needed) to support their efforts to negotiate solutions with others.
  • Reward your child when they complain, by only half-listening to them at other times, BUT giving them lots and lots of attention when they complain about others! They quickly learn that’s how to get your undivided attention – a very effective attention-eliciting strategy, they can use over and over again!!!
  • Over-react emotionally when your child describes a negative interaction with another child (don’t forget you’re only hearing one side of the story!), and automatically blame the other child/ren or use negative name-calling –  don’t forget you’re showing your child how to act in difficult situations!
  • Suggest your child retaliate by hurting the other child/ren physically or by name-calling – this will escalate the negative interaction, not solve it!
  • Approach the other child/ren yourself and then lecture, threaten or hurt them – this will escalate the negative interaction, not solve it!
  • Underestimate the possibility that your child is an active player in seeking out the interaction or finding reward in taking on the role of ‘victim’.


Blame and punishment don’t change behaviour – they merely drive it underground. Rather than unintentionally ‘rewarding’ your child (through lots of attention) when s/he complains, focus instead on supporting them to be active, assertive problem-solvers – so they learn that they can often change an outcome by changing their own behaviour, rather than simply blaming others.