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How to deal with bullying at school

Knowing your child is being bullied is horrible and can affect your whole family. Fortunately, all state schools are legally required to have an anti-bullying policy in place, so you can solve the problem and stop your child's suffering.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Mar 10, 2023

sad girl looks at computer monitor

Kids can be cruel to one another, but that doesn't mean bullying is part and parcel of childhood. It's not. Bullying often involves behaviour that in the adult world would be regarded as criminal, and children who bully others need to learn that their behaviour is unacceptable. Whether your child is the victim of bullying or the bully themselves, it can be a difficult and upsetting thing to deal with. Here are a few things to consider if you're dealing with bullying at school.

What counts as bullying?

Bullying can take many forms, but these are some of the behaviours that amount to bullying:

  • Physical abuse – hitting, pushing, kicking, hair-pulling

  • Verbal abuse – spreading untrue stories, calling names, unpleasant teasing

  • Emotional abuse – cutting people off, tormenting, humiliating, using homophobic or racist language towards them

  • Cyber abuse – cruel and threatening text messaging, sending scary or upsetting photos or posting them on websites, spreading rumours online

How do I know if my child is being bullied?

Hopefully, if you always let your child know they can come to you for help, and encourage them to talk to you about school, their friends and what's important in their lives, they will tell you if they're being bullied. But many don't, so whatever you do, don't waste time feeling guilty about it.

If they haven't told you about it, you might still spot enough clues to realise what's going on and hopefully get them to open up.

Spotting the signs of bullying

Look out for some or all of the following:

  • Suddenly not wanting to go to school

  • A change in behaviour or mood, perhaps being naughty or spiteful at home when they never have before

  • Complaining of headaches and tummy aches, particularly at bedtime or first thing in the morning

  • Being suddenly quiet and withdrawn

  • Not sleeping properly or bed-wetting

  • Changes in eating habits or losing weight

  • Suddenly doing less well at school

  • Bruises or other unexplained injuries

  • Lost or broken possessions

  • Taking a different route to or from school, or being late home

How to spot the signs of cyberbullying

This is new territory for many parents who may not have had mobile phones at school or the kind of online access some children have today. Here are a few signs to look out for that might mean your child is being bullied online or by phone:

  • Seeming upset or cagey after texting or being online

  • Suddenly being on their phone or online much more or much less

  • Having lots of new contact numbers or addresses suddenly showing up on their devices

Remember that 'old-school' bullying and cyberbullying are the same problem and it's quite likely there will be elements of both at play, so don't assume that, if your child has told you it's all happening at lunchtimes, cyberbullying isn't a factor. Likewise, if your child is receiving threatening texts, don't assume it won't spill over into the playground.

What should I do if my child is being bullied at school?

Bullying affects children in both primary and secondary school. The NSPCC says that, regardless of their age, listening carefully to what they tell you. Don't judge, ask if they did anything to cause it, or dismiss it as 'part of growing up'. Following that, keep a diary of what's happening and talk to the school about it about it.

There are many more things you can do to help, so you'll need to decide which steps are most appropriate for the situation.

Talk to your child about the bullying

As the NSPCC suggests, make it clear that you take the problem seriously. Don't agree to keep it a secret: explain to your child that bullying is behaviour that would be criminal if it involved grown-ups and that it's crucial to stop it – for other kids' sake as well as theirs.

Talk to your child's school about the bullying

Find out about the procedure for tackling bullying at your child's school. It might mean bringing it up with their class teacher first, then head of year, then the headteacher. Ask to look at the school's anti-bullying policy and ensure the steps outlined are being followed for your child.

Help your child devise strategies to deal with bullies

How your child wants to respond will depend on what they feel most comfortable with. You may want to suggest they:

  • Look like they don't care and walk away (bullies generally thrive on getting a reaction)

  • Stand tall and try to look confident and sound confident in their responses

  • Avoid the bully/bullies if possible. Your child shouldn't have to change their routine or live in fear but, if there's an easy option that won’t involve confrontation, it's often best to take it

  • Ask one of your child's friends to buddy up with them in the playground. This will mean they aren't alone and might help them feel more confident

Tempting though it is, it's probably best to avoid encouraging them to retaliate with physical or verbal abuse. It might muddy the waters if the bully can say it was six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Encourage them to develop their own support network

Encourage your child to make friends with other children in their class. Invite friends round for tea and do all you can to get your child invited to their friends' houses. Make it easy for them to form friendships – depending on their age that might mean playdates and getting to know other parents, or offering lifts to an older child and their mates on evenings out.

Go a bit easy on them

We're not suggesting they should get away with murder but, if they're having a horrible time at school, it's extra important that they feel safe, secure and loved at home. If that means they don't get shouted at for not doing their share of chores for a few weeks, or you let the odd little outburst go, it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of parenting them and it might just make it easier for them to get through this nasty time.

Bullying at school and the law

By law, all state schools are required to have a behaviour policy which addresses bullying. The school must tell all pupils, teachers and parents about their policy. However, although guidance is available from the government, it is up to each school to create their own policy.

Schools in England, Wales and most Scottish schools must also follow UK anti-discrimination laws, which means they have a duty to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation in school. Northern Ireland has slightly different anti-discrimination laws.

Dealing with bullying in a private school

Private schools are not subject to the same laws as state schools, but you still have plenty of recourse if your child is being bullied at an independent school. Firstly, any school worth its salt will want to deal with the issue successfully, and although they aren't governed by a Local Education Authority, they are still registered with the Department for Education and subject to Ofsted inspections – so they aren't a total law unto themselves.

However, if you've spoken to the teachers and head directly and feel you aren't getting what you need, you could write to the school's governors and also to any bodies the school is accredited by, such as the Independent Schools Association, The Society of Heads or the Girls' School Association.

When to call the police about bullying at school

In extreme cases, don't rule out getting the police involved, especially as serious bullying is likely to be taking place off as well as on school premises. Several Mumsnetters have reported helpful action from the police.

How to help your child recover from bullying

Bullying is horrendous, primarily for your child, but also for their family, and there's a sense of enormous relief when it comes to an end.

It's important to recognise that what happened was traumatic. Lots of children feel emotionally bruised for months or even years to come, and it's vital to make it clear that's an understandable and common reaction.

Let them know that, while it's best to move on and put it behind them, no one expects them to suddenly be best friends with the child/ren who bullied them.

Hopefully, the bullying has stopped for good but keep a lookout for the warning signs and ask teachers to continue to monitor things at school. Check in with your child regularly and ask how things are going. Sustain friendships and support networks you started when the bullying was happening. The more confident and resilient your child feels, the easier they will find it to cope.

If you think your child is still feeling upset or anxious about events, speak to your GP about getting them some additional help. It might also be worth asking whoever deals with pastoral care at school if they have counsellors or a buddy system in place to help them through this period.

What to do if your child is bullying others

The bully isn't always someone else's kid – it's equally horrifying and upsetting to discover your own child is being cruel to a classmate.

The best thing to do is act fast – your child needs to know that this is unacceptable behaviour and you won't let it continue. Then your child needs to admit, atone, apologise: acknowledge what has happened, understand why it has been hurtful and harmful, and say sorry for it.

If you can, help them break the pattern. If it's possible to work out when the bullying happens and what sorts of situations are prompting your child to do this, you can remove them from those situations (even if temporarily) or help them get through them without resorting to horrible behaviour.

It's important to find out how the school is going to deal with it so you can make sure you are both on the same page and doing whatever is needed at home to support the teachers in dealing with the situation at school.

'I was really shocked when I was telephoned by school regarding my daughter and her behaviour. She was part of a group of girls and one of them had been increasingly left out of things or ignored. I think it had started as a bit of fun but had got out of hand. The school had dealt with it and we reinforced the message at home – that the behaviour was unpleasant and unacceptable and there was no excuse and no discussion. She was a bit subdued for a few days, as were the others in the group, but within a week it was all over and they were friends again.

Where can I get support if my child is being bullied?

The charity has lots of useful advice on its website and there is also a helpline you can ring: 0808 800 2222.

Finally, keep believing that, while bullying is awful, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

A year later and he has no more problems, is house captain and generally happy at school. There was a lingering issue around a hurtful nickname, which one of them invented, but I asked him yesterday and even that doesn't seem to be a problem now. 
He doesn't yet seem to have a best friend yet but he does seem happy at school now.