What is bullying?
Bullying is when people deliberately use words or actions repeatedly against an individual or a group to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. They usually want to make the person feel less powerful or helpless.
It can happen anywhere — at school, at work, at home, online, or via text messaging or email. Bullying can come in different forms, all of which cause distress and pain for the person who is being bullied.
Bullying can be:
- physical, such as hitting, poking, tripping or pushing
- verbal, such as name calling, insults or abuse
- social (covert or hidden), such as lying about someone, spreading rumours, mimicking or deliberately excluding someone
- psychological, such as threatening, manipulating or stalking behaviour
- online, often referred to as cyberbullying, which means using technology such as email, mobile phones, chat rooms or networking sites to bully verbally, socially or psychologically. It can involve sharing of photos which upset or embarrass the person being bullied and taunting or malicious comments. Often people who bully online also bully in person.
- behaviour at work that is physically, mentally or socially threatening. This can include intimidation, threats, exclusion, verbal or physical abuse.
Bullying is not the same as harassment. While harassment can be an element of bullying, harassment can be a one-off conflict or can happen between strangers. Bullying is repeated behaviour that intends to cause physical, social or psychological harm.
Why do people bully?
There are different reasons why people bully, including:
- wanting to dominate others and improve their social status
- having low self-esteem
- having a lack of remorse or failing to recognise their behaviour as a problem
- feeling angry or frustrated
- struggling socially
- being the victim of bullying themselves
Some children who bully may enjoy getting their own way. Others may like conflict and aggression. Some may be thoughtless, rather than deliberately hurtful. Some may have difficulties with health, schoolwork and self-esteem. And some may be emotionally neglected, bullied, abused or be experiencing violence themselves.
Bullies are more likely to have lifelong issues such as depression or problems with aggression. But early treatment can prevent this from happening.
Children can take on different roles in different circumstances. Those who are bullied in one situation may be the bully in another.
What are the signs my child is being bullied?
Bullying can happen to anyone at any age. Very few children tell anyone that they’re being bullied. They may feel weak, ashamed or frightened it will make the situation worse. Signs your child is possibly being bullied include:
- not wanting to go to school
- being unusually secretive and quiet
- having no friends
- appearing oversensitive or weepy
- having angry outbursts
- having damaged or missing belongings
- having physical injuries like bruises, cuts or scratches
- not sleeping properly
- wetting the bed
- becoming isolated and withdrawn
- losing interest in normal activities
- having physical aches and pains like headaches or stomach aches
- receiving more messages than usual via social media
How might bullying affect me or my child?
Bullying affects everyone differently, but if you’re being bullied you may feel:
- guilty because you think it’s your fault
- hopeless because you don’t know how to get out of the situation
- alone, with no one to help you
- depressed and rejected by others
- unsafe and afraid
- confused and stressed
- ashamed that it’s happening to you
Bullying can affect your mental health at any age. It can lead to loneliness, anxiety and depression in children. People who are bullied in the workplace have a higher risk than others of experiencing depression and having suicidal thoughts.
Remember, you have a right to feel safe and be treated with fairness and respect. Find out more about your rights on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.
How can bullying be stopped?
If bullying is not challenged and stopped, it can contribute to a culture where bullying is tolerated and everyone feels powerless to stop it.
If you are the person being bullied, you may need to use a few different strategies, such as:
- talking to a person you trust
- taking someone you trust with you when you seek help or talk to the bully
- writing what you want to say to the bully in an email or letter
If you feel safe and confident, you can approach the bully about why their behaviour is not OK.
If your child is being bullied:
- help your child stay focused on finding a solution
- assure your child it’s not their fault
- talk to your child about different ways to relate to the bully and practise with them through role play
- let your child know you will contact their school
If it’s violent or threatening, tell the police.
Your employer has a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace, and a duty of care when it comes to your health and wellbeing at work. You can read more about workplace bullying on the Fair Work Commission’s website.
Resources and support
Do you prefer languages other than English? Health Translations offers translated factsheets on bullying:
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Last reviewed: March 2020