understanding bullying - for family

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A note on family

At headspace, family is defined uniquely by each young person. Family is considered an integral part of a young person’s circle of care. Family and other caregivers – whether by birth, choice or circumstance – hold a significant role in supporting a young person. The term family may include parents, caregivers, siblings, partners, Elders, kin, mentors and other community members who are viewed by the young person as people who play a significant emotional, cultural, faith-based or other role in their life.


What is bullying?

Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, and/or social behaviour by one or more people towards someone where there is an intention to cause fear, distress or harm. Usually this involves a person or group of people exerting their power over someone who feels less powerful. Bullying is not just ‘playing around’ or harmless fun – it can be very damaging to a young person’s mental health. 

Bullying can take many forms. It can be physical (e.g., hurting people or their property) and/or verbal (e.g., name-calling and threatening others) and it can occur in many different environments, such as face-to-face, over the phone or online (cyberbullying). Bullying can also be hidden or ‘covert’, for example, by deliberately excluding others or spreading rumours. This type of bullying can be much harder to pick up on and understand.  

Unfortunately bullying is common – if your young person is being bullied, it's important they know they are not alone and that you are there to support them.

Family can play a critical role in supporting young people involved in or experiencing bullying. Positive relationships can help protect young people from the negative impact of being bullied. Family also plays a key role in supporting the development of young people’s social and emotional skills, their relationships with peers and their coping skills. These skills can help young people understand and respond to bullying more constructively. 


Download our fact sheet on bullying

(PDF 396kb)

Understanding bullying - for family and friends

Why does bullying happen? 

There are many reasons why bullying happens. Someone who bullies others may not value or feel good within themselves or they may have also experienced bullying or violence. They might use bullying as a way of making themselves feel more powerful or to ‘look cool’ in front of others. Bullying behaviour can also be motivated by jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear, or misunderstanding. Sometimes people bully others because they feel threatened in their social group and are trying to feel more secure. The person bullying others can have a lot of social power within their group but may be using this in a damaging way to hurt others. 


What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying is not simply ‘a normal part of growing up’ or part of learning how to stand up to others. Young people who have been bullied may feel alone, unsafe, afraid, stressed, humiliated, ashamed and rejected. They might feel that there is no escape and may take measures to ‘fit in’ by changing their appearance, acting differently, or hurting themselves or others. 

Research shows that being bullied can have serious effects on a young person's physical and mental health, and their performance at school and at work. Bullying can also have negative effects on a young person’s family and the broader community. Severe bullying, especially peer bullying, can be very traumatic for young people, as peer relationships are particularly important at this stage of life.


How to talk about bullying

Finding out if a young person is involved in, or experiencing, bullying can be difficult. Sometimes family and close friends don’t know about it or can underestimate the frequency or severity of the situation. Family and friends are often in a good position to notice changes in behaviour, mood and general wellbeing as well as early signs of mental and physical health issues. Not all young people will ask for help, and it may take time for a young person to speak about their experiences. 


What to say 

If you suspect that bullying is an issue for a young person close to you, ask them about their situation using questions, such as:  

  • Is there much bullying going on at your school/workplace?
  • Have you ever had an experience of being bullied? 
  • What happens and what is that like? 


It is important to understand that they may not necessarily feel like talking about it. Encourage them to speak to someone they feel comfortable with and don't take it personally if they want to speak to someone other than you. 

If they want to talk to you about their experiences, here are some suggestions for how you can respond:  

  • Take your time to listen without judgment and hold back from jumping straight into solutions 

  • Stay calm which might be a challenge if you feel upset about other people’s bullying behaviour 

  • Show empathy - you could say something like “That sounds really difficult”.  

  • Ask questions like: "How are you coping with that?” or “Do you think anyone else is aware it is going on?".

  • Let them know they are not alone. It may help them to know that unfortunately bullying is quite common and that many other young people experience similar difficulties. 

  • Reassure them that they can get support to deal with bullying and things can get better. They don’t have to handle this situation by themselves. You might say: “It sounds really tough”,  "Do you think we could talk a bit more together to figure out how I might be able to best support you?" or "Is there anything I can help you with?".

  • Let them know that physical violence is never OK.


What to do

  • Help them decide how to approach the situation in future. This can help build your young person’s confidence and discourage strategies that are unlikely to be helpful (e.g., revenge tactics, starting a fight).  

  • Discuss who they could talk to about the situation and how they are feeling (such as a trusted adult)  

  • If the bullying is occurring at school, an option is to talk to the school (preferably with the young person) about the bullying behaviour and impact. Seek advice about possible actions to put an end to the bullying behaviour. Schools, Unis, TAFEs and work-places have anti-bullying policies and are legally required to respond to bullying incidents.

  • Make sure they are safe. Sometimes this may mean that you are required to act even if they are not happy with it. If this is the case, be ‘up front’ with them about their safety being the priority. In the long run they will usually understand that you are acting in their best interests

  • Suggest your young person keeps a record of events. Documentation will be useful if the issue needs to be taken further (i.e., with the school, police or support services).  Suggest recording when it occurred, who was involved, what happened, where it happened, whether anyone else saw it happen, what type of bullying occurred (physical, verbal, online), whether anyone intervened and whether it has happened before. 

  • Encourage them to stay connected to supportive friends or make new friends and maintain existing positive relationships, both online and offline. Encourage them to spend time with others away from where the bullying is happening. 

  • Support them to maintain or develop ways of managing everyday life using our 7 tips for a healthy headspace.

  • Support them to seek professional help. If the bullying continues to affect your young person’s wellbeing. Their general practitioner (GP), eheadspace (online and phone support) or their local headspace centre is a good place to start

  • Be aware of your own responses to the bullying. The thought of your young person bullying others or being left out or victimised can be very distressing, and you might feel a responsibility to respond to the bullying or want to take drastic measures to protect your young person. Take time to look after yourself and seek help from someone you trust, such as a close family member, a GP or a mental health professional.   


What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that uses electronic types of communication to carry out the behaviour. This can include sending harmful texts or emails, excluding others from online groups, spreading gossip and making comments on social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or YouTube. This type of bullying can be anonymous and reach a wide audience. Unlike face- to-face bullying, cyberbullying can go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so people on the receiving end don’t get a rest from it. 

Practical cyberbullying tips

Discuss ways to address the cyberbullying. Doing this together can help build your young person’s confidence when taking further steps to address the bullying.

Talk with your young person about:

  • keeping a record of what is happening. Taking screen shots of the evidence is helpful if the issue needs to be taken further
  • not responding to the bullying and blocking the person
  • using privacy settings online and making information visible to friends only
  • reporting the incident/s to the social media service. The eSafety Guide has reporting links for social media services, apps, games and websites.

If after 48 hours the image or content has not been removed by the site, or your young person is feeling afraid or threatened, they might want to make a complaint to the eSafety Commissioner.


What if your young person is doing the bullying?   

Family is usually shocked and upset to find out their young person has been involved in bullying. Remember, young people who bully others also need you to listen, love, support and offer suggestions to help them to change their behaviour. Here are some suggestions:  

  • Discuss with your young person the importance of respect, communication and caring about other people’s feelings. 

  • Provide opportunities for them to be involved in positive social situations that foster cooperation and social skills. 


Fortnightly chats: Adults Supporting Young People

Looking after yourself

Family and friends often neglect their own needs because they are busy looking after others, or because they feel guilty taking time for themselves. It’s important that, while you take care of someone, you also look after your own mental health. Check out our tips on self care for family and friends, talk to someone you trust, or seek professional help.

Where to get help

If someone you know is involved in or experiencing bullying, or if you need support, visit eheadspace (online and phone support) or find your nearest headspace centre.

Parent helplines operate in every State and Territory of Australia – Google search ‘Parentline’ along with your State or Territory.

For immediate help contact triple zero (000) if it is an emergency

National 24/7 crisis services

Additional youth support services


Other useful resources


The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. An earlier edition of this content was developed in partnership with the Telethon Kids Institute.

Last reviewed February 2024

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