How To Tackle & Put A Stop To Bullying
How To Tackle & Put A Stop To Bullying

How To Tackle & Put A Stop To Bullying

Recent statistics show that nearly two thirds of children in the UK will be bullied at some point in their lives. While it might not be possible to protect your child altogether, it’s possible to reduce the frequency, intensity and impact – something psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley explains in her book ‘Bully-Proof Kids'. To mark National Bullying Prevention Month, we asked her to share her advice – from recognising the different types of bullies, to handling social media…

Let’s start at the beginning – what are the different types of bullying?

There several forms of bullying, which can broken down into the following categories:

  • Verbal – name calling or ridiculing.
  • Physical – poking, hitting, kicking or destroying property.
  • Social or relational – exclusionary behaviour.
  • Covert – lying, slyness or nasty pranks.
  • Cyberbullying – using technology to hurt someone.

There are also different types of bullies:

  • The power-driven bully – this person seeks power in any given situation and enjoys the power associated with bullying.
  • The mindless bully – someone who doesn’t know they’re bullying. They might be bored and looking for cheap thrills
  • The ‘cry’ bully – they have been bullied before and want to ‘eat rather than be eaten’.
  • The victim bully – this person obtains power and attention by calling other people bullies.

Are there different types of targets or victims, too?

Yes, targets can be broken down into different categories, too. Firstly, the ‘passive target’ is a naturally gentle person; they don’t turn to violence and they try to avoid conflict. They are typically docile and obedient, sweet-natured and kind. Bullies know that they will get away with bullying these people as they don’t tend to complain easily or fight back. If this is your child, there’s no point trying to encourage them to fight back – it’s not their style, so they’re better off learning about what’s happening, understanding the dynamic and seeking to anticipate and outsmart the bullies. 

Next, there’s the ‘accidental target’, meaning something has happened to this person. They may have slipped in front of everyone or somebody makes a funny rhyme using their name. The key aspect of this is that it’s viewed as funny and entertaining for everyone else, and unless the accidental target or their parents speak up, this situation can go on for a very long time and chip away at the person’s confidence. The target needs their parents to advocate for them to become a ‘polite nuisance’ and insist that action is taken to prevent this from this continuing as a source of entertainment. 

Finally, there’s the ‘provocative target’. This person is usually a truth-teller. They care more about telling the truth than popularity but are often surprised by the level of animosity that can rain down on them when the mob turns on them. They feel compelled to speak out about any perceived injustice. This type of target benefits from gaining an understanding of what has happened. They know they tell unpalatable truths and although they feel outraged, they feel less distressed when they realise this is not personal and generally comes from a place of fear.

Often, children can’t avoid bullies – sometimes the bullies have the target within their sights and target them relentlessly. When this happens, we need to SEEK SUPPORT FROM OTHER SOURCES – and sadly, we won’t always get it.

So, why do some children bully others?

To put it simply, the majority of children bully other people because they are seeking power and validation and see bullying as a way to obtain this.

In the book, you mention that girls are more likely to use ‘social bullying’ as a way to wield power while boys tend to use physical violence – why is this?

While this is a generalisation and there are always exceptions to the rule, it’s likely to be the impact of testosterone and oestrogen. Testosterone makes boys more physically responsive and oestrogen drives girls to create communities.

Is there a difference between teasing & taunting?

Teasing is fun and happens with people you care about. Teasing can go both ways – the teaser can also be teased within the group, so roles should be able to swap with ease. Teasing doesn’t intend to hurt and is meant to get both parties to laugh; it’s innocent in motive and maintains the dignity of everyone. It’s light hearted, funny and harmless. Teasing can turn into taunting when the target becomes upset. Taunting is contemptuous. Even though it pretends to be playful, there is little light-hearted humour and it feels deadly serious. Roles are not swapped easily between a ‘taunter’ and the target. Taunting intends to hurt, embarrass and/or humiliate. There is an imbalance of power whereby the ‘taunter’ continues even when the target becomes upset. 

Talk to us about ‘frenemies’ – how can you spot one?

A frenemy is a person who is or pretends to be a friend but who is also in some ways an enemy or rival. Often, anonymous bullying can turn out to be a supposed friend of the target. It’s a huge betrayal.

So, how can children avoid bullies?

Often, they can’t – sometimes the bullies have the target within their sights and target them relentlessly. When this happens, we need to seek support from other sources – and sadly, we won’t always get it. Other times, however, it can be stopped. These targets or sources can spot the patterns and anticipate the bullies’ actions and avoid them. The bully might be particularly bad at lunchtime or at home time and the target can begin to anticipate this and find other things to do at this time or ensure they protect themselves in other ways.

Is it ever okay to teach your child to fight back?

The ‘use of force continuum’ is used by civilians and law enforcement agents to give guidelines as to what level of force is acceptable if you are attacked. As a psychotherapist, I will always recommend talking things out first, but, if I am mugged on a lonely street without any potential of calming my aggressor down or appealing to passers-by, then I am willing to use force to ensure that I stay alive. I don’t think we should hinder children’s ability to fight back so that they can get away from their attacker. Children, just like adults, have the right to defend themselves. If a potential aggressor is violently bullying your child, your child can learn to take a flexible response and group different responses according to the severity of the attack.

A simple continuum might be:

  1. Ignore the bully.
  2. Tell the bully to stop.
  3. Tell a responsive adult.

But a more complicated continuum could be:

  1. Resist the bullies’ physical attacks.
  2. Use force equal to the level needed to escape from the bullies’ attack.
  3. Tell a responsive adult as soon as possible.
  4. Some people freeze in the face of attack and will not be able to fight back in the face of force and it is important that parents understand this and do not ask this of their child.

There’s a whole chapter in the book about bystanders. Who are these children & why can they be a problem?

Bystanders are the people who see everything but do nothing. Millions of kids today are bystanders to cruel bullying, to controlling friendships and to power plays between stronger and weaker personalities. 

It is the bystanders who are the silent majority yet they hold the majority of the power. It’s estimated that bystanders are present in 90% of cases of bullying and they can often stop the bullying within 10 seconds if they choose to intervene. The good news is that if we can obliterate the culture of bystanding, then we will significantly reduce the impact, the frequency and the duration of bullying. The bad news is that bystanders, by their very nature, seldom wish to raise their head above the parapet. 

How does bullying progress during the teenage years? 

Mindless bullying can be very prevalent in the early teen years. Then, when the teens get older, some targets will have been dehumanised and the bullying often continues into a longer dehumanising process.

Has social media made everything worse?

It has. Some social media, like Twitter for example, is designed to create ‘pile-ons’, meaning we get more likes and shares if we say something witty and critical – soundbites work to the lowest common denominator. Social media has also made bullying worse because the anonymous accounts encourage a sense of dehumanisation, which can also lead to bullying. 

Do you have any advice for parents who want to set boundaries on social media?

I know it’s unpopular, but I believe that parents should have access to their child’s social media accounts up until the middle teen years. If you can screenshot it, then it’s not really private, so parents should have access, through passwords, to all their child’s media with the understanding that you won’t trample over your child’s social media, but will keep an eye on in instead – in case you see anything inappropriate.

It is SELDOM VERY HELPFUL TO APPROACH the bully’s parents unless you know them and can make a good guess about how they might respond.

As a parent, how can you handle your child’s difficult friendships?

If your child is aged five or under, you should always intervene and stop the bullying when and where you see it. If they’re slightly older, you can still help navigate this tricky time, in a gentle roundabout manner. Firstly, gather as much information as possible. You need to chat subtly, sensitively and comprehensively with your child, with your children’s friends, with your children’s friends’ parents and with relevant teachers so as to ascertain the whole picture. There’s a whole chapter about this in my book, with practical tips on how to stop the bullying.

Who should you speak to first?

Listen to your child and figure out the situation. Then, decide upon the most appropriate adults to speak to. Primary schools can be a huge help to targets of bullying. They can make sure the child is helped in the school playground and they can help with games or activities that will help the child. Secondary schools are less able to help, but they can create practical tools like after school clubs where the target can be helped, so they always have a place to go where there is supervision and support. It’s worth noting that schools can also insist that the bully attends counselling. 

If the school is unhelpful, what can you do?

It’s important that you, as a parent, keep returning to the school – perhaps by becoming a ‘polite nuisance’ – and explaining that they will be back in a few weeks to see if the situation is being resolved. Parents can write to the Board of Management and seek a response. Ultimately though, if the school is unhelpful then they have become disengaged bystanders and can cause a lot of long-term damage. Sometimes parents need to take an executive decision and pull the child from that school. 

What about the bully’s parents? How should you interact with them?

It is seldom very helpful to approach the bully’s parents unless you know them and can make a good guess about how they might respond. 

How can you support your child after the bullying has stopped?

Lots of tenderness, kindness and understanding is essential. It can be valuable to watch lots of well-chosen films that provide the child with a sense of meaning and understanding about how humans operate. Revisiting old friends with your child and going out of your way to make sure you meet them often can be helpful as the child is reintroduced to themselves before they were bullied. You should enlist the help of close friends and family to help build up the circle of support. Also, some children might benefit from counselling to gain an understanding of what happened. 

In addition to this, you can encourage them to play or spend time in nature, which can be incredibly useful. Nature can remind the child that life can be cruel but also glorious. It also helps the child tap into a form of self-acceptance – animals are fully self-accepting and children can learn from this. 

In the book you say ‘living is the best revenge’ – what do you mean by this?

Often, people – both the target and the parents – can become obsessed with getting revenge on the bully. This can create further sourness and distress. It’s more empowering to try and be happy as revenge to the bully rather than trying to behave in a negative manner. Also, remember that bullied children tend to have a deeper understanding of people, which can turn them into empathetic and understanding adults. 

Finally, can you recommend any useful resources?  

Bullies, Bigmouths & So-Called Friends by Jenny Alexander is great for young children, while Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman is a great book for older kids. 

Bully-Proof Kids by Stella O’Malley is published by Swift Press and is available to buy from Waterstones, and other retailers. Visit 

To read one mother’s real-life experience with bullying & for a list of further resources, click here.

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