Bullying continues to be an awful problem for many children. Our first step needs to be to listen to our children’s story and support their feelings, although this may not be enough to solve the problem.

Kiwi culture

It is still common today for a child to go to a parent or teacher because they are being tormented by another child, only to be rebuffed with ‘Don’t be a tell-tale.’

A kind and caring parent or teacher may well think that they are offering good advice…..

  • “Don’t let them know you’re scared”
  • “Just walk away”
  • “Find another friend to play with”
  • “Give as good as you get

But our children usually cannot carry out such actions.

This is not good enough. You shut your child down without getting the information necessary for you to distinguish between a child who needs support to solve his own problem and a child who has a problem he cannot solve for himself and needs adult intervention.

‘You’ve got to learn to take a tease’

Accepting mild teasing with good grace is part of learning to tolerate the ordinary frustrations of life. Some children have the sort of humour and resilience that means it is never an issue while other children are much more sensitive and are easily moved to tears. However, there is a fine line between teasing and taunting.

Zero tolerance at home

What can we, as ordinary parents, do to stop bullying? Our first step is to deal with what we see happening in front of us. Refuse to tolerate unkindness, whether physical or verbal. Name it and stop it.

  • ‘That’s an unkind thing to say. We don’t tolerate unkindness in this family.’
  • ‘This is a no-hitting zone. Go to your room until you’re ready to play peacefully.
  • ‘I won’t accept you talking to your brother like that. That’s totally unacceptable.’

This policy is good for everyone. The little thug learns not to be a little thug.

Listen with empathy

Ask your child, ‘How was your day?’ and listen for the answer. If she complains about being hassled:

  • Don’t blame (‘Well, what did you do to her?)
  • Don’t criticize (‘Why can’t you just laugh it off?’)
  • Don’t contradict (‘But she seems such a nice girl’)
  • Don’t lecture (‘You have to get on with all sorts of people’)
  • Don’t explain (‘He’s probably just jealous if you.’)
  • Don’t problem-solve (‘Well, next time just find someone nicer to sit with’)

When your child tells you about something that was unpleasant for him, reflect his feelings and respond with similar intensity:

  • ‘How awful for you.’
  • ‘What a nasty thing to do.’
  • ‘That is just a dreadful thing to have happen to you.’
  • ‘How unkind.’

Remember at this point you are information-gathering. Place yourself on your child’s side (if you’re not on his side, who will be?).

Girl or boy bullying?

Boys tend to bully by picking on differences, teasing with words, jostling and outright scrapping. Girl bullying is much more subtle behaviour but even more damaging. They are the masters – or maybe mistresses – of the tongue-click accompanied by the eye-roll, the note-passing, the text-message, the snide remark and horrible exclusion.

Helping them to help themselves

Focused empathy may be all you need, so show your child you are listening and want the information.

“Okay, here’s the plan. Every afternoon after school I am going to ask you how your day was and I’m going to take notes because what you say is important to me.” Then do that for a fortnight. Each day, listen with empathy, show sympathy and write down key reminders.

After a week or so, your child may not have anything bad to report and the careful listening you have done has enabled your child to solve the problem themselves.

And with any luck, while you were busy listening and note-taking you were too busy to blame, criticize, lecture and problem-solve!

And if this is not enough?

If focused empathy, zero tolerance at home and role-playing don’t stop the problem – for a short time anyway – you know this problem is too hard for your child to solve on her own. Adult intervention is going to be needed.

Remember that bullying is bad for your child and bad for the bully. You are well justified in seeking help.

Approaching the school

Start with the classroom teacher and take the approach that essentially says, ‘this is what is happening; this is what we’ve tried, my child is distressed, I need your help.’

Respect the fact that classroom teachers are very busy people who cannot watch everything in the playground and ask them what it would be possible to do to keep your child feeling safe in the playground.

If you get the “Well, we can’t be watching them all the time” treatment, go back to quietly stating:

  • My child is very unhappy and worried
  • I need your help
  • What do you suggest?(Remember to leave a good long pause so the problem stays with the teacher).

It is a teacher’s role to be responsible for your child’s safety – in loco parentis (in place of the parent) – and the school has an obligation by law to watch out for your child’s safety.

Don’t give up

If this approach proves to be ineffective, be prepared to go higher up. Make an appointment to see the principal or, failing that, the chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

Follow Up

If the strategy (whatever it is) is working, the teacher needs to know. Dealing with bullying at school is hard work; your child’s teacher needs your feedback and appreciation. Similarly, the teacher needs to know if it is not working, so don’t wait until it all goes horribly wrong.

It may break out again

Once may not be enough. Often, peace will reign for a few weeks and then it all starts up again. Many parents think that once we have gone into bat for our child, that it’s done and dusted. But real life doesn’t work that way. We need to go back to our empathetic listening, then our focused listening and note taking.

Return to the school and find the person who was the most helpful to you last time. Start with ‘Last time you were able to work such wonders and we need your help again.’

Remember, if is never helpful to attack people or accuse them of not doing their job properly. Stick with the important facts:

  • My child is unhappy.
  • Someone (or several someone’s) is/are being unkind to him
  • I need your help.

What if the bully is a teacher?

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is very damaging for the child. The majority of teachers are wonderful, caring people who treat our children as if they were their own and in whom we can have great confidence.

However, there is the occasional exception. Most of us can remember a teacher who made our lives miserable. The misery that is heaped upon children by a cruel teacher may result in a child who is tearful, frightened, unable to learn or reluctant to go to school.

Sometimes our child may be a direct target. The teacher may single them out, denigrate their work or their ideas in front of peers, mete out unreasonable punishments or pick on them with sarcastic, humiliating comments.

Sometimes our children may be an indirect target. There are the good and diligent children who do not put a foot wrong, but find themselves in a state of continuous anxiety in case they inadvertently incur the wrath of this teacher and wind up in the sort of trouble they see their peers experience.

Follow the same steps:

  • Listen to your child
  • Talk to other parents and pupils
  • Take notes
  • Go to see the teacher
  • If nothing changes, go higher up
  • Follow up
  • Be prepared to go back

If you are rebuffed

Bullying teachers usually only pick on a small number of pupils and it is perfectly possible for many other pupils to be happy and not notice. This does not mean it is not a serious problem, or that it will go away by itself. Don’t be discouraged. Stick with the important facts:

  • My child is unhappy
  • His teacher is being unkind
  • I need your help.

We can make a difference

Bullying is a serious problem and we need to protect our children from this form of abuse. Some bullying is obvious and some bullying is subtle and hard to prove. Dealing with it is a difficult but essential part of parenting. See more info on How to spot the signs of bullying and get help.


Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."


  1. Hi Diane,

    Reading your article has been very helpful to focusing my thinking about how I can support my son, who has a new teacher who is treating him very differently to his other teachers. Reading it has made me feel quite emotional about how it is affecting him. Because he has just turned 10 he has said he doesn’t want to talk to his teacher but he talks about it most days and after the last two days I realize we have a problem.

    It was his 10th birthday yesterday and he said he had the best day since going back to school because he didn’t get in trouble once and the relieving teacher was nice to him. Today (with his normal teacher back) he put his hand up to add to the discussion and when he did he accidentally knocked the electronic whiteboard – when he said sorry he was sent to the ‘thinking chair’ and the teacher forgot him for the rest of the lesson and when the kids went to lunch one of them told the teacher he was still sitting outside and she said to my son ‘oh, don’t be naughty next time’. now I know this maybe not exactly what happened but this is how he feels when she seemly uses punishment most of the time. He main strategy has been to sign up to do as many school activities as he can to get out of the class – music, sport, library monitor etc which I imagine is going to effect his learning in other areas and won’t help build her understanding of him as a student.

    I shared what happened today with my friends on facebook and they were so supportive, giving good suggestions, including recommending this article. Reading your article made me realise listening to him is doing something and I need a plan to change the situation.

    Do you have any other ideas about making a plan with your child so they feel empowered?

    He really doesn’t want to leave his friends and at this stage doesn’t want me to say anything to his teacher but I would like him to see asking for help and involving others are a good idea. While I am basically a confident person, with a high level of knowledge and experience as a parent – I didn’t have a good experience at school so feel anxious about the whole thing.

  2. I came here looking for solution to my 4 year old being hit repeatedly at kindy, this has been going on for a while. I have talked to the head teacher, as well as teaching my daughter to tell them to stop. Neither of these has been effective. I will now teach her how to stop a male in their tracks and send them to their knees. Whilst not ideal to teach her at this age, it will serve her well in life, as well as stopping the bullying/hitting.

    As for teachers bullying kids, I had two Nuns that did that to me at Holy Cross school, in miramar, Wgtn. I also saw them beating others. They put on a different face for parents. Due to the trauma those cows inflicted on me, it contributed to my developing Asthma.

    • Diane Levy Reply

      Hi Cal,

      Sorry about the delay in replying to this… I hope this helps a little…

      You raise the very real problem of Institutional Bullying, the helplessness that you felt as a child to do anything about it and the inability or unwillingness for adults to speak up about children being harmed. No wonder that you are absolutely determined to protect your child and to teach her how to protect herself.Rather than pass on your entirely understandable anger on to your daughter in the form of teaching her to be aggressive, I would rather that you use your anger at what happened to you to be Assertive rather than Aggressive in your approach to your daughter’s kindergarten.Because we do not have the ability to talk to each other and for me to understand details of what you have done, I am going to suggest you “retry” some of the things you have already tried and, if that is not successful enough, I would like to make some further suggestions.The first suggestion to protect and empower your daughter is to ask children home on play dates so that you strengthen the number of friends that your daughter has at Kindergarten. (Bullies usually like to pick children off one-at-a-time, so if your daughter is surrounded by friends she will be less vulnerable to the bully.)The second suggestion is to strengthen your daughter’s assertion skills when the bully tries to pick on her. As the bully approaches her, she should turn to face her/him, put up her hand and say very strongly (and loud enough for a responsible adult to hear), “Stop! Don’t come near me! I don’t like the way you hit me!”If the bully gets of strikes out at her, she should shout loudly, “Go away! I don’t like that!”The third suggestion – For a fortnight (ten Kindy days) I would like you to ask your daughter each day “How was Kindy?” and to give her a chance to tell you all about it while listening with empathy and letting her know that you want to hear all about it. At the end of a fortnight, she may have solved the bullying problem with her new assertion skills.At the end of a fortnight if you still need to go back to the Head Teacher, you will be able to go with names and incidents written down – which is much harder to dismiss.Fourth Suggestion – When you approach the Head Teacher, rather than be accusatory, say to her, “My daughter is unhappy and afraid. I need your help.” Show her your written list of things that have been difficult for your daughter.Fifth Suggestion – If this does not get a change in your daughter’s protection, don’t hesitate to go higher up. This might be to a Parent-teacher Kindergarten Committee or it might be to your local Kindergarten Association. Again, you will get a better hearing if you approach them with the attitude of “My daughter is unhappy and afraid. I need your help.” Often, an approach to a Head Teacher or the Kindergarten Association will get you a change for many weeks and then it will “wear off”. Don’t hesitate to return saying, “What you did last time made a difference for a while, but now I need your help again.”Last suggestion – If you find that bullying seems “institutionalised” in your daughter’s kindergarten and your assertive approaches are not bringing about any change, it is time to change kindergartens.

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