Whether it's your son or daughter on the receiving end of bullying or they're the ones causing problems, understanding the reasons why children bully can help inform your next steps.
According to Sara Hassle, a Support Co-ordinator at the charity Family Lives, there are quite a few factors that can lead a child down this path, some more obvious than others.
"Bullying can occur if someone has low self-esteem, a fear of being excluded if they don't join in with a dominant peer group, does not fully understand how the person being bullied may feel or possibly is being bullied themselves, either by siblings or in other situations."
If your son or daughter is the bully, be reassured that their bullying does not make you a dreadful, failed parent. Suzie Hayman, of anti-bullying organisation BullyingUK, says: "Children of all backgrounds can become bullies and the reasons for this can be many and varied. Some may live within dysfunctional families but it's just as likely that others who display bullying traits live within families who love and care for them."
Suzie says though that whilst there are many reasons why bullies indulge in such behaviour, none of them are valid excuses, particularly given the significant effects felt by those on the receiving end.
What to do if you're the parent of a bully
If your child is bullying others, they're unlikely to tell you what they've been up to, either because they don't recognise that what they're doing is wrong, or they fear your response. Most parents in this situation will therefore only find out about what's happening via school and this can come as quite a shock.
Sara explains how this can be hard to take in: "Your first reaction might be disbelief that they face accusations of bullying. But before you dismiss the thought, listen to what the school has to say about it."
She adds that at the stage when you will have been called into school, normally the bullying will have been going on for a while. "Parents rarely complain to a school at the outset with bullying and there's usually been a history of unhappiness. It's best to take what the school says seriously and work with staff to achieve a solution."
Of course there are times when people are unjustly accused of bullying but a thorough investigation should reveal this.
If you suspect your son or daughter might be prone to involvement in bullying, you might find it beneficial to ask for a copy of the school bullying policy, so that you can go through it with your child. This will help them understand that such behaviour is likely to be taken seriously and will make them aware of the sanctions they might face if they continue.
What happens next: typical consequences of bullying in schools
The approach schools take will depend on the age of the children concerned and the severity of the bullying, plus how long it has been going on for.
With younger ones, primary schools might start off with warnings and explaining how bullying makes the target feel. There might be the loss of play time, privileges or involvement in special activities.
With older, secondary school pupils, sanctions could include a warning, detention, temporary or permanent exclusion. A violent or especially severe one-off incident could be grounds for immediate expulsion.
In certain circumstances, for children over the age of criminal responsibility (which is 10), bullying is against the law and the police might be called in if any of the following are involved:
- violence or assault
- repeated harassment or intimidation, eg, name calling, threats and abusive phone calls, emails or text messages
- hate crimes.
They might not receive the same level of sympathy but children who are accused of bullying do need help as much as their targets, since there are often underlying reasons that need addressing. Speak to their teachers in the first instance to try and understand what could be behind their behaviour if you can't spot any obvious causes.
One of the worst things parents can do is ignore the situation and hope it will go away – it probably won't and it's important to tackle things given how serious the consequences for both bully and bullied can be.
BullyingUK provides support via email, online chat or a free confidential helpline.