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Preschool bullying: How parents can help

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Mother comforting small child


Think of bullies and you usually think teens, but pre-schoolers can and do bully with damaging impact on children’s self-esteem.

The first sign may be a reluctance to go to preschool or child care or your child may tell you outright that they don’t want to play with a particular child because they’re repeatedly hurting or teasing them.

Bullying is a serious health issue, harming children, and carrying a significant cost for communities both now and into the future.

As parents we all must listen and talk about bullying, to provide the necessary support for our children.

National Child Health Poll

One in five Australian parents report one or more of their children was bullied in the last school term.

The 2018 Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) National Child Health Poll on childhood bullying found that while most parents have a good understanding of what bullying is, and the serious potential effects on children, half of all parents still say they need more information on how to protect their child, including from cyberbullying.

Almost every parent (89%) of a child who was bullied say the experience affected the whole family. One in six parents felt physically sick, and one in five felt depressed or anxious. Almost half (48%) worried about the long-term effects of bullying on their child, while many were angry (44%) and frustrated at being unable to help (44%). One in three (32%) felt guilty for not being able to stop the bullying while one in four felt helpless (28%).

Poll Director, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes, says bullying is a health problem and a community problem.

“It is serious and common and it can harm the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of children and young people,” Dr Rhodes says.

“The best way to address and prevent bullying is for children, parents and schools to work together in a whole-of-community approach.”

Overall, the poll shows most parents have good levels of knowledge about the definition, causes and consequences of bullying children. Seventy-one per cent of parents know that arguments or disagreements between children are not bullying, but only 20% know that random acts of aggression or intimidation are not bullying.

These actions can cause distress but do not fit the definition of bullying which requires that the action are repeated and on purpose.

One in four parents (22%) thought that most bullying involves a child physically hurting another child. When in fact verbal and social bullying are both more common than physical bullying, particularly among girls.

Seventy per cent of parents report knowing that how parents raise their child can affect their chances of being involved in bullying.

Most parents (90%) know that bullying is not best ignored or left for children to sort out for themselves. Seventy-seven per cent of parents feel bullying can lead to behaviour changes at home (95%).

Parents are most likely to be confident they would recognise physical bullying if it is happening to their child (70%), compared with verbal (53%), social (45%) or cyberbullying (45%). Forty-six per cent of parents are confident they would know if their child is bullying another child.

Children need to learn empathy

Acting Clinical Nurse Consultant Sandi Phillips from the Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service says children need to learn empathy to help combat bullying behaviour.

“Empathy is about how other people feel so that’s a really important thing to learn because obviously if we can tune into how people are feeling we are going to have better communication leading to stronger relationships.

“We all want to know that people are hearing us.”

Sandi says parents can help by role modelling how to show empathy when children are upset or afraid.

“It is showing them we’re there for them,” she says.

“Role modelling is very important. Children watch everything we do and how we interact with people on a day to day basis. They’re watching how we talk to people at the cash register, how we interact with anyone. As adults we need to be mindful about role modelling positive behaviour.

“When parents or carers begin to talk about how other people are feeling, toys can be used.  The parent or carer could talk about how teddy is feeling or why teddy might be sad.

“Our aim should be that if a child tells us a story, we ask how did you feel, and then you can start to talk about different emotions and let them talk about feelings.”

Role modelling is very important. Children watch everything we do and how we interact with people on a day to day basis. They’re watching how we talk to people at the cash register, how we interact with anyone. As adults we need to be mindful about role modelling positive behaviour.
Acting Clinical Nurse Consultant Sandi Phillips

Start helping children manage emotions early

Sandi says it starts when children are babies.

“It’s important to spend time with them. The more time we spend and do things that they want to do, the better.

“Then they are better able to go off to day care or kindy or school and know that we are there for them and we do respond to their needs. For example they may feel nervous about you leaving them but if you leave something belonging to you with them and explain that you will be back for them, they learn to understand that you do come back. You are there for them.

“It’s about making any time with them as good as it can be.

“The more we do to develop their skills and show them how to handle situations the better. How do we handle things on a day to day basis? How do we problem solve or manage ourselves or our emotions in various situations.’

Sandi says parents can start helping children to manage emotions early.

“You can do turn-taking in your day to day activity with them and use positive reinforcement of sharing during their play.

“You can also prepare them for play with other children by talking about it beforehand.

“What toys are you going to share? Let’s take turns. I’ll share something and now you share something.

“Show that there are logical consequences during turn-taking. If something is causing a problem between children then you take it away. They learn that if they can’t work it out the caregiver will intervene.

“So you can really help them to learn to figure it out for themselves and then if they can’t, you can take it away. 

“We don’t need to put more time aside to do these things. We just have to build it into our everyday life.”

Be aware of changes in your child's behaviour

Being aware of changes in your child’s behaviour is also important.

“It is always good to be aware of what’s going on for your child,” Sandi says.

“If they are suddenly showing a change in behaviour, or if they suddenly don’t like going to kindy or day care, they are all signs something might be going on.

“It’s a really important to stay calm and show that this can be problem solved and it is important to role model ways of managing tricky situations.

“It is important that parents do step up and go to the teacher to work out if something is happening to cause this and to do so it in a calm way.  Your child will know that you’re there for them and will help to problem solve any issues in a really calm way which is good role modelling.”

National Child Health Poll - key findings:

  • One in four (23 per cent) parents think bullying is a big problem at their child’s school
  • Late primary school aged children or ‘tweens’ (aged 10 to 13 years) were more likely to have been bullied (21 per cent) compared with early primary school-aged children (14 per cent) and teenagers (17 per cent)
  • Most children (85 per cent) who were bullied experienced the bullying at school
  • Only half of parents (48 per cent) think their child’s school manages bullying well, yet one in ten said it was up to teachers not parents to educate children on how to respond to a bully
  • Only one in three (36 per cent) think they can help make a difference in reducing bullying at their child’s school and one in four (23 per cent) were unaware of their child’s school bullying policy
  • Among those bullied, verbal bullying was most common (78 per cent), followed by social bullying (56 per cent), physical bullying (49 per cent) and online bullying (30 per cent). Most children who were bullied (79 per cent) experienced two or more types of bullying, with one in eight (12 per cent) experiencing all four types of bullying
  • Children with a physical or mental health disorder or disability were twice as likely to have been bullied
  • Most parents (87%) are not confident they would know if their child was being bullied, and only half (46%) said they would know if their child was the bully

Tips for Parents

Tips to prevent bullying

  • Talk with your child regularly about friendships
  • Build self-esteem by encouraging hobbies, sports and interests
  • Foster positive friendships
  • Model how to treat others with kindness and respect

The following can be signs of bullying

  • Changes in mood or behaviour, sleep or appetite
  • School refusal or loss of interest
  • Unexplained injuries or missing belongings
  • Frequent headaches, tummy aches or feeling sick
  • Often alone or avoiding social situations
  • Being upset, anxious or secretive about online activity

Top tips to deal with bullying

  • Encourage your child to speak up if they are bullied or see others being bullied
  • Listen to them and tell them you believe them
  • Reassure your child it’s not their fault and bullying is never ok
  • Contact your child’s school for support
  • Avoid approaching the bully or their parents yourself
  • Seek help from a counsellor, psychologist or GP if needed

Tips to deal with cyberbullying

  • Talk regularly about your child’s experiences online
  • Reassure your child it’s not their fault and bullying is never ok
  • Gather information including screenshots of the behaviour
  • Block offenders and change privacy settings
  • Report inappropriate behaviour to the site owner
  • Don’t ban your child from the internet as they may find other ways to get online and hide it
  • Consider reporting cyberbullying to the eSafety Commissioner
  • Contact your child’s school for support, and seek help from a counsellor, psychologist or GP if needed

How parents can work with schools to stop bullying

  • Be aware of the school bullying policy and talk about it with your child
  • Make an appointment to speak with your child’s teacher
  • Show the school any notes or screenshots about the bullying
  • Ask what is being done to keep your child safe
  • Arrange a follow-up appointment to ensure the bullying is being addressed
  • It’s best not to keep your child home from school to avoid bullying. This makes it harder for them to build positive relationships.


  • Kids Helpline– phone 1800 55 1800 (free call; free 24 hour advice line)
  • eheadspace – phone 1800 650 890 (free call)
  • Parentline Victoria– phone 13 22 89 (local call; free advice 8:00am to midnight 7 days a week)
  • Youth beyondblue– phone 1300 224 636 (Iocal call; free 24 hour advice line)