Bullying: How to recognize it and how to respond

Bullying: How to recognize it and how to respond
What is bullying and how can you tell whether your child is being bullied?

Every school service centre is required to have a policy in place to prevent violence and bullying. As a parent, you also have a role to play if you think your child is being bullied. Here’s what you can do to help.

What is bullying?

Bullying is when someone repeatedly tries to dominate someone else through teasing, violent behaviour, or rejection. Bullies generally act deliberately, with the intention of causing the other person physical or emotional harm. We aren’t talking about simple disagreements in the schoolyard; this behaviour involves a repeated and ongoing misuse of power in a relationship that is harmful or belittling. Bullying often occurs even in the presence of witnesses. In fact, the bigger the audience, the more powerful the bully feels.

The different forms of bullying

Bullying can be:

To be considered bullying, the behaviour described here must be both repeated and ongoing. Nevertheless, it’s important to encourage your child to report any situation where they were harmed or felt threatened, even if it only happened once.
  • Physical: Examples include hitting, tripping, pushing or shoving, hair-pulling, breaking or taking personal items, and unwanted touching. This is the most obvious form of bullying.
  • Verbal: Examples include insults, threats, and unpleasant or belittling comments.
  • Social: Examples include spreading false rumours about someone, hurting their reputation, and excluding them from a group. In elementary school, social bullying can often take the form of one child asking others to stop playing with the victim.

The consequences of bullying

All forms of bullying are harmful to a child. Bullying can cause feelings of distress, humiliation, and insecurity, or feel like a violation of privacy. In the short term, bullying is damaging to a child’s self-esteem. They may lose their motivation, become increasingly fearful, and want to avoid going to school. Left unchecked, bullying can lead to issues such as anxiety, academic difficulties, absenteeism, memory problems, and depression. That’s why it’s important to take it seriously, learn to recognize warning signs, and take the appropriate steps to address it.

Be aware of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is the use of a digital space (texts, email, social networks, online games, etc.) to either send insults or threats with the intent to exclude a child from a group or ridicule them by posting a picture without their consent. One of the characteristics of this type of bullying is that it is often done anonymously. Anonymity can lead to more impulsive acts and ones that reach a wider audience, such as when bullying messages are shared on social media. In such cases, the situation can spiral out of the victim’s control. Cyberbullying is most prevalent during adolescence. But it can also affect elementary school children, especially if they spend a lot of time online. Children are increasingly using social media to communicate with their friends. Many also play online video games that allow them to chat with other players.
It’s easy for cyberbullying to go unnoticed. That’s why it’s strongly recommended to be aware of who your child is communicating with when they’re online and the nature of their conversations. Make sure they’re somewhere where you can see what they’re doing online, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about their online relationships. Teach them not to chat with people they don’t know since there’s no way to verify their identity. It’s also a good idea to take a look at the games and social networks that are popular with kids so that you understand how they work and can make sure your child is using them safely. Lastly, install parental control programs or apps on your devices so you can limit access to certain sites and types of content.

How to recognize when a child is being bullied

Children who are bullied don’t always think to tell their parents or an adult about it. They may also be afraid to say anything. It’s essential that you listen and be attentive to your child so you can pick up on any signs of bullying. You may find clues in their attitude or behaviour. Here are some of the warning signs:

  • They suddenly lose interest in school and lack motivation.
  • They no longer want to go to school.
  • They become increasingly withdrawn, secretive, and isolated.
  • They seem sad, unhappy, and irritable.
  • They often say they’re not feeling well.
  • Their grades start to slip and you can’t explain why.
  • They’re not sleeping well (link in French).
  • They come home with dirty clothes or injuries.
  • They avoid contact with other children.
  • They have no interest in group or school activities.
  • They are anxious, fearful, and mistrustful.
  • They don’t want to talk about what they do at school or about the other kids.
  • They seek out the company of adults.
  • They take detours to avoid their usual school route, or go to school either very early or very late so they don’t run into other students.
  • They’re highly self-critical. For example, they think they’re no good at school and that everyone else is doing better than them.
  • Personal items such as lunches, snacks, hats, playing cards, etc. are often “lost” or “stolen.”

Helping a bullied child

If your child tells you about a situation that sounds like bullying or if you suspect that they themself are being bullied, take action immediately.

  • Ask questions to learn as much as you can about the situation.
  • Stay calm and attentive, as your child is in need of reassurance.
  • Let them talk at their own pace and don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t pass judgment. Don’t tell your child what they should or shouldn’t have done. Just ask them to describe the situation in as much detail as possible.
  • Let them know you’ve got their back. Tell them they have the right to feel safe and that you are going to do something and help them find a solution.
  • Assess the situation together. For example, would it make a difference if your child clearly put their foot down? Do they have friends they can count on? How far does the bullying go? Whatever you do, don’t encourage violence.
  • Get them to name what they’re feeling. Focus on their strengths and help them evaluate how important the bully is to them.
  • Encourage them to report the situation to their teacher. Let them know that reporting this type of situation won’t make things worse. It will actually protect them, and other students, from the bully.
  • Inform the school about the situation. Notify both your child’s teacher and the school principal. Stay calm and don’t start telling everyone you know. Don’t attempt to resolve the situation directly with the bully or their parent. Wait to do so in the presence of a mediator, such as the school principal.
  • If the school’s administration doesn’t respond or react in a way that satisfies you, notify the overseeing school service centre. If you are still dissatisfied, contact the student ombudsman of your child’s school service centre.
  • Encourage your child to buddy up with friends they can count on, as they’re less likely to be bullied when in a group. If the bullying continues, however, it will also be easier to defend themself when surrounded by friends.
  • Stay informed. Follow up with school staff to make sure the problem gets resolved.
  • Should the problem persist and you feel it’s taking a heavy toll on your child, ask for help from the school psychologist or psychoeducator, your CLSC, or an organization near you.
Bullying, schools, and the law
The Education Act requires school service centres to develop policies aimed at preventing violence and bullying in schools. This policy must be shared with parents. The school administration is responsible for registering complaints of bullying or violence. Each school service centre has a student ombudsman, much like the Québec Ombudsman, who ensures that everyone’s rights are respected.

What to do if your child has witnessed bullying

If your child tells you they’ve witnessed someone else being harassed or bullied, ask them to explain what happened in more detail. Make sure they were a bystander, not the victim. Let them know that they were right to come to you about it and remind them that they should always report incidents of bullying.

Ask them if they would like you to go with them to talk a member of the school staff. They may be afraid of being bullied themself if they report the situation. Reassure them and let them know it’s important to speak up. Children’s books on bullying are a great way to start conversations about the subject with your child.

If your child doesn’t want to talk to their teacher about it, tell them that you’ll go instead because bullying is not acceptable. This will show them it’s important to take action to put a stop to this type of behaviour. If they witness another incident in the future, they might be encouraged to follow your example and step forward.

Can child bullying be prevented?

We can’t prevent bullying altogether, as we can’t predict when a bully will show up. But you can teach your child about bullying and the best ways to respond to it. Here’s how:

  • Explain what bullying is and teach them how to recognize it using concrete examples. Children’s books on the subject can help.
  • Get your child to name and express their emotions and unease. If someone’s actions bother or hurt them, encourage them to say so and to resolve minor disagreements.
  • If they’re still anxious, convince them to seek help from someone they trust.
  • Role-play with your child so they can practise dealing with situations where they have to assert themself, say what they think, and set limits.
  • Remind them that they can always come to you if they feel bullied and that you will help them.
  • Teach them the basic rules of how to react to bullying: walk away, don’t respond to the bully, tell a trusted adult, buddy up with a friend when they don’t feel safe.

What to do when your child is the bully

Is your child the one being the bully? The first thing to do is to calmly talk it over with them and try to understand why they are acting this way.

  • Listen patiently to your child and let them express their point of view.
  • Let them know that you take the situation very seriously and find this type of behaviour unacceptable.
  • Explain how your child’s actions will affect them and those around them. It may be appropriate to impose consequences, such as having your child apologize to the other person or replace the object they broke.
  • Talk with the teacher or school principal to work out a solution together.
  • Spend more time with your child so you can observe their attitude and point out any negative behaviour that needs to change.
  • Teach your child to have respect for others and accept those who are different from them.
  • Help them find better ways of expressing their anger and frustration.
  • Help them work on their self-confidence and how they treat other people.
  • If necessary, consult a psychologist or psychoeducator to help your child learn to better manage their emotions and help you acquire the tools you need as well to respond to the situation.

There are several reasons why children resort to bullying:

  • They want to feel important or look cool (e.g., to fit in with a certain group).
  • They have low self-confidence and don’t know how else to assert themselves.
Kids who engage in bullying behaviour don’t always understand how seriously it affects the victim.
  • They have difficulty expressing their anger and frustration.
  • They don’t like to admit they’re wrong or show vulnerability.
  • They like to be in charge and may lack empathy.
  • They believe they are acting in self-defence (the best defence is a good offence).
  • They were bullied themself.

Signs that a child is a bully

There are certain aspects of your child’s behaviour that may indicate a tendency to be a bully. For example, studies have shown that children who defy authority, are unable to admit when they’re at fault, use anger to get what they want, like fighting, and are manipulative are more likely to be bullies.

Children who show little remorse, lack empathy, and don’t seem to care when others are in distress may also be more inclined to bully other people. If you notice this type of behaviour in your child, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Leader or bully?
There is a distinct difference between being a leader and being a bully. Leading does not involve bullying. Some children tend to be more authoritative than others and take the lead when playing in pairs or groups or deciding how things should be organized. They are natural leaders. While it’s important to remain vigilant and teach these children to listen to others and respect their peers, it doesn’t mean that they are bound to become bullies. Bullying is when a child tries to dominate others at all costs, with no respect for their wants or needs and for the purpose of causing harm.

Things to keep in mind

  • Bullying can be verbal, physical, social, or virtual. It occurs when one person repeatedly hurts, insults, humiliates, threatens, or excludes another person in order to assert power.
  • If you think your child is being bullied or that they are a bully, it’s important to talk it over with them calmly, to tell them that bullying is unacceptable, and to let them know that you will help them and take action to change the situation.
  • If you become aware of bullying at your child’s school, it’s important to notify the school and work with them to find a solution.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Ariane Leroux-Boudreault, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2021


Photos: iStock.com/Juanmonino and GettyImages/fizkes


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

For parents

  • Allard, Sophie. “Tout sur l’intimidation.” La Presse, April 13, 2012. www.lapresse.ca
  • Amirali, Lila. “My child is being bullied—what can I do?” Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre. www.thechildren.com
  • Doyon, Nancy. Agir contre l’intimidation (programme d’animation). S’affirmer sainement et sans violence. Éditions Midi trente, 128 pp.
  • Doyon, Nancy. Non à l’intimidation : j’apprends à m’affirmer. Éditions Midi trente, 112 pp.
  • Doyon, Nancy. Prévenir l’intimidation (guide d’intervention). S’affirmer sainement et sans violence. Éditions Midi trente, 168 pp.
  • Éducaloi. “Bullying and violence in Quebec schools.” www.educaloi.qc.ca
  • Éducaloi. “Bullying: How to recognize it and act.” www.educaloi.qc.ca
  • Elliott, Michele. Arrêtons l’intimidation. Chenelière Éducation, 2009, 128 pp.
  • Fédération des comités de parents du Québec. “Processus de plaintes et protecteur de l’élève.” www.fcpq.qc.ca
  • Jasmin Roy Sophie Desmarais Foundation. www.fondationjasminroy.com
  • Gagnier, Nadia. À l’aide! Il y a de l’intimidation à mon école. L’intimidation chez les jeunes expliquée aux parents. Les Éditions La Presse, “Vive la vie en famille” series, 2012, 120 pp.
  • Kids Help Phone. 1-800-668-6868. kidshelpphone.ca
  • Ministère de l’éducation and Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur. “Fighting bullying and violence in the schools.” www.education.gouv.qc.ca
  • Ministère de la Famille. “What are acts of bullying?” 2021. www.mfa.gouv.qc.ca
  • Saint-Pierre, Frédérique. Intimidation, harcèlement : ce qu’il faut savoir pour agir. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, “Collection du CHU Sainte-Justine pour les parents,” 2013, 144 pp.
  • Tel-jeunes. 1-800-263-2266 www.teljeunes.com

For kids

  • Chabbert, Ingrid. Poils aux pattes. Les 400 coups, 2016, 32 pp.
  • Chouinard, Roger. Tyranono : une préhistoire d’intimidation. Éditions de la Bagnole, 2012, 32 pp.
  • Hébert, Marie-Francine. Dépareillés. Éditions de la Bagnole, 2017, 32 pp.
  • Neal, Kate Jane. Words and Your Heart. Feiwel and Friends, 2019, 32 pp. (Ages 2 to 7)
  • Stanké, Claudie, and Barroux. Ça suffit! Les 400 coups, 2018, 36 pp.
  • Woodson, J., and E. B. Lewis. Each Kindness. Penguin Young Readers Group, 2012, 32 pp.