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Protect against bullying with communication and social skills

Schoolgirl crying on background of classmates bullying herAs we observe the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence this week, it’s worth considering the role of social and communication disorders in bullying.

Poor social problem-solving skills are a common characteristic of bullies and their victims, and children with communication problems are more likely to be bullied.

How is bullying different to meanness and rudeness?

Bullying is the use of force or threat to abuse, intimidate or control others. Bullies perceive that they are socially or physically more powerful than the victim. There is a combination of hostile intent, imbalance of power and repetition of bullying behaviours over a period of time.

There is a difference between rudeness, being mean and bullying. One difference is intent. Rude kids don’t intend harm. People who are being mean or bullying are intending to cause harm. Mean kids usually only harm the other person once (or maybe twice). However people who bully engage in the behaviour repetitively, even after being told not to do so.

There are 4 types of bullying:

  • emotional/relational
  • verbal
  • physical
  • cyber

What do we know about bullies?

One expert in the field, Dr. Cook*, says that “a typical bully has trouble resolving problems with others and also has trouble academically. He or she usually has negative attitudes and beliefs about others, feels negatively toward himself/herself, comes from a family environment characterized by conflict and poor parenting, perceives school as negative and is negatively influenced by peers”.

What do we know about the victims?

Bullies victimise people they perceive as socially or physically weaker. Kids with social and/or communication problems or accents are at increased risk of bullying as they may be perceived as being weak or different by the aggressor.

Dr Cook’s research, which was published by the American Psychological Association in 2010, concluded that having poor social problem-solving skills was a major risk factor for being bullied.

The effects of bullying can include anxiety, loneliness, depression, low-self-esteem and increased susceptibility to illness.

Tips to safeguard your child from bullying

As parents, we would not wish for our children to become either a bully or a victim of bullying. So what can we do to avoid this?

1. Build your child’s confidence and resilience

Create a positive place at home, where your child is praised for his achievements and you express an optimistic outlook (even if you don’t always feel it inside!). Having a positive family situation helps to protect children from becoming both a bully and a victim of bullying.

2. Keep communication flowing between you and your child

Teach your child about bullying. Ensure he knows the difference between bullying, being mean and being rude. And if your child is being bullied, create opportunities at home him to feel safe and comfortable to discuss what is going on at school.

3. Speak to your child’s teacher

When there is a bullying situation it is important that you communicate respectively and realistically with your child’s teacher.

4. Build your child’s social problem-solving skills

In studies, poor social problem-solving skills are seen in both bullies and their victims. Social problem-solving involves being able to solve problems that arise in everyday social situations, eg. being able to offer some ideas of what you could do and say if you saw your best friend crying.

Here are some ways to work on social problem-solving:

  • Share with your child about your own day – a problem you faced and how you resolved it. You could follow this up by asking your child if he can think of an alternative way you could have handled the situation.
  • When your child faces issues at school, discuss different things he could have done. If your child has good language skills, ask him the questions and see if he can come up with the solutions, rather than you giving him the “answers”. He needs to learn how to problem-solve for himself. If he offers an inappropriate response, you can use more questions to see if he can come to an understanding of why that would be an inappropriate action. Then guide him towards a better solution using more questions.
  • At home, use fights between siblings to teach about emotions and appropriate responses to conflict. Do this sensitively and at the right time.
  • Use social stories or illustrated comic strips to help your child understand social situations and solutions to problems. A social story is a written and/or illustrated guide addressing a specific social problem or skill. The visual aspect of social stories and scripts are helpful for getting and maintaining a child’s attention, and for helping him to understand concepts which may be tricky to understand through verbal language only. Social stories and scripts are especially useful for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and children who have a preference for visual learning over verbal learning. There is a formula to writing a social story, so you should ask your Speech Pathologist to assist with this.
  • Use a social problem-solving app. There are a range of non-interactive and interactive apps that promote thought and discussion about bullying and social problem-solving.

5. Therapy for kids with communication problems

If your child has a social and/or communication difficulty, work together with a speech pathologist to improve your child’s skills. If your child is not perceived as being different or weaker, then a bully is less likely to victimise him.


It’s great to see how far schools have come in developing kids’ awareness of bullying. However, parents can do much within the home to protect their children from active involvement in bullying – as the bully, the victim or the bystander. In doing so, we’re enabling our children to have healthy, positive relationships into the future.

National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence
Australian bullying statistics
Child Bullying
Australian bullying research
* Dr Cook’s meta-analysis of the characteristics of bullies, victims and bully-victims

About Susanna Hatcher

Susanna Hatcher is a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist from the Central Coast, NSW. She has worked with families over the last 13 years, in NSW and the Northern Territory. She has a Bachelor of Speech and Hearing ...

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