Working with families whose child is bullying

An evidence-based guide for practitioners
CFCA Paper No. 26 – July 2014

Supporting children who bully and their families

Where a child has been involved in bullying, child and family support practitioners are in a unique position to work with, and coordinate services for, a child and their family.

Key roles of the practitioner

  • Assess and identify early risk, with risk management techniques put into place.
  • Provided appropriate counselling and parent training.
  • Assist with referral and coordination of other resources.

Levels of risk, levels of intervention

Intervention strategies should focus on reducing the risk factors that drive the bullying behaviour. As noted in Children Who Bully at School, these are most effective when they are appropriately matched to the child's level of risk (see Table 2). That is, different treatments may be required, depending on the severity of bullying and the age, social and psychological characteristics of the child (Rigby & Slee, 2008).

Table 2: Levels of risk mapped onto levels of intervention for children who bully others
Level of risk Risky behaviours Level of intervention
High risk Children assessed as being at the highest risk of engaging in bullying others report high levels of aggression, externalising problems and delinquency or are identified as experiencing early signs of or symptoms foreshadowing mental, emotional or behavioural disorders. Problems are consistent and relatively stable over time. Several family, individual or school risk factors associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in bullying behaviour are present. Indicated intervention: These children require greater support for behaviour change and an intervention that includes their family, as many of the risk factors are beyond the scope of school-based programs. This level of intervention is best used for the more entrenched cases of bullying problems.
Moderate risk Children are involved in bullying infrequently or in a short-lived way. These children may exhibit early warning signs that indicate a risk of future involvement in bullying, and consequently the emotional, behavioural and social problems associated with bullying others. Selective intervention: Children exhibiting non-severe bullying behaviour are likely to benefit from a selective program designed to address and prevent the developmental continuity of their peer relationship problems.
Low risk Children assessed as being at low risk do not engage in bullying others and have few, if any, family, individual or school risk factors. Universal intervention: These children are likely to benefit from school-based universal programs that aim to develop awareness of bullying and empower children to intervene on behalf of victims.

For a further discussion of interventions, see Children Who Bully at School.

Promising approaches for working with children who bully

As discussed in Children Who Bully at School, only a limited number of evidence-based anti-bullying programs exist. An evidence-based program is a set of intervention activities that evaluation research has shown to be effective. Some of these activities help individuals develop the intentions and skills to act in a healthy manner. Others focus on creating an environment that supports healthy behaviour.

Brief Strategic Family Therapy

One approach that has been identified as being more effective for working with children who bully, and that has potential to address risk factors present in the family, is the Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT; see the evaluation review by Lawner & Terzian, 2013). Brief Strategic Family Therapy is a family therapy program for children aged 8-17 years who display or are at risk for developing behavioural problems. The primary emphasis is on identifying and modifying maladaptive patterns of family interaction that are linked to the child's symptoms.

The program has the following characteristics:

  • The goal of the therapy is to improve child behaviour by improving family relationships, and to improve relationships between the family and other groups that may influence the child's behaviour.
  • It can be implemented in approximately 8 to 24 sessions. The number of sessions needed depends on the severity of the problem.
  • There are manuals available for reference and training programs for certifying counsellors in this method.
  • The program has a flexible approach that can be adapted to a broad range of family situations in a variety of service settings.
  • It appeals to cultural groups that emphasise family and interpersonal relationships.
  • It focuses on assessing the family's conflict resolution style and developing strategic interventions to help families resolve their differences more effectively.

Parent skills and education

Parent training is an important part of discouraging bullying behaviours.

Parents may know about positive parenting skills, but have difficulty putting them into action when stressed. Others need education in parenting skills, which can be given during individual sessions or in a group where they can rehearse new strategies and receive encouragement from other parents. Parents may benefit from programs that:

  • educate families about both the complexities of bullying behaviours and the challenging social and health issues experienced by a child who bullies;
  • raise parents' awareness, knowledge, skills and self-efficacy to talk with their child about bullying;
  • involve problem-solving to develop effective ways of managing difficult children and to resolve conflict;
  • counsel parents by stressing the importance of the parent-child relationship in their child's development;
  • help parents to improve their relationship skills in general and to counter negative, angry and hostile feelings within the family; for example, approaches that decrease negative communication patterns and improve conflict resolution techniques have proven value;
  • arrange support for families experiencing hostile parental separations;
  • encourage or advise on developing good parenting skills, including emphasising the importance of parental involvement, child monitoring and consistent discipline (that does not involve harsh and inconsistent punishment); and
  • educate families of the need for parent-school collaboration, and the importance of parent attitudes in working with the school. Parents should be encouraged to calmly approach the school and to develop a clear action plan.

Conferencing with parents

When conferencing with parents of young people who are bullying, Roberts (2008) encourages practitioners to:

  • stay focused on the issue;
  • not respond to parent scepticism;
  • use low-threat approaches with the parent;
  • provide facts about the child's behaviour;
  • recognise leveraging moments;
  • leverage the parent towards developing a plan;
  • let the parent respond and provide input to the plan;
  • obtain parent commitment to the plan; and
  • end on a positive note.

Useful parental responses when helping their child who bullies

While there is a scarcity of research on parents' reactions and strategies when helping their children with bullying behaviours, parental responses to wrongdoing are likely to influence their child's future perceptions and actions (Sigel, 1985). Appropriate parental responses identified by Cooper and Nickerson (2013) include:

  • discussing the situation with the child;
  • offering suggestions for coping;
  • increasing supervision during children's unstructured time; and
  • contacting the school.

See also the Parent Resources section for suggestions.

Practitioner considerations

Parents of children who bully others may not regard the behaviour as a concern, possibly because such a strong power differential is demonstrated in their own family system (Crothers & Kolbert, 2008). Therefore a realistic objective in conferencing with the parents of children who bully may be to gain at least enough of their support so that parents do not undermine the school by directly or indirectly implying to their children that they do not need to adhere to the rules regarding bullying.

Immediate risk or danger to the child or others

The following items can be used to assess if there is a chance of immediate risk or danger to the child or the people around them. These "warning signs" indicate that some intervention should begin as soon as possible, and may include an immediate evaluation by a qualified mental health professional.

Immediate risk may be indicated if the child:

  • recently assaulted another child or was recently assaulted;
  • brought a weapon to a place or situation that was inappropriate;
  • has or may have a weapon that is potentially lethal;
  • made destructive, violent or threatening gestures or statements;
  • has or may have a plan for destructive, violent or suicidal behaviour;
  • is saying or implying they are suicidal; or
  • has identified a target for destructive behaviour or violence.

Referral to specialist services

Children who bully tend to have a wide array of behavioural and emotional problems. Co-morbidity or the co-occurrence of bullying and other childhood disorders is common.

Families should be referred to specialist services if their child's behaviour is causing significant impairment in family or school functioning, and if the parents are having difficulty implementing the suggested management strategies.

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) may assist some children who bully to manage their impulsive behaviour. CBT focuses on encouraging and rewarding appropriate behaviour and helps children learn what behaviour is expected of them. CBT encourages children with conduct problems to develop alternative ways of relating to other children and adults.

A child who chronically bullies may also have other mental health issues, and as such should be referred for a mental health consultation and intervention. A cognitive and educational assessment performed by a psychologist to identify learning difficulties is also desirable.

Parent resources

To assist parents in understanding the core issues of a child's bullying behaviour and specific parenting strategies for dealing with them, practitioners can provide families with reputable online resources.

From the Australian Institute of Family Studies:

Other resources:

  • Parent guide to helping children manage conflict, aggression and bullying. Australian Psychological Society <www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/bullying>.
  • Changing bullying behaviours. Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development <www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/bullystoppers/afchangebullying.pdf>.