SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

May 2011

Despicable Me

It’s a fact: bullying happens everywhere. Bullying is prevalent throughout the world and cuts across all socio-economic, racial/ethnic and cultural lines. An estimated 20 to 30 per cent of kids are subject to bullying.

Location makes no difference; bullying happens in urban, surburban, rich, and poor areas. Gender makes no difference; boys and girls bully at the same rates, though their forms of bullying differ. However, bullying can be more prevalent in large schools, where it is easier to hide what you are doing.

As a parent, you may not be aware that your child is a bully, or that your child is being bullied. Certainly, I had no idea that my five-year-old son was being abused on a daily basis by his classmate in kindergarten. It was only after I spent several mornings standing outside his classroom to observe that I realised what was happening.


Now it’s easy to investigate at preschool and kindergarten level. What happens when your child is in primary school and you have no access to the classrooms and your child does not say anything about it?

Rarely would a child say, “Mum, I’m being bullied”. Instead, what you will see are the effects of bullying, such as not wanting to attend school, lower grades, depression and anxiety.

“In Singapore I see parents who are more concerned about the grades. They get more tutoring for a child who is struggling in school, rather than taking the time to investigate the underlying reason or reasons that may be causing the drop in grades or difficulty in school,” says Tammy Fontana, a counsellor at All In The Family Counselling.

Unfortunately, it takes a while to realise that bullying is the real problem and that the issues are actually the symptoms.

As Tammy explains, the bullying creates behavioral problems such as acting out at school or home, or acting in – which is depression, anxiety lower grades and so on. It is also a well-known fact that students who bully and those that are bullied are more likely to skip and/or drop out of school.

What is bullying?

Bullying occurs when there is an imbalance in power between a child and another, either because of physical size, peer support or some other factor, maybe even blackmail. The child doing the bullying usually has more power than the child he/she is bullying, and the power is used in an aggressive way with the intent to harm – either physically, emotionally or psychologically.

Bullying is different than when children joke around with one another or tattle-tale about one another or engage in rough and tumble play.

Bullying is not a phase or a normal rite of passage but something that is very harmful and left unchecked, can reduce a child’s self-esteem and in the most extreme case, lead to suicide.

What is the most common age group in which this problem occurs?

Bullying can start as young as five years old, with teasing. It tends to intensify in school-aged children.

Reasons vary, but there are often complex issues behind the bully’s behavior. Often, a child who bullies is being bullied at home by his parents or siblings. Many times a child who bullies may be living in an unstable home environment due to his parent’s own problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction etc. Again these cut across all socio-economic and racial barriers.

Other reasons may be less obvious, but usually the child doing the bullying feels a sense or lack of belonging or self-esteem. Bullying is a learned behavior or reaction that a child may have developed because of his need to feel liked or in control. It’s his best attempt to meet his need for belonging and loving.

Does every child bully?

Absolutely not. All people are born good and seek to have their needs met. Sometimes, as in the case of the bully, they may be trying to meet their needs for love and belonging or for control, and choosing the ones that are best available, even though these could harm others.

Bullies are not bad children, but rather hurting children who need serious help. Adults bully too. We have workplace bullies (but that is called sexual harassment or other terms). Bullying is not just a child’s problem but an adult problem, and often adult bullies bully their own spouses or children. This is a learned behavior.

What are the different types of bullying?

Verbal name-calling or teasing are the most common. Another way of social bullying takes the form of spreading rumours, leaving people out on purpose, and breaking up friendships.

Physical forms of bullying include hitting, punching and shoving. There is now cyberbullying, which involves using the Internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies like Facebook and Twitter to harm others.

How can parents find out if their children are being bullied in school?

Often parents and educators are the last to know if a child is being bullied. There is much shame associated with bullying as well as fear that if the child asks for help it’ll only make the bullying worse.
Sad Child
It’s more important that parents recognise the warning signs and take action:

Warning signs your child is being bullied:

• Comes home with damaged or missing clothing or other belongings
• Reports losing items such as books, electronics, clothing, or jewellery
• Has unexplained injuries
• Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches, or feeling sick
• Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams
• Has changes in eating habits
• Hurts himself or herself
• Is very hungry after school because he has not eaten his lunch
• Runs away from home
• Loses interest in visiting or talking with friends
• Is afraid of going to school or engaging in other activities with his peers
• Loses interest in schoolwork or begins to do poorly in school
• Appears sad, moody, angry, anxious or depressed when he comes home
• Talks about suicide
• Feels helpless
• Often feels like he is not good enough
• Blames himself for his problems
• Suddenly has fewer friends
• Avoids certain places
• Acts differently from usual

Signs that your child is a bully:

• Becomes violent with others
• Gets into physical or verbal fights with others
• Gets sent to the principal’s office or detention a lot
• Has extra money or new belongings that cannot be explained
• Is quick to blame others
• Will not accept responsibility for his actions
• Has friends who bully others
• Needs to win or be best at everything

What is the best approach to take?

1. Stay calm and discuss your concerns with your child. It’s important not to over-react and get upset.

2. Emphasise that bullying is unacceptable. This is best done by discussing the negative impact that bullying has. Often the best results occur by engaging the bullying child to create solutions to the situation. The child may attempt to minimise the situation by saying things like “it’s just teasing”, or “I was just kidding” or “it’s no big deal”. It’s important not to accept that, but to talk to him and try to find a solution.

3. Avoid physical punishment. The goal is to teach the bully that the behavior is wrong. Physically punishing the bully simply emphasises that violence is the answer (and almost a justification) to the bully’s own behavior.

4. Help the child who is being bullied.

It is also important to prevent bullying and know the risk factors for being bullied.

Generally, children, teens and young adults who are bullied:

• Do not get along well with others
• Are less popular than others
• Have few to no friends
• Do not conform to gender norms
• Have low self-esteem
• Are depressed or anxious

Children who are at risk for bullying others:

• Are overly concerned about their popularity
• Like to dominate or be in charge
• Experience a lot of disruption and violence at home
• Are very aggressive
• Have less involved parents
• Are impulsive
• Are very easily frustrated
• Have difficulty following the rules
• View violence in a positive way; often they have violence used on them at home

What can parents do to ensure that their children are safe?

Bullying is more than a school issue, it’s a parenting issue. Parents must be involved with their child and watch for warning signs and get help fr their child. Parents also need to assess if their child fits the criteria for increased risk of bullying, and get help for them and their family.

Tammy Fontana is a US trained Master Level Mental Health Counsellor from All in the Family Counselling. She can be contacted at 9030 7239 or through

Photo Credit: “Lone Blue Swing” by Daniel Tiriba

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Despicable Me