Bullying – we can all help stop it
Learn what to watch for, what you can do and where to get help if your child is being bullied.
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Bullying is behaviour that makes the person being bullied feel afraid or uncomfortable. It can be in the form of unwanted repeated aggression or happen one time. It can be carried out by one person or a group of people.
Bullying can happen in situations where there are real or perceived power imbalances between individuals or groups. It may be a symptom of bias and discrimination. Bullying can also be based on real or perceived differences that are often based on stereotypes in broader society.
Bullying is unacceptable in all its forms. Schools must promote and support a positive school climate where all members of the school community feel safe, included, accepted, and engage in positive behaviours and interactions.
Effects of bullying
It is important to take action to stop bullying as quickly as possible.
Bullying impacts students who receive it, deliver it or witness it. It is a serious issue, with far-reaching consequences for the students being bullied, their families, peers and the community around them.
Some students who engage in bullying may have experienced it themselves. However, bullying should never be considered “just part of growing up.”
Bullying has the potential to:
- affect students’ learning, sense of safety, overall mental health and well-being
- impact student attendance and grades
- create a negative environment at school or school-related activities for a student, group or the whole school
- cause physical, social or emotional harm or distress in the short-term and long-term
Approximately 1 in 5 Ontario students (21%) reported being bullied at school, according to the 2021 Ontario Drug Use and Health Survey conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Students who are bullied often experience:
- social anxiety
- physical illnesses
- low self-esteem
Types of bullying
Bullying can take many forms. It can be:
- physical, for example, hitting, kicking, shoving, damaging or stealing property
- verbal, for example, name-calling, mocking, put-downs and shameful, threatening, humiliating or discriminatory comments
- cyberbullying, for example, spreading rumours or hurtful comments on social media, by text, direct messaging, online gaming or emails
- social/relational, for example, damaging friendships, spreading gossip, rumours or excluding others from a group
- written, for example, writing notes and graffiti that are hurtful or insulting
Principals must respond to inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour on and off school property, including cyberbullying. This means that principals must respond to all behaviours that have a negative impact on the school climate.
For example, a student receiving offensive or insulting messages on social media that make the targeted student or bystander students feel unsafe going to school.
Examples of cyberbullying include:
- sending or sharing hateful, insulting, offensive and intimidating words or images via text messages, emails, direct messages, chat groups or online gaming
- sharing information considered to be personal, private or sensitive without consent
- creating and engaging with fake accounts on social networking sites to impersonate, humiliate and/or exclude others
- intentionally excluding a person from online chat groups or during online gaming sessions
- restricting access to accounts
It is important to know that cyberbullying may include online exploitation such as sextortion and sharing intimate images without consent.
- Sextortion: Occurs when a person threatens to share intimate images or videos of someone by digital means unless they receive money or more sexual content.
- Non-consensual sharing of intimate images: Occurs when intimate images of young people are taken with or without their consent, hacked or digitally created, and are used to shame, humiliate, harass and degrade.
In Canada, it is a criminal offence for a person to knowingly publish, distribute, transmit, sell, make available or advertise an intimate image of a person if the person in that image did not give their consent. In cases where the intimate image depicts a person under the age of 18 engaged in explicit sexual activity, or the image is being used for a sexual purpose, it could be considered child pornography under Canada’s Criminal Code.
How children and teenagers identify bullying
A young child may not know the word "bully,” but they probably know when someone is hurting them, being mean or making them feel sad or scared.
A child might not tell you they are being bullied because they are worried it will make things worse if they “tell” or “tattle”.
Teenagers might not tell you there's a problem and try to handle things on their own. They might think you'll get upset, don’t want any attention on them, or they might just find it embarrassing to have a parent or guardian involved.
Peer conflict or “drama”
People sometimes confuse conflict with bullying, but they are different. Conflict or “drama” between students does not always mean it is bullying. Conflict can be positive when each person feels comfortable expressing their views.
Conflict or drama often occurs between people who:
- have a disagreement, a difference of opinion or different views
- have roughly the same amount of “social power”
- can go back to being friends
Conflict is usually an isolated incident.
Conflict becomes negative when a person behaves aggressively, says or does hurtful things, or when the power dynamic shifts.
Over time, a pattern of aggressive behaviour can emerge and become worse. If more people support one person, or if something happens to weaken one person’s social status, the person who is on the receiving end of the aggressive conflict may feel less able to express their point of view and feel powerless. That is when negative conflict can turn into bullying.
Signs a child is being bullied
Even if they don't talk about it, you can watch for signs a child is being bullied.
Children and youth who are being bullied might:
- not want to go to school or may cry or feel sick on school days
- complain of recurring physical symptoms, such as stomach aches that don’t seem to have a medical cause
- have disrupted sleeping or eating habits
- not want to take part in activities or social events with other students
- act differently than they normally do
- seem distressed after phone, text or social media contact with others
- suddenly begin to lose money or personal items
- come home with torn clothes or broken possessions, and offer explanations that don't make sense
Teens who are being bullied may talk about leaving school.
What to do if your child is being bullied
If you know your child is being bullied, there are several things you can do to help them:
- focus on making them feel heard, supported and safe
- ask them what they would like to see happen
- let them know it takes courage to report bullying
- explain that reporting bullying is not done to cause trouble for another student, but rather to protect all students
- try to stay calm so that you can support your child and plan a course of action with them
- be clear on the facts by making notes about what happened and when
- make an appointment to speak with someone at the school, such as:
- your child's teacher
- another teacher who your child trusts
- the principal or vice-principal
- keep an eye on your child's behaviour
- if your meetings with school staff do not stop the bullying, follow up with the principal to ensure all agreed upon steps have been followed
- speak to the instructor or coach if the bullying is taking place during after-school activities or sports events
- contact police if the bullying involves criminal behaviour such as:
- sexual assault
- hate motivated incidents
- the use of a weapon
- a threat to your child's safety in the community outside of school
By working with the school to address the bullying, you are leading by example and giving a clear message that bullying is wrong.
Regardless of age, you can encourage your child to talk to you about bullying, and tell them to:
- stay calm and walk away from the situation
- tell an adult they trust, for example, a teacher, principal, school bus driver, lunchroom supervisor
- report it anonymously to their school or school board
- talk about it with siblings or with friends so they don't feel alone
- call Kids Help Phone (toll-free) at 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868
What to do if your child is bullying others
It is important to help your child understand what bullying is and its negative impact on others and on themselves. You could describe the different types of bullying and explain that it is hurtful and harmful. Let your child know that bullying is wrong and is unacceptable behaviour under any circumstances.
Bullying behaviour can develop over a long period. It could also be a result of major changes, losses or upsets in a child's or teen's life. Have any of your children recently had this kind of experience? If they are having trouble explaining their behaviour and managing or controlling their emotions, you may choose to consult a counsellor, social worker or mental health professional who is trained to work with children.
Often, children who bully just want to fit in, feel peer pressured, need attention or are simply figuring out how to deal with complicated emotions. In some cases, bullies are themselves victims or witnesses to violence at home or in their community.
When students witness bullying
Schools are required to have a process for students to report bullying in a way that will minimize the possibility of retaliation. Talk to your school about how to report bullying safely.
You can help your child understand why bullying is unacceptable and how they can help stop it by:
- telling an adult they trust, for example, a teacher, principal, school bus driver, lunchroom supervisor
- reporting it anonymously to their school or school board
Witnesses are affected by what they see. If your child is a witness, they may not want to get involved because they are afraid of becoming a target themselves or making things worse for the person being bullied.
What parents can expect from the school and school board
Schools and school boards must have protocols in place to ensure the safety and well-being of students.
All schools and boards must have:
- policies to prevent and address bullying
- bullying prevention and intervention plans
- policies for progressive discipline, equity and inclusive education
Learn more about how staff deal with incidents at school.
Principal's responsibilities for reporting and responding
Principals must contact the parents or guardians of students who have been bullied and students who have engaged in bullying to tell them:
- what happened
- what harm was done to the student
- what steps were taken to protect the student's safety, including any disciplinary measures in response to the incident
- what supports will be provided for the student in response to the incident
School procedures for reporting and responding
Schools are expected to make every effort to fully investigate your concerns and protect students' privacy.
The school will have a process you can follow if you are concerned about the support provided to your child. If you are unsatisfied with the school's response, you may speak to either the superintendent assigned to their school or the superintendent responsible for safe schools.
Consequences of bullying
When addressing bullying, principals apply a progressive discipline approach. Students who bully others can face different consequences.
Using Ontario's progressive discipline policy, a principal can choose from a range of options to address the unacceptable behaviour and help the student learn from their choices.
Progressive discipline options may include:
- an apology for a hurtful or disrespectful comment
- a review of the expectations for the student
- a meeting with parent(s) or guardian(s)
- anger management counselling
- suspending the student from school
In more serious cases, the principal may recommend the student be expelled from school if:
- the student was previously suspended for bullying
- the student continues to present an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person
- the bullying was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate
These rules apply to elementary and secondary students.
In addition to the policies noted above, it is important to review Ontario's code of conduct. This guide to Ontario's code of conduct outlines the roles and responsibilities for everyone in the school community, including students, parents, guardians, school staff and community partners.
Parent engagement is important.
You can speak with your school's principal if you would like to learn more about what the school is doing to address bullying.
Someone will contact you if your child is bullied
If staff members become aware your child is being bullied, you can expect the school to contact you. Your child's teacher, or another teacher your child trusts, may be able to help identify strategies that will help resolve the problem.
Find out your school board’s approach
School boards should ensure that parents and guardians have access to your school board’s approach to bullying prevention and intervention. This includes:
- information on who to contact when you have questions or concerns
- how you can access more information about bullying prevention and reporting
- a clear path for you to follow if you need to report bullying, including:
- where you can file a report and with whom
- what steps will be taken after you make a report
- a process you can follow if you are unsatisfied with the school's response
School boards must establish ongoing processes to meaningfully engage parents and make every effort to provide access to appropriate board resources, policies and publications for parents.
Join a safe and accepting schools team
You may consider joining the safe and accepting schools team at your school. The team is responsible for fostering a safe, inclusive and accepting school climate. It includes the principal, at least one parent or guardian, school staff, a student and a community partner.
Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week
Bullying Awareness and Prevention week begins on the third Sunday of November each year to help promote safe schools and a positive learning environment.
During Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week, Ontario students, school staff and parents are encouraged to learn more about bullying and its effects on student learning and well-being.