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Don’t tread on me: How to tell if your child is being bullied

The recent story of Keaton Jones put the issue of bullying into the spotlight once again. The 11-year-old boy’s mother posted a video on social media which showed him talking about being bullied by a group of children who called him ugly, made fun of his nose and poured milk on his head.

Don’t tread on me: How to tell if your child is being bullied

An instance of bullying happening in Singapore at St. Hilda's Secondary School that was widely circulated on social media. Screengrab: Social Media

The recent story of Keaton Jones put the issue of bullying into the spotlight once again. The 11-year-old boy’s mother posted a video on social media which showed him talking about being bullied by a group of children who called him ugly, made fun of his nose and poured milk on his head.

The Tennessee boy tearfully questioned why the bullies did such unpleasant things, then sent a message to other kids who face similar treatment: “Just don’t let it bother you”.

The post was viewed more than 22 million times in just a few days, and attracted the attention of celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Victoria Beckham, all of whom applauded his courage in talking about being bullied, as well as his anti-bullying message.

Keaton might be American, but Singapore is no stranger to bullying. The issue even arose in Parliament in October last year, when Minister of Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng addressed a question on the extent of bullying in schools after a video of St Hilda’s Secondary school students fighting with a schoolmate went viral online.

Mr Ng said then that bullying in any form is not tolerated in Singapore schools. In his answer, he also said the situation in schools here is stable, and cited some figures from a survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015: One in five students here has experienced some form of verbal bullying, while one in 10 has been on the receiving end of social bullying. Violent bullying, while uncommon, is not unheard of, the survey showed: About 5 per cent of students have reported experiencing it.

Bullying is a perennial problem that many parents have to help their kids through. And since not every child is comfortable with talking to his parents about it and asking for help, it rests on parents’ shoulders to identify if and when their child is being bullied.

“The warning signs that a child is being bullied may be vague and may mimic other mental health issues,” said Dr Tan Hwee Sim, a specialist in psychiatry & consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre.

She advised looking out for sudden changes in demeanour or behaviour, such as a reluctance to go to school, deterioration in school performance, abrupt loss of friends or avoidance of social situations and trouble sleeping or changes in eating habits. Oher signs include distress after spending time online or on the phone without a reasonable explanation or frequent headaches, stomachaches or other physical complaints.

Changes in mood – such as being anxious, depressed or irritable – as well as a loss of self-esteem are another red flag. More serious signs include self-destructive behaviour like self-cutting or running away from home.


Once you have ascertained that your child is being bullied, there are several ways to deal with the situation. Ms Pamela See, an educational and developmental psychologist at Think Psychological Services, said that how you handle it would depend on your child’s emotional maturity. But no matter your child’s age, it is best to teach him or her different ways to manage the situation, for example, ignoring the bully, telling the bully to go away assertively, or informing a teacher.

“It is usually more empowering for the child to learn to manage the situation independently, compared to having the parent jump in to manage the issue,” she explained. “If the child has tried ways to manage the situation to no avail, parents could then speak to the teachers about it.”

Dr Tan warned parents to take the bullying seriously and to let children know it is not their fault, and that raising the issue to adults is the right thing to do. She advised talking to children to learn about the situation and encouraging the child to share concerns as a first step.

Strategising with the child on how to respond to the bullying is the next step. Children should also be taught to avoid isolation, and stick with friends whenever bullying takes place.

“Find a teacher, counsellor, or school administrator at the child’s school who will help, or keep an eye on the situation,” said Dr Tan. “The school may be able to provide a safe place for the child to go when he is being picked on. Lastly, know when to step in, especially if the child no longer feels safe in school.”


Depending on its severity, bullying can often be managed with co-operation between the child, his parents and teachers. But what happens if your child is the bully?

Experts say there are signs parents should look out for in this instance, too: A tendency to take out his frustration by hitting, pushing or other aggressive behaviour; fighting bitterly or physically with his siblings; exhibiting very little empathy in many situations; intentionally excluding other kids from play; and getting into trouble at school frequently.

“If parents suspect their child is bullying others, it’s important to seek help for him as soon as possible,” said Dr Tan. “Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional and legal difficulties. Seek help from teachers, principal, or school counsellors.

“If the bullying continues, a comprehensive evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other mental health professional should be arranged,” she added. “The evaluation can help the child and parents understand what is causing the bullying, and help to develop a plan to stop the destructive behaviour.”

Ms See advised parents to ensure that a child who bullies others is dealt with. Lay out the consequences of such behaviour, and then work closely with the school to ensure that bullying is not tolerated. It is also important to speak to the child about how he or she is expected to behave, and work on social and emotional skills.

In addition to “regular” bullying, parents could also face a 21st Century challenge in the form of cyber-bullying. Said Ms See: “Cyber-bullying diffuses and spreads a lot faster to its audiences, with no immediate repercussions for the offender’s behaviour.”. “It can be carried out anonymously, and can make the bully feel invincible about his actions.”

“Management for both cyber-bullying and traditional bullying should be the same. Both the bully and his victims will require close attention,” she added.

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