Ask Audrey: 'My 14-year-old son is the school bully'

Audrey Griffen

Audrey is a mother to a 15-year-old with another on the way. She probably should have taken into account who she was marrying (Osher Günsberg) much earlier, as she’s far more comfortable behind the camera as a freelance hair and makeup artist, than a TV host’s wife who doesn’t know how to work her angles for any on-camera duties.

Audrey loves to cook, decorate cakes, gardening, DIY and is very handy with a flat-pack, few of which you would pay her to do for you, but she’d happily give it a shot for free.

Audrey dishes out the advice to one mum who's just found out her son is a bully. Photo: Supplied

Hi Audrey,

I recently got a call from my 14-year-old son’s school to ask me to come in for a meeting, after another kid complained that my boy had been bullying them.

I immediately jumped to his defence, telling his teacher they must have made a mistake. My son wouldn’t hurt a fly and has always been a kind and caring child. But how wrong I was.

It turns out my son has been name-calling and teasing the other child at school and was even caught tripping them up in the corridor.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I also learned that he’s been sending them hurtful messages over social media when they’re at home. I’ve always tried to make him aware of the dangers of social media and how it can affect someone’s mental health so this is particularly devastating.

It’s absolutely shattering to me that my boy would ever do something like this. He was brought up in a happy, nurturing environment and has never shown any signs of anger.

I’m hoping I can talk some sense into him but where should I start?

One mum's son has been called up for bullying at school. Photo: Getty Images

Dear Confused Mum,

We can only do our best when it comes to raising our children, and it comes as a shock to find out that they sometimes behave in ways which we haven’t witnessed before, nor raised them to do.

To find out that your child has been bullying another must have flipped your world upside down.

It’s commendable that you’ve acknowledged that your son has been bullying another child, despite defending him to begin with. In my experience, some parents are so unwilling to even consider that their kid could be the perpetrator of wrongdoing that the opportunity for their child to learn and change that behaviour is lost, and the bad behaviour continues.

The thing to remember when we’re dealing with our kids is that their behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg, and that there are usually underlying issues or other things troubling them that they perhaps don’t know how to process or how to handle on their own.

Think of when your son was just a little boy, with a limited vocabulary and ways to communicate his feelings to you. Did he work himself into a tantrum or even lash out physically, whether it be breaking toys or kicking etc?

I remember with Georgia when she was smaller, she would be trying to tell me something which I clearly couldn’t understand, and she would end up in an on-the-floor-meltdown which I also couldn’t understand, and would then reprimand her for.

And so the cycle went. It wasn’t until years later when I sought help from a child psychologist (I was the “patient”, and the psychologist helped me to understand what was happening and how to best support her) during the transition phase of Osher moving in with us that I realised what I had been doing wrong for so many years.

In the past, I almost always resorted to discipline as my first reaction, often not spending the time trying to listen and help make her feel safe enough to talk to me so we could get to what was really bothering her.

That was some years ago now, but it was a lightbulb moment when the psychologist explained the whole “iceberg” concept to me. I try to keep that in mind when she behaves in ways that are not typical of her or that I don’t approve of.

Most of the time something else is going on, whether at home or school, sometimes she’s just pushing the boundaries as she matures. Either way, it’s part of parenting and applies to your kids (and even the rest of us adults) from any age.

As our offspring get older and become teenagers, our influence over their lives and behaviour becomes less important to them, and what their friends and peers think has far more impact. While it is wonderful that your son has a happy and nurturing environment at home, if there are things happening within his peer group, school or at sport, it may explain where this behaviour is coming from.

It can be a huge shock to find out your son is a bully. Photo: Getty Images

I think it would be a rare thing to find a bully who doesn’t have emotional issues that they struggle with. This could be their home environment, a feeling of insecurity or powerlessness, or anger that is seeping into their treatment of others. It makes sense their behaviour reflects that. That doesn’t make it right, in no way, shape or form, but it helps us to understand. And with understanding, perhaps we can find the way to stop the bullying from continuing.

Considering what’s happening, I’d definitely recommend getting your son to see a counsellor or psychologist. It’s important to keep the dialogue around this neutral so as not to make him think that something is wrong with him. There is enough stigma around seeking help without us parents adding to it. You can either seek a Mental Health Plan through your GP or check with your local hospital (which is the path I took) as there are luckily many services provided through the public health system. Our local hospital had both children’s and adolescent’s mental health services and while it took a short while to get up and started, it has made a huge difference in our lives.

Hopefully your son will be able to open up to someone else, the likelihood of him opening up to you straight away is slim (teenagers!) so an outsider will probably be your best bet. I would also recommend you to seek advice and direction on how you can support him and in time, help him to get back to the kind and caring son you knew, who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Wishing you and your son all the very best in changing his bullying behaviour, and I hope that everyone including the child being bullied, finds some healing through this whole process.

Audrey x

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