Cyberbullying: How Parents Can Approach Their Child About it

Words by Celeste Goh
  • Malaysia has one of the highest levels of social media cyberbullying in the world at 71%
  • One in four Malaysian parents have revealed that their children had experienced cyberbullying
  • Most victims or parents do not escalate these cases to the police, even though the effects of cyberbullying are comparable to physical bullying
  • However the bigger problem is that up tp 70% of parents struggle to approach the topic with their children in a meaningful way

When it comes to cyber crimes, the Malaysian government is rather hands-on about preventing them escalating any further. While Malaysia may be one of the countries in the world with the highest level of social media bullying at 71%, in terms of awareness, the country also counters with a high degree of awareness at 85% globally. 

Besides that, cyberbullying is considered an offence under the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and in 2018 and 2019 alone, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has received close to 3,800 complaints of cyber harassment.

However, many more cyber crime cases have gone unreported: “Most victims do not come forward to lodge a police report, as they think cyberbullying is supposed to happen in the virtual world, and they feel that they cannot complain about it, as compared to being bullied physically,” says Supt R Chelvam, the Commercial Crime Deputy Chief in Penang.


Managing Director of Ipsos in Malaysia, Arun Menon says: “Cyberbullying can be as real as bullying in person. Our youth are growing up in a time, when there is little distinction between the digital and the physical, as their lives are heavily intertwined with social media. It is important for parents to help their children recognise the abuse when it happens, and from a very young age.”

But how can parents go about having a conversation with their children about cyberbullying, when reports have shown that around 70% of parents struggle to communicate meaningfully with their kids? With “the former saddled with the stress of adult responsibilities, and the latter the trials of growing up,” 82% of parents feel like their kid avoids talking to them if they don’t have to, with 78% of them feeling shut out of their child’s life.

“Why do I think most Asian parents don’t have talks with their children? It’s just because we weren’t raised that way. It’s not what we’re accustomed to, it’s not what we’ve been exposed to, and more so than anything, it’s scary to do the other way,” says Racheal Kwacz, a mother to a five-year-old, and a child and family development specialist in “Respectful Parenting”.

She adds: “Children don’t feel like they can explain to their parents, why they’re doing what they’re doing; and because they don’t feel like we can explain, they don’t think that the parents would understand. This, in turn, does not provide parents the mutual platform to explain their concern and love towards the children for doing what they do to protect them.”

This week, we seek guidance from Racheal, on how parents can approach a conversation with their children when faced with cyberbullying: how parents can not only make a safe and validated space for them to talk about it at home, but also empower them to face harassments in the future – whether it be online or offline, at the playground, in school or at work.

“It’s not realistic to say that nobody’s ever going to be cyberbullied; even as adults, we have been cyberbullied in some way or another. I don’t think it’s realistic to say it’s never going to happen, or to say that we can prevent it 100%. Instead, the bigger question to ask is, what can we do to address it when it happens?” Racheal says.

“We can spend all day fixing a problem, but it’s just gonna happen again, and again, and again, and again – until we address the bigger problem. We want to be able to meet them before they are withdrawn, or suicidal, or when they are hurting other people. We want to be able to address it at the root, not when the symptoms start showing,” she adds. “We want to be able to have connected relationships that are stronger and healthier, where the kids and the parents meet in the middle.”

Trust Your Child

First and foremost, Racheal advises parents to create a safe zone for your children to come to you, even when the problem is little in the adult’s eye, but may not be in your children’s; this is by trusting your child, whenever he or she tells you that something is wrong.

“Say, you’re at the playground, and your child comes up to you, and says that he or she doesn’t want to play with a certain kid anymore. Kids are not going to go in-depth about what happened; they’re just gonna say things like, ‘there was this person at the playground, and something was just off about it, and I don’t want to play with them,’” Racheal comments.

She also notes that parents would disregard such as mere playground politics, when in the child’s mind, he or she may already feel invalidated: “Usually, we’d brush them off, and tell them that we have to be nice to everybody, and we have to be polite to everybody, so just go back and play with them – but in reality, we don’t know what’s actually going on.”

“Learning cannot happen, unless we feel safe or loved, and children feel safe or loved, if they feel seen and validated, when they feel hurt. Do they feel safe enough to come to you? Do they feel like you’re going to hear them, if they say something is wrong?” she says. 

“It’s so important to make them feel safe, and make them feel validated, and it starts with something as small as that. When the cyberbullying or social media bullying happens, or any other bigger problems happen, they know that they can come to you.”

Notice the Subtle Cues

Besides trusting your children when they tell you something is off, trust your motherly or fatherly instincts as well. When you get the gut feeling that something is off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it; when you start noticing that they are not acting like themselves, or doing things they don’t normally do, either they are a lot quieter and withdrawn, or rebelling and screaming a lot more – it is always a good time to look into what’s going on. 

Chairman of MCMC, Datuk Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi states: “For a while, all you hear from your eight-year-old daughter is about her new Internet friend ‘Ben’. Every day, it’s ‘Ben this’, ‘Ben that’. Then, all of a sudden, the ‘Ben-talk’ stops. In fact, all talk from your child stops. Once bubbly and chatty, your daughter is now quiet and morose. Be very worried if this happens to your child.”

“If they’re having trouble on social media, it has nothing to do with social media; it has to do with the internal makeup of the child,” Racheal concurs. “They will tell you in small subtle ways. While you may notice, and you may not actually know what is wrong, but you get the feeling that it’s wrong – it’s just whether you’re listening to those small subtle cues, and doing something about them.

Other than acting besides themselves, parents may want to take note of offhand comments their children make, including those that may not fit into the context at that precise moment. The family could very much be talking about a character that they like in the TV show they are watching, when they would say: “Nobody really likes me, like that character.”

“It’s that subtle, and it’s that quiet, but that’s usually a big clue to ask what’s wrong,” Racheal says.

Get Curious, Not Critical

Now that you have caught these cues your children have been sending your way, what then? This is probably the most important and delicate part in having a constructive conversation with your children, as Racheal advises parents to “just listen to their stories, [because] it’s so important to acknowledge, to validate, and to say: ‘I hear you’.”

“A big part of what we want to do, is to see the world through our child’s eyes, but respond as a parent,” she adds. “When you reply immediately with: ‘that’s wrong’, ‘that’s not true’, or ‘don’t do that’, what you’ve done is that you’ve shut down the conversation. You may think that you’re making it better by ‘reassuring’ them, but you’ve shut down the conversation for them to let you see what’s really going on through their eyes.”

In fact, the same not only applies to toddlers, but teenagers also, even adults. Racheal says: “Think about yourself as an adult: when you fight with your friends, or your spouse, or your partner, you want someone to ask you why you react the way you react, because there’s a reason why you did what you did.” 

For the 21% (13-15 years) and  the 16% (16-17 years) teenagers that have experienced cyberbullying – among them, 60% of them girls, whereas 59% of them boys, how can parents make them feel safe, not only in trudging through adolescence gracefully, but also when faced with cyber harassments?

“We validate their feelings, and let them understand that they have a right to what they’re feeling,” Racheal advises. “Growing up, we’ve all felt lonely and misunderstood, while trying to navigate our way as an adult and as a child, and trying to figure out independence as human beings.”

She continues: “Teenagers may not want the parents to baby them like toddlers, but at the same time, they also need the parents in some way, wishing they would understand what the teenagers are going through. So, we explore together, and understand why they’re feeling like that – we get curious, before we get critical.”

Let Them Come to You

More often than not, when children give out the subtle cues for parents to catch them, they are testing the waters to see if it is indeed safe for them to express themselves to you. When parents have proved that they are genuinely curious of what’s going on, instead of being critical towards their feelings and experiences, most intimate conversations don’t take place immediately either. 

Here is when the right kind of “reassurance” should take place from the parents. Racheal suggests parents to “not force the issue, because very frequently, that’s what we’re going to do”: “When they comment offhandedly that ‘nobody really likes me,’ and when you get curious and ask: ‘Why do you think that?’, the kid might just shrug and say: ‘Just because.’ 

“It’s always good to reassure them that ‘anytime you want to talk to me about it, I’m right here,’ because what they’ve done in that moment is testing whether it is safe,” she adds. “When you show them that it is safe, they’ll come back to you again, and have the bigger, proper conversation about what’s troubling them.”

But if in those small moments, the parents shut down the potential conversations by being critical of their feelings and experiences, or by just simply using the “wrong” words, the children will clam up, because they can’t feel safe with their parents, or even loved for who they are, and what they are going through.

“The thing is, words can have long lasting effects, especially on your children. The words you use with your children can either build them up, or destroy their self esteem,” says Joy Burgess, a 28-year-old wife and stepmother. “What you say to your kids is important, because your kids look up to you. Your approval or disapproval really means something to them. Your words have the ability to easily hurt your children, even if you don’t realise it.”

Don’t Jump the Gun

Lastly, Racheal mentions that some of the common mistakes parents make is intervening too early. When it comes to bullying – whether on social media platforms or at school, the parents may want to step in and protect their children, and the next day following the heartfelt confession, the parents may want to call up the teachers or the bully’s parents. In the case of cyberbullying, the natural parental instinct may be to leave a defensive comment on the bully’s social media, or head straight to the police to lodge a report.

“What that ultimately tells the children is that they are not able to protect themselves, and they will always need the parents to protect them. If the parents come in too soon, and fix everything, this child is always going to think, ‘I need my parents to fix everything for me, and without my parents, I’m useless’,” Racheal warns. “When the truth of the matter is, the parents never actually have a conversation with the child on a more important question: how can we make you feel safe again?”

Instead, Racheal advises parents to take a beat, and see what the children will do next. Yes, even after the heart-to-heart you have just pried out of your children after going through all of the abovementioned steps.

Racheal says: “It’s the hardest thing for a parent to do, but it is crucial to sit in the moment, and see what your child’s going to do, because this is the make-or-break part of respectful parenting: Can I trust that they are able and competent from here on out in the face of cyberbullying? Have I empowered them enough to speak up about it, even when I’m not around?”

The Norton Online Family Report in 2010 has stated that only 4 out of 10 Malaysian parents know what their children are doing online, when they are spending an average of 19 hours online per week, with their parents under the impression that they only spend 11 hours online.

As the old saying goes: give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

What more can a parent ask for, when their children are armed with the intellectual and emotional smarts to protect themselves for the rest of their lives?

“Observe how they are going to react, and then talk to them about it, and debrief your child afterwards,” Racheal adds.

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