What is bullying?
Bullying is acting in ways that scare or harm another person. Kids who bully usually pick on someone who is weaker or more alone, and they repeat the actions over and over. Bullying starts in elementary school and becomes most common in middle school. By high school, it is less common but still occurs.
Bullying can take many forms, including:
- Physical harm, such as hitting, shoving, or tripping.
- Emotional harm, such as making fun of the way a child acts, looks, or talks. Writing mean things about someone in emails or online journals (blogs) is also bullying.
Girls who bully are more likely to do so in emotional ways. Boys who bully often do so in both physical and emotional ways. For example:
- A girl may form a group and exclude another girl or gossip about her.
- A boy may shove another boy and call him names.
Both boys and girls take part in "cyberbullying." This means using high-tech devices to spread rumors or to send hurtful messages or pictures. Emotional bullying doesn't leave bruises, but the damage is just as real.
If you think your child is being bullied—or is bullying someone else—take action to stop the abuse.
Why is it important to stop bullying?
Bullying is a serious problem for all children involved. Kids who are bullied are more likely to feel bad about themselves and be depressed. They may fear or lose interest in going to school. Sometimes they take extreme measures, which can lead to tragic results. They may carry weapons, use violence to get revenge, or try to harm themselves.
Kids who bully others are more likely to drop out of school, have drug and alcohol problems, and break the law.
What are the traits of children who bully?
Children who bully are often physically strong. They may bully because they like the feeling of power. They may be kids who do things without thinking first and may not follow rules. These boys and girls have not learned to think about the feelings of other people.
Kids who physically bully others sometimes come from homes where adults fight or hurt each other. They may pick on other kids because they have been bullied themselves.
Children who bully need counseling. It can help them understand why they act as they do. And it can teach them how to interact with others in more positive ways. Family counseling is especially helpful for these children.
How do children who are bullied act?
Children who are bullied are often quiet and shy. They may have few friends and find it hard to stand up for themselves. They may begin to think that they deserve the abuse.
What can children do if they are bullied?
Children are often scared and angry when they are bullied. They may not know what to do. Teach them to:
- Talk back. Say, "Leave me alone," or "You don't scare me." Have your child practice saying this in a calm, strong voice.
- Walk away. Don't run, even if you are afraid.
- Tell an adult. A parent or teacher can then take steps to stop the bullying.
What can you do to stop bullying?
Bullying can be stopped if people pay attention and take action.
Bullying most often occurs in school, and it is most common in schools where students are not well supervised. If bullying is happening at your child's school, talk to the principal or vice principal. Urge the school to adopt a no-bullying policy. All children should know that those who bully will be disciplined. Children who are bullied should be supported and protected.
As a parent, you can help your child get involved in new hobbies or groups, such as school clubs or church youth groups. Being part of a group can help reduce bullying. Having friends can help a child have a better self-image.
Kids can help keep other kids from being bullied. If you are a kid, don't let yourself be part of the problem.
- Speak up when you see someone else being picked on. It can help to say something like, "Cut it out. That's not funny." If this is too hard or scary to do, walk away and tell an adult.
- If someone sends you a mean email about another person, don't forward it to others. Print it out and show it to an adult.
Characteristics of Children Who Bully
Children who bully:footnote 1
- May witness physical and verbal violence or aggression at home. They have a positive view of this behavior, and they act aggressively toward other people, including adults.
- May hit or push other children.
- Are often physically strong.
- May or may not be popular with other children around their same age.
- Have trouble following rules.
- Show little concern for the feelings of others.
Many bullies think highly of themselves. They like being looked up to. And they often expect everyone to behave according to their wishes. Children who bully are often not taught to think about how their actions make other people feel.
Children who bully are at risk for failing in school, dropping out of school, and getting involved with crime and fights later in life.footnote 1, footnote 2 They also are more likely to use drugs more than children who don't bully.footnote 3
Some children both bully others and are bullied. They may have been bullied and then lash out at others. Children who are both bullies and victims use alcohol and/or carry a weapon more than children not affected by bullying.footnote 3
Bullying behavior is a "red flag" that a child has not learned to control his or her aggression. A child who bullies needs counseling to learn healthy ways to interact with people. Professional counseling can guide a child through discovering why bullying is hurtful. Through this process, a counselor can encourage a child to develop empathy, which means being sensitive to and understanding the feelings of others. In some cases, follow-up counseling may involve the parent. Family counseling has been shown to help reduce anger and improve interpersonal relationships in boys who bully.footnote 4
Characteristics of Children Who Are Bullied
- Socially withdrawn. They may think poorly of themselves, or they may have a quiet temperament.
- Passive. They often let other people be in control and do not stand up for themselves.
- More likely to get depressed.
Children who are bullied are not to blame for attacks against them. Make sure your child understands this.
Boys are more likely than girls to be bullied in both physical and psychological ways.footnote 6
In some cases, a child who is bullied sometimes ends up bullying others. These children often respond to being bullied by feeling anxious and aggressive. Without knowing how to handle these feelings, they target other children who they think will not fight back.
In extreme situations, children who are bullied may attempt suicide or lash out violently against those who bullied them. Watch for warning signs of suicide in your child, such as withdrawing from family and friends.
Children who are embarrassed about being bullied may not want to tell their parents or other adults about it. Look for signs of bullying, such as poor sleep, unexplained bruises, frequent crying, and making up excuses not to go to school. Elementary school children who are bullied often say they have a sore throat or a cold, feel sick in the stomach, and/or don't feel like eating.
How Children Can Discourage Bullying
Children can help avoid bullying if they:
- Try to stay away from those who seem to not like them.
- Play or take breaks near adults while at school.
- Walk to school with older brothers and sisters or friends.
- Sit near the bus driver.
Bullying is less likely to occur when children are in groups and are in areas supervised by adults. But these strategies only work when schools have firm policies in place against bullying. Staff must be trained and supported in consistently enforcing these policies.
Children who bully look for an easy target. Bullies are less likely to pick on those who:
- Can quickly respond to threats in a self-assured way. Help your child practice what to say if he or she is bullied.
- Act confident and do not seem easily scared. Help your child learn to use strong body language, such as standing up straight, looking other children in the eye, and speaking firmly.
Bullying is reinforced when it is ignored or quietly accepted. Encourage children to stand up for each other. Help your child think of ways to help someone who is being bullied. For example, you might suggest that a child say, "Why are you picking on him? If you think it makes you look good, you're wrong." Other simple ways include refusing to watch or participate in bullying. Sometimes distracting a bully, such as by starting a conversation, can prevent a confrontation.
Defending another person may sometimes be too much to ask. Help your child understand that, at the very least, he or she should tell an adult.
What Children Should Do if They Are Bullied
It's normal for children to be frightened or angry when other children bully them. But they can discourage attacks by showing confidence and not overreacting.
Children should not fight with a bullying child or make verbal or written insults. This could lead to more aggression and possibly serious injury. Have your child call out for help or find an adult or peer right away if he or she feels unsafe.
Face-to-face and cyberbullying
Children who are bullied online or in text messages should not reply. It is best for them to show the message to an adult and block any more messages from the sender. Remind them to only accept messages from people they know.
Give your child these tips to handle face-to-face bullying:
- Talk to the bullying child if it feels safe. Look him or her in the eye and say strongly but calmly, "Leave me alone" or "You don't scare me."
- Walk away from the bullying child or children. Children who are being bullied should not run (even though they may want to). It may strengthen a feeling of power in the bullying child.
- Tell an adult about the episode. It might help for children to identify an adult at school to tell if incidents occur. Children who see another child being harmed also should seek help from an adult right away.
Children may worry about making other kids angry by telling on them. But exposing the abuse is the only way to stop the problem. A child can ask to remain anonymous when reporting an incident.
If your child gets left out
Bullying happens when children shut out or exclude others. These actions can be subtle. But they can be very hurtful to the child who is abused. This type of bullying is called emotional or social bullying, and it is very isolating. It's also hard to manage because the pain it causes is not physical and can be hard to explain to an adult.
Girls who bully tend to do so in social or emotional ways. And boys who bully tend to do so in both physical and emotional ways. Both boys and girls can be targets of emotional bullying. Gossiping and "backstabbing" are common techniques used by girls who bully in this way.
Although there is no easy or foolproof solution, it may help to try some of the following strategies.
- Recognize the behavior. Trying to ignore it won't make it go away. Help your child accept that there is a problem and know that you will help him or her through this difficult time. Help your child understand that he or she is not to blame.
- Role-play. Practice, practice, practice ways to respond to hurtful comments or actions until they come naturally. Help your child think up different scenarios and different ways to respond in them. Have fun with this—make up absurd or outrageous situations. Also, practice using humor as a way to be assertive. Sometimes saying things like, "Oh, please! You've been watching too much TV!" or simply, "I don't need that!" and walking away can stop bullying. This creative thinking can help your child relieve tension and gain some feeling of control.
- Encourage your child to pursue interests in a different environment. Assure your child that he or she will meet friends who value him or her. Help your child look for areas of life where he or she feels accepted, likable, and normal. And help your child find opportunities to develop well-balanced friendships.
- Talk to school leaders. If the bullying occurs in certain social situations or school activities, sometimes it is just best to remove your child from the situation. It is not always in a child's best interest to "stick it out." Often, in fear of causing disappointment, children do not want to tell their parents that this is the solution they prefer. Ask your child if he or she really wants to continue to be in the activity. If the bullying occurs in a general school setting, work with teachers and counselors to help your child not be around those who bully.
- Stay out of groups who bully others. Sometimes a child who was shunned before will suddenly be "invited" into or back into a group. Talk about the fickle nature of such friendships. Ask your child how he or she would feel if pressured to exclude another person. Help your child discover the qualities of long-lasting and true friendships.
- Let your child know you are always there for him or her. You may not be able to come up with the perfect answer for the problem. But you can help by telling your child that you will always be there to listen and to help him or her think about new ways to handle being bullied.
How Adults Can Help Stop Bullying
As with many issues related to growing up, openly talking about bullying before it happens is most helpful for children. Teach your child how to recognize and react to bullying, regardless of who is the victim. Also, talk about and model empathy, which is being sensitive to and understanding how other people feel. This can help prevent your child from becoming involved in bullying others.
Children on both sides of bullying incidents need help. Adults must first recognize that bullying should not be ignored. This includes the form of bullying that makes others feel excluded and shunned. No bullying behaviors should be considered a normal part of growing up.
Bullying is abusive behavior. If you witness bullying, get involved and speak up. Make it clear that you will not tolerate it. Ideally, build an alliance with a bullying child's parents first. If you confront the bully on behalf of your child without his or her parents around, you risk putting the child on the defensive. Also, children who bully often are skilled in turning their parents against you. Don't give them the chance to come up with a different version of the real story. And remember that parents may be the role models for a child's bullying behavior.
If you think your child is bullying others
Aggressive behavior often starts early in a child's life. Although it is normal for young children to hit, fight, and argue with each other, most will learn to control these impulses. You can help your child understand that his or her words and actions affect other people. You play an important role in making your child aware of others' feelings.
Your child may be bullying another if he or she:
- Comes home from school with extra money or "new" toys, books, or clothes.
- Is cruel or mean when talking about other children.
- Excludes other children from activities.
If you see any of this behavior, take action. Discuss the situation with your child as soon as possible before the behavior becomes routine. Ask questions to find out what is going on in your child's life. It may be that your child is being bullied and is dealing with it by targeting other children. Or your child may not yet know the importance of understanding the feelings of others (empathy).
You can help your child by setting rules, supervising activities, and leading by example. Control your anger, and show sensitivity and respect for others. If a child bullies, do not punish him or her with physical force (corporal punishment), such as spanking. Physical punishment only strengthens the belief that people can get what they want through aggression.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents of children who bully seek help from their child's teacher, principal, school counselor, pediatrician, or family doctor. These professionals can help evaluate your child's behavior and make a referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a licensed counselor who can work with your child.
If you think your child is being bullied
Many children are too embarrassed or are afraid to tell an adult about bullying. They may think that involving an adult will only make the problem worse. Help prepare children by teaching them socialization skills, modeling friendly behavior, and telling them that you will always be there for them. Mention that if something bothers them, they can also talk with a school counselor.
Be familiar with signs of bullying, such as frequent headaches, stomachaches, or not wanting to go to school. Also, ask your child questions, such as whom he or she eats with at lunch or plays with at recess. If you sense something is wrong, trust your instincts.
There are many ways you can help your child deal with bullying.
- Talk about the situation. Although often reluctant at first, many children who are bullied will open up if they are in the right environment. A good place to start these discussions is in the car or other place where you have little eye-to-eye contact. Listen calmly and thoughtfully. Don't promise that you won't tell anyone. Rather, admit that you may need to become involved but you will do your very best not to make problems worse.
- Practice role-playing at home. Encourage your child to react calmly and confidently to taunting. Help your child understand that responding with physical aggression or insults usually will make the problem worse. For example, have your child practice saying "Leave me alone" and then walking away.
- Teach your child behaviors that show confidence rather than shyness and vulnerability. Children can learn to look people in the eye and speak up when they talk. Assure your child that confident behavior can be learned. Help build your child's self-esteem by suggesting that he or she meet others through different activities. Having friends and interests can boost a child's confidence and make him or her less likely to be bullied.
- Encourage your child to think about the qualities that make a good friend.
- Suggest that your child join activities that are supervised by an adult. Bullying is less likely to occur near adults.
The Role of Schools in Bullying
Schools play a critical role in stopping bullying, because most aggression happens on school grounds during recess, in lunch rooms, or in bathrooms. Schools should have and enforce zero-tolerance programs that make it clear that bullying won't be tolerated.
School-based programs can help reduce bullying when they:
- Raise awareness of bullying through school assemblies and classroom discussion of the problem. These conversations should include teaching healthy ways to control anger. They should also teach the value of cooperation, positive communication skills, and friendship.
- Have peers help settle an incident and talk with all students involved.
- Increase parents' and teachers' involvement.
- Increase supervision of children on school grounds, especially when they are out of the classroom.
- Form clear rules about behavior that will not be tolerated.
- Provide support and protection for children who are bullied.
You can help your child's school develop bullying policies by becoming involved in parent-teacher organizations (PTO or PTA) and by volunteering to help teachers.
In the classroom, teachers should make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated. Teachers must be prepared to follow through with consequences if bullying occurs. Doing so sends the message that adults are serious about the problem. It also encourages children who are not involved in bullying to report any incidents they see.
Conferences can be held—separately or together—with the parents of both children involved in bullying incidents.
School-based programs are one piece of a larger plan to help children understand the importance of treating one another with kindness and respect.
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- Nickel M, et al. (2005). Anger, interpersonal relationships, and health-related quality of life in bullying boys who are treated with outpatient family therapy: A randomized, prospective, controlled trial with 1-year follow-up. Pediatrics, 116(2): 247–254.
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- DeVoe JF, Kaffenberger S (2005). Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2001 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCES 2005-310). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Also available online: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005310.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Current as of: February 9, 2022