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 can happen at school, on the bus, in the neighborhood, by text, or online. Using technology to bully is called cyberbullying.
The types of bullying include:
- Physical. This can be things like hitting, shoving, or tripping.
- Emotional. This may include making fun of the way a child acts, looks, or talks.
- Social. This can be things like excluding someone from a group, spreading rumors, sending hurtful messages or pictures in texts, emails, or online.
Emotional and social bullying doesn't leave bruises, but the damage is just as real.
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 have physical symptoms like an upset stomach. And they may fear or lose interest in going to school.
Kids who bully others are more likely to drop out of school, have drug and alcohol problems, and break the law.
If you think your child is being bullied—or is bullying someone else—take action to stop the abuse.
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Signs That a Child Is Being Bullied
Children who are being bullied may be embarrassed and not want to talk about it. Be aware of the signs that your child is being bullied so you can help resolve the problem.
If your child is being bullied, they may:
- Have physical injuries. Bruises, cuts, scrapes, and scratches are common.
- "Lose" items frequently. Bullying often includes taking belongings or stealing lunch money or prepared lunches. Your child may come home from school without favorite toys, clothes, or other items. Your child may also come home very hungry from having missed lunch.
- Sleep poorly and develop frequent headaches, stomachaches, and other physical problems. Or your child may pretend to be sick or make other excuses to avoid certain people or situations.
- Cry frequently or act differently. For example, a usually outgoing child may suddenly become withdrawn and sad. A shy child may become overactive and aggressive.
- Bully 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.
- Not speak or show fear when certain people or situations are mentioned.
- Suddenly receive lower grades or develop learning problems.
- Talk about suicide.
Children who are bullied are not to blame for attacks against them. Make sure your child understands this.
Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
If your child talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:
- Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
- Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.
Consider saving these numbers in your phone.
How Children Can Discourage Bullying
Bullying is less likely to occur when children are in groups and are in areas supervised by adults.
Children can help avoid bullying if they:
- Ignore or walk away from those who bother 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.
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 they are 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 child may be difficult. Help your child understand that they should tell an adult.
What Children Should Do if They Are Bullied
Bullying can be stopped if people pay attention and take action.
Bullying most often occurs in school. If bullying is happening at your child's school, talk to a teacher, administrator, or counselor.
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, unless you are in danger of being harmed.
- Tell an adult.
A parent or teacher can then take steps to stop the bullying.
- 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. 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.
- Don't forward messages.
If someone sends you a mean message about another person, don't forward it to others. Show it to an adult.
If your child gets left out
Bullying can happen when children exclude others. 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.
Try some of these tips to help your child.
- Recognize the behavior.
Trying to ignore it won't make it go away. Help your child understand that they are not to blame.
Practice ways to respond to hurtful comments or actions. Help your child think up different scenarios and different ways to respond to them.
- Encourage your child to find activities they like.
Help your child develop friendships through activities such as clubs, sports, or drama.
- Talk to school leaders.
Ask your child if they really want to continue to be in the activity. If the bullying occurs in a school setting, work with teachers, administrators, and counselors to help your child.
- Let your child know you are always there for them.
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 help.
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. 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.
If you witness bullying, get involved and speak up. Make it clear that you will not tolerate it.
Be familiar with signs of bullying. These may include frequent headaches, stomachaches, or not wanting to go to school. Also, ask your child questions, such as who eats lunch with them or who do they play with at recess. If you sense something is wrong, trust your instincts. 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.
Here are some ways you can help your child deal with bullying.
- Talk about the situation. Listen calmly and thoughtfully. Don't promise that you won't tell anyone. Tell your child 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. For example, have your child practice saying "Leave me alone" and then walking away.
- Teach your child behaviors that show confidence. Children can learn to look people in the eye and speak up when they talk.
- Help build your child's self-esteem by suggesting that they meet others through different activities.
- Encourage your child to think about the qualities that make a good friend.
- Ask your child to report bullying to a trusted adult like a teacher, school counselor, or administrator.
If you think your child is bullying others
It can be hard to accept that your child may be bullying other children. But once you recognize the problem, you can help solve it by helping your child learn how their actions affect others. Being sensitive to others' feelings (empathy) is largely a learned skill that you can teach your child.
- Take your child's actions seriously.
Let your child know that bullying will not be tolerated. Set up and follow through with consequences, such as losing privileges.
- Involve the school.
Ask your child's teacher, school administrator, or school counselor for help.
- Talk to your child about the importance of understanding the feelings of others.
Ask your child how they would feel as the target of bullying.
- Supervise your child's activities.
Know where you child is spending their time. Ask about community or school programs for after school.
- Be a good role model.
Show your child how to treat other people with respect and kindness. Avoid reacting to disappointments with verbal or physical aggression.
- Praise your child for kind words or deeds.
A child who bullies may need professional counseling to learn healthy ways to interact with people.
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. This can be done through school assemblies and classroom discussions of the problem. These 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. They can also talk with all students involved.
- Increase parents' and teachers' involvement.
- Increase supervision of children on school grounds. This is very important 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 problems 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.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics