By Laurie Berdahl, MD and Brian D. Johnson, PhD
With the new school year now underway, many parents worry about their children getting bullied. Often starting in elementary school, up to one third of school age children are bullied and can suffer serious psychosocial, physical, behavioral, and educational consequences into adulthood. Fortunately, parents can prevent harm by recognizing and stopping bullying.
First, let’s define bullying as unwanted aggression intended to upset, scare, humiliate, or harm victims or their possessions. Often repeated over time, victims want it to stop. Bullying also involves a perceived power imbalance: bullies seem physically or socially stronger or use popularity, money, or accomplices to perpetrate harm. So taunting, roughhousing, and fighting without threat, fear or power imbalance isn’t bullying. Also, preschoolers aren’t developmentally capable of controlling aggression.
Young bullies usually use physical, face-to-face confrontation. Cyberbullying (using cell phones or Internet to be mean) and relational aggression (causing distress by harming reputation and friendships) are used more at older ages. But now elementary school cyberbullying is increasing.
Who is more likely to be bullied? Anyone perceived as different (race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or disability); physically weak; socially isolated; quick to anger or tears; or having low self-esteem. Joining a new group can subject kids to group initiation bullying, and aggressive cliques also raise risk.
Any of these warning signs indicate your child is possibly being bullied:
- Mood changes: depression, agitation, anxiety, or sad or angry outbursts
- Behavior changes: secretiveness, withdrawal, bullying others, avoiding school (frequently sick or truant), avoiding out of class settings (recess, sports, bus), sleeping and eating changes
- Agitation or fear when seeing classmates
- Vague physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches)
- Sudden exclusion by current friends
- Unexplained decline in grades
- Loss of money or possessions (missing or broken)
- Bruises, soiled or torn clothing, covering arms and legs on hot days, or unexplained scratches and cuts
- Negative remarks about themselves, schools, friends, lives, or futures
- Mood or behavior changes after talking on or looking at media devices is a warning sign of cyberbullying.
Many of these warning signs are symptoms of mental disorders or substance use. Conversely, mental disorders and substance abuse are linked to being bullied.
What parents can do
Arm your children with bullying knowledge. Tell them you care and want to know if they’re being bullied. Whether you see warning signs or not, ask, “Do you know what bullying is?” Praise them for their knowledge, add your information, and say, “Victims aren’t to blame and bullying is never OK.” Then ask, “Do you know anyone who is being bullied?” If children don’t want to talk about their own situations, they may say that “a friend” is being bullied. If so, talk about their friend’s situation.
For cyberbullying defense, ask your kids to tell you when they see anything on tech devices that may be bullying. Confirm that you won’t take away their devices for telling (a common reason cyberbullied kids give for not telling parents).
If your child is being bullied
Your reaction to bullying is important. Believe your child, and say, “This isn’t your fault and isn’t about you. It’s about the bully. It isn’t right, and I’m upset you’re being hurt. I will help you fix this. For right now, try to let it roll off your back and tell me whenever it happens.” Reassure them you won’t do anything without their approval, at least at first.
Being bullied or ridiculed by a sibling can be even more damaging because home is supposed to be a safe and caring place. Make sure your children feel supported by family members and encourage talking about bullying experiences.
Avoid things that exacerbate harm:
- While walking away can temporarily work, telling kids to just ignore repetitive bullying minimizes the problem and might encourage bullies to work harder to cause distress.
- Saying things like, “Suck it up!” or “Don’t be a wimp” blames the victim instead of the bully.
- Encouraging fighting back may lead to suspension or physical injury. But when faced with serious bodily harm, physical self-defense that permits escape is warranted.
After discussing what is happening, make a plan to stop the bullying. Your child needs to be involved to feel in control and safe. First, discuss possible things your child can say when facing a bully before calmly walking away: (1) “Please stop” while calmly looking into the bully’s eyes; (2) something unrelated (“Yeah, I hate tests too”); (3) a compliment (“Your shirt is cool”); (4) agree with the bully (“Yeah, I’m short, but I’m working on it”); or (5) “Ha, that’s a good one.” If unable to say anything or feeling unsafe, have your child stand by an adult or group of kids and avoid areas where bullying happens. Not showing emotion (anger, fear, or tears) is critical, because emotions reinforce bullying.
If this approach doesn’t work, politely ask your child’s teachers or other supervising adults likely to witness bullying to intervene by stopping it, labeling it (“That’s bullying”), moving your child to safety, and reporting it to school officials. There are special circumstances when you can speak to a bully’s parents yourself, but this is best done with school officials.
If bullying doesn’t stop, request a meeting with the principal, faculty or staff and the bully’s parents, but do not include your child or the bully. Bullying is not a conflict resolution situation but a victimization, and forcing a child to meet with the bully can cause further harm. At the meeting, act concerned about your child AND the bully. Explicitly describe the bullying behaviors you need stopped. Don’t criticize, threaten, or accuse, which may create counterproductive defensiveness. Ask to collaboratively create an action plan, and later discuss it with your child. Avoid pushing for suspension of the bully, which often results in retaliation upon return.
If bullying still continues, try telling school officials, “I feel like we’re not getting anywhere. Who can I write to at the district administration level to start a paper trail on this situation?” With unsatisfactory progress, you can meet with your school superintendent’s staff or talk to your state’s Department of Education officials.
Bullying is not a normal part of growing up. Your support is crucial to minimize harm to your child. Much more in-depth advice on this and other topics can be found in our book, WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, to be released on August 1st.
- Stopbullying.gov, US Department of Health and Human Services,
- Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2014). Bullying in schools: The power of bullies and the plight of victims. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 159–185.
- Cornell, D. & Limber, S.P. (2015). Law and policy on the concept of bullying at school. American Psychologist, 70, 333–343.
- Hymel, S., & Swearer, S.M. (2015). Four decades of research on school bullying. American Psychologist, 70, 293-299.
- Bowes, L., Wolke, D., Joinson, C., Lereya, S. T., Lewis, G. (2014). Sibling Bullying and Risk of Depression, Anxiety, and Self-Harm: A Prospective Cohort Study. Pediatrics 134:e1032–e1039.