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Home > Health Library > 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Children are often scared and angry when they are bullied. They may not know what to do. Teach them to:
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.
Children who bully:footnote 1
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
Children who are bullied tend to be:footnote 3, footnote 5
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.
Children can help avoid bullying if they:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Lyznicki J, et al. (2004). Childhood bullying: Implications for physicians. American Family Physicians, 70(9): 1723–1728.
Vanderbilt D (2011). Bullying. In M Augustyn et al., eds., The Zuckerman Parker Handbook of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics for Primary Care, 3rd ed., pp. 160–163. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
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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 StaffMedical Review: Susan C. Kim MD - PediatricsKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineLouis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics
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