What is bullying?
“Bullying is an act of repeated aggressive behavior in order to intentionally hurt another person, physically or mentally. Bullying is characterized by an individual behaving in a certain way to gain power over another person.” (Ducharme, 2010).
Bullying can take many forms. It can include:
- Physical violence
- Intimidation and threats
- Name calling and belittling
- Social exclusion (i.e., leaving someone out of social gatherings and activities)
- Gossiping and spreading rumors about others
- Public humiliation
- Using slurs, words or phrases that characterize a bullied victim’s identity to suggest that something is unacceptable or worthless (e.g., using the word “gay” when what is meant is “un-cool”)
Who gets bullied?
It is estimated that nearly 30% of students are involved in bullying, as victims, perpetrators or both. Studies have found that 15 to 25% of children and youth in the U.S. are bullied and 15 to 20% bully others.
Children and youth who are overweight, gay (or perceived to be gay) or have disabilities are up to 63% more likely to be bullied than are other children.
What are warning signs that my child is being bullied?
Your child might be experiencing bullying if he or she:
- Has unexplained cuts, bruises, scratches and/or missing or torn pieces of clothing.
- Seems afraid to go to school or other social activities.
- Spends no time with friends or seems to have very few friends.
- Has lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school.
- Appears sad, moody, teary or depressed when he or she comes home from school or other activities.
- Complains of chronic pains such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Suddenly experiences a change in sleeping patterns (either too much or not enough sleep) or has frequent bad dreams.
- Experiences a change of appetite or eating patterns.
- Appears anxious and suffers from low self-esteem.
If your child is being bullied, he or she may display one, all or even none of these warning signs. So be alert for any changes in your child’s behavior and talk to him or her frequently about what is going on at school and in other activities.
Why do kids bully?
Some reasons kids bully:
- Previous traumatic experiences of their own, including maltreatment or bullying.
- A lack of warmth and involvement on the part of their parents.
- Parent(s) exhibiting bullying behavior or violence to others, including to both people and animals.
- Harsh, physical discipline at home, including physical abuse.
- A lack of supervision or intervention (including little to no limits for children’s behavior) by parents, guardians, teachers and other adults.
- Victimization by older siblings.
- Friends who bully or who have positive attitudes about violence.
- Models of bullying behavior are prevalent throughout society, especially in television, movies and video games.
- Some aggressive children who take on high status roles may use bullying as a way to enhance their social power and protect their prestige with peers.
- Some children with low social status may use bullying as a way to deflect taunting and aggression that is directed toward them and enhance their social status with higher status peers.
- Bullying thrives in schools where faculty and staff do not address bullying, where there are weak policies against bullying and discrimination, and where there is little supervision of students — especially at recess or during free periods.
What is at risk when children are bullied?
Children and adolescents who are subjected to bullying are at risk of experiencing damage to their physical safety and well-being, mental health and development, self-esteem, and educational success. Often, bullied students will skip school or drop out due to their fear of humiliation and violence. Constant ridicule and torment can also have lasting effects on youth’s sense of who they are in the world, and how they identify themselves as they develop. In addition, children who are bullied may go on to harm others, which could potentially have lasting negative impacts on individuals and communities. Sadly, children and youth who are bullied sometimes turn to suicide to escape the anguish they feel. In short, we simply cannot allow children and youth to be bullied to death.
What should I do if my child is being bullied?
Children who are being bullied may feel embarrassed or afraid to let adults know about the situation, especially if they feel adults will judge them or fail to protect them. If your child tells you that he or she is being bullied, be understanding and supportive, because it can take a lot of courage to admit it. Ask your child what he or she thinks can be done to help the situation, and make suggestions yourself. It is important not to ignore the situation or pretend it is not happening. Rational decisions about next steps and ways to end the bullying need to be made as soon as possible.
If your child is being bullied at school, the best strategy is to contact the school and share your concerns about bullying with them. Ask about what types of programs, policies or culture changes are in place to counteract bullying, and insist that protective measures be in place. No one can stop bullying alone — it takes a group effort from teachers, school administrators, community members, parents/guardians, extended family members and kids/youth. Here are some additional action steps you can take if your child is being bullied:
- Assess how the bullying is impacting your child, and seek therapeutic or emergency help if necessary.
- Communicate to your child that he or she is not to blame and that you love your child for who he or she is. If you are struggling with why your child is being bullied (e.g., issues surrounding sexual orientation), seek support and advice for yourself, so that you can be there for your child.
- Be an advocate for your child by ensuring that adults at his or her school or other out-of-the-house activities are aware of the harassment and are taking every necessary step to end it.
- Talk with your child about the steps to take to protect himself or herself, both emotionally and physically.
- Encourage your child to take part in extracurricular activities that highlight his or her strengths and that make your child feel safe, special and accepted.
- Seek out positive adult mentors (e.g., extended family members, teachers, coaches, volunteers, etc.) who your child can relate to.
- Get involved at your child’s school and other activities, and encourage the implementation of policies and programs that denounce prejudice and celebrate diversity.
You can also give your child, or other young people who you know are being bullied, the following advice:
- Understand that you are not to blame for the bullying and that you deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.
- Stand up for yourself but do not overly engage with the bully; focus your energy on taking caring of yourself.
- Speak out. Tell someone you trust that you are being harmed and that you need help. If you can, file an official complaint with your school.
- Encourage others (like fellow students, friends, relatives and community members) who have been bullied or who have witnessed bullying to raise their voices with you. It won’t stop unless everyone says no.
- Spend your time doing things you care about, either alone or with people you love.
- If you are feeling hopeless or suicidal, know that you are not alone and that there is hope. Let someone you trust know how you are feeling, or call an anonymous hotline for help:
- 1.800.SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433)
- 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255)
- 1.888.628.9454 – Red Nacional de Prevencion del Suicidio
- 1.800.799.4TTY (1.800.799.4889) – hotline for the hearing and speech impaired
- 1.866.4-U-TREVOR (1.866.488.7386) – The Trevor Project Lifeline, focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth
If your child or another youth tells you that a friend of his or hers is being bullied, you can offer the following advice:
- Speak out against the bullying when it happens and after the fact. Model kindness and respect for your peers every chance you get.
- Tell an adult what you have witnessed and encourage other children/youth to raise their voices, too. If you can, file an official complaint with your school. It won’t stop unless everyone says no.
- Be there for your bullied peer/classmate and show others that you support him or her.
What should I do if my child is bullying others?
If you discover that your child is bullying others, here are some things you can do:
- Remember that children who bully others do so because they might also have been a victim of some type of bullying or other trauma in the past. Talking with your child about why he or she is bullying is an important part of stopping the behavior.
- Make it clear that you will not tolerate bullying or violence of any kind. Enforce this rule and other household rules with non-physical discipline, and reward good behavior with praise.
- Model kindness, empathy and respect for all living things, including people, animals and the natural environment.
- Point out and discuss with your children when you witness inequality, cruelty or discrimination, and communicate that these are all unacceptable.
- Spend more time with your child and learn about his or her activities and friends.
- Make sure adults in your child’s school and/or extracurricular groups outside the home know that you are committed to ending the bullying, and get them on board to help you.
- As a family, work with your child on how he or she can begin to repair the harm caused to those he or she has bullied, as well as to the victim’s family and the community (if applicable).
- Encourage your child to get involved in activities like social clubs, music groups, sports and/or volunteering, so that he or she has the opportunity to learn the value of compassionately giving back to those less fortunate.
- Think about seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist if the bullying does not stop or is hard to control.
What can schools and communities do to prevent and address bullying?
- Model kindness, empathy and respect for all living things, including people, animals and the natural environment.
- Implement solid school and/or social policies that explicitly specify that bullying on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, gender, class, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and appearance (including weight) will not be tolerated.
- If not already present, advocate for a process in schools by which youth can file an official complaint if they witness or experience bullying. Apply real consequences and accountability for youth who receive a complaint, including opportunities for them to repair the harm they have caused.
- Hold every adult accountable to stop bullying in the school and community.
- Require that adults working with youth attend trainings in cultural competency and bullying prevention and intervention, making it clear they are expected to consistently respond whenever they witness an act of bullying.
- Make bullying reduction a key component of every staff member’s annual performance review by tracking bullying incidents (and other data) at your school.
- Make efforts to address all types of bullying (e.g., cyber bullying).
- Work in partnership with families and community groups to address the needs of youth involved in bullying so that harm may be repaired.
- Support the development of student groups and programs in schools that promote cultural diversity, inclusiveness, respect and equality (e.g., gay-straight alliances).
- Encourage teachers and other mentors to include culturally diverse people and subjects in their lesson plans or activities. Provide ways for all youth to see themselves and their peers in the curricula they receive.
- Consider incorporating humane education lessons and activities that instill kindness and respect for all living beings. Research indicates that humane education resources, like those produced by American Humane Association, can help foster empathy and compassion in young people.
- Provide resources for victims and offenders to receive help or support, such as counseling.
Kindness is contagious.
Bullying can be extremely harmful to children and youth, including threatening their physical, social and mental well-being; healthy development; and feelings of self-worth. In extreme cases of bullying, the victim may choose to end his or her life to stop the bullying. But there are steps that parents, families and communities can take to prevent bullying from occurring. The bottom line is that parents, guardians and other caring adults can have a great impact on their children and how they treat others. As a parent, it’s important that you instill values of kindness, compassion and empathy into your children at the earliest stage possible. Below are some tips that will help you teach your children to be kind to others from a young age.
- Lead by example. Your children will learn to be kind to others by the way you act and speak to and about other people.
- Ask your children how it feels when someone does something kind for them when they’re having a bad day.
- Praise your children when you notice them doing something kind for you, a sibling, a friend or a neighbor, and when they are kind to animals and pets.
- When someone does something kind for you, tell your children about it and explain to them how it made you feel. Compliment the other person in front of your children for his or her kindness.
- Consistently speak out in opposition against hatred, cruelty and prejudice toward others.
- Make sure that those in power know that you are passionate about this issue. Contact your local school board or legislator and advocate for inclusive and clear-cut anti-bullying and non-discrimination policies in your community and your local schools.
- Give back. Donate or volunteer your time with your children for a cause that you, your family and/or your children care deeply about. Demonstrate the golden rule in action and lend a helping hand to those in need.
Even if you don’t notice it, children pick up on everything you do, from a very young age. Demonstrate kindness whenever your children are around, and raise objections in front of them when you witness inequality, cruelty or discrimination of any kind. Early and ongoing discussions about the importance of treating all living beings with kindness, fairness and humanity, regardless of differences, will be hugely impactful for your children. Trust us, they’re listening.
For specific tips and materials (including downloadable lesson plans) from American Humane Association’s Humane Education resources, please visit www.americanhumane.org/humaneeducation.
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