What Can Parents Do About Bullying?

Reprinted from Caring for Children: 

What Parents Should Know About Bullying, Part I

Bullying includes behaviors such as hitting, teasing, taunting, spreading rumors and gossip, stealing, and excluding someone from a group. Bullying actions are carried out on purpose with the intent to harm someone.

Bullying is usually a repeated activity. However, it may also occur as a one-time event. It always involves a power imbalance. The person bullying has more power due to factors such as age, size, strength, support of friends, and access to resources such as toys.

Children and adults sometimes find it difficult to recognize bullying. For example, a fight between friends or rough play between children with equal power are not bullying situations. They become bullying, however, when one person has more power and uses it to hurt, frighten, or exclude the other person

Who Bullies?

People sometimes assume that only boys bully, but that is not true. Girls also bully others. Boys tend to use methods such as hitting, fighting, and threatening. These face-to-face behaviors are easy to observe.

Girls do bully using physical and verbal attacks, but they often use behind-the-back methods that are harder to see. These more subtle behaviors include getting peers to exclude others and spreading rumors and gossip. It’s important to remember, though, that girls and boys use both face-to-face and behind-the-back methods.

What Are the Consequences of Bullying?

Bullying jeopardizes children’s safety and potentially creates both short- and long-term problems for all children involved.

Children who are bullied are more likely to develop future academic problems and psychological difficulties. Serious problems such as depression and low self-esteem can result, and they can continue into adulthood.

Children who bully and continue this behavior as adults have greater difficulty developing and maintaining positive relationships. Research shows that without effective intervention, children who regularly bully others may grow up to become perpetrators of domestic violence, child abuse, hate crimes, sexual abuse, and other illegal behaviors. In fact, children with bullying problems at age 8 are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by age 24 than children who do not bully.

How Many Children Does Bullying Really Affect?

Bullying affects virtually all children. Although it is true that some children will never be bullied, research shows that children witness 85 percent of school bullying incidents. Child witnesses, or bystanders, may feel powerless to stop bullying. They may fear being bullied next. And they may feel sad or guilty about the abuse others experience. Additionally, bystanders may see those who bully succeed at getting what they want. This may tempt bystanders to take part themselves.

Isn’t Bullying Just a Normal Part of Growing Up?

The many myths about bullying include the notion that bullying is a harmless childhood activity and a normal part of growing up. Confusion about the difference between conflict and bullying can fuel this myth. Although occasional peer conflict is inevitable, bullying is not inevitable. In a conflict, both sides have equal power to resolve the problem. But bullying involves the intentional, one-sided use of power to control another. Its harmful consequences can affect people seriously for the rest of their lives.

What Can You Tell Me About Bullying Between Siblings?

Some degree of conflict among siblings is to be expected. In some situations, however, sibling rivalry can develop into bullying as children jockey for power. Given the normal amount of teasing and bickering in any family, it can be difficult for parents to know where to draw the line. Ideally, we want our children to learn to work out disagreements among themselves. But when is adult intervention necessary?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Behavior that would be unacceptable between two unrelated children is unacceptable between two siblings. When one child intentionally and consistently hurts or frightens a smaller or less powerful sibling, that’s bullying—and it needs to stop. Like all forms of bullying, bullying among siblings can have long-term effects. It can damage self-esteem and set the pattern for abusive relationships in the future.


What Parents Should Know About Bullying, Part 2

Wouldn’t My Child Tell Me About Being Bullied?

Not necessarily. Children may not tell adults—even their parents—about being bullied at school. Studies show that children don’t tell because they believe adults won’t stop the bullying. Children may also think that they should be able to solve their own problems. Or they may not even recognize that they are being bullied. Other children are afraid. They think that telling an adult will result in worse treatment from the child bullying them.

Any of the following signs could indicate a child is being bullied:

  • Fear of riding the school bus
  • Cuts or bruises
  • Damaged clothing or belongings
  • Frequently “lost” lunch money
  • Frequent requests to stay home from school
  • Frequent unexplained minor illnesses
  • Sleeplessness or nightmares
  • Depression, or lack of enthusiasm for hobbies or friends
  • Declining school performance

    Could My Child Be Bullying Others?

    A child who bullies may exhibit some of the following behaviors:

    • Frequent name-calling; for example, describing others as “wimps,” “lame,” or “losers”
    • Regular bragging
    • A constant need to get his or her own way
    • Spending time with younger or less-powerful kids
    • A lack of empathy for others
    • A defiant or hostile attitude; easily taking offense

      What Can I Do If My Child Is Bullied?

      Help your child learn to avoid responding in ways that reward bullying. Explain to your child that people who bully are hoping to get certain reactions. For example, one child might try to bully another by making him feel angry or sad. When the bullied child responds assertively instead (“That’s bullying. I want you to stop!”), the child who is bullying may lose interest, and further bullying may be prevented.

      Following are some additional ideas for helping your child cope with being bullied:

      • Assure your child that he or she is not to blame.
      • Instruct your child not to fight back. Bullying lasts longer and becomes more severe when children fight back. Physical injuries are often the result.
      • Advise your child to report all bullying incidents to an adult at school or a parent.
      • Let your child know that he or she has made the right choice by reporting the incident(s) to you, and assure your child that he or she is not to blame.
      • Help your child be specific in describing bullying incidents: who, what, where, when. (Look for patterns or evidence of repeated bullying.)
      • Role-play friendship-developing social skills with your child. For example, you could help him or her practice making conversation, joining a group activity, being respectful, and being assertive. Friendships can help buffer a child from the harmful effects of bullying.

        What Can I Suggest as Possible Alternatives for Handling Bullies?

        Parents can suggest the following approaches to a child:

        • Avoidance is often the best strategy.
        • Play in a different place.
        • Play a different game.
        • Stay near a supervising adult when bullying is likely to occur.
        • Look for ways to find new friends.

          Parents can also take the following approaches:

          • Support your child by encouraging him or her to extend invitations for friends to play at your home or to attend activities.
          • Involve your child in social activities outside of school.

            How Can I Promote Respectful Behavior?

            Children need to learn that respectful behavior is an essential part of all relationships. Below are some strategies for reinforcing that idea with your child:

            • Spend time with your children. Plan time each day to talk with your children about any joys or difficulties they encounter. When problems come up, help your children think of respectful, cooperative ways to solve them.
            • Know your children’s friends. When your children are away from home, make sure that you know and trust the children they are with.
            • Be consistent about discipline. Hold your children responsible for negative or hurtful behaviors, but avoid using public put-downs and physical punishment. These methods validate causing shame and using physical violence as solutions to problems. Make sure that your children understand the consequences of their actions.
            • Eliminate toys, games, and TV shows that reward aggression. Villains and heroes often successfully use violence to reach their goals. The negative consequences that should follow are rarely seen. Some children learn how to bully by seeing it on television or video games.
            • Keep tabs on your children’s Internet use. Bullying over the Internet, also called cyber bullying, is growing rapidly.
            • Encourage your child to be slow to take offense. Children who bully often are quick to interpret innocent actions, such as being hit by a stray elbow in the hall, as hostile. Teach your children to stay cool and calm by counting to ten or using self-talk. For example, your children could say to themselves, “I don’t get mad about little stuff like this.” Praise your children for choosing respectful, nonaggressive responses.
            • Make sure your children know what other kids expect. Respectful behaviors we have all learned include taking turns or apologizing when you accidentally hurt someone. Observe your children playing with others. Are there unspoken rules they don't understand? If so, discuss them privately.
            • Help your children see other points of view. Children who bully often have difficulty interpreting facial expressions or tone of voice. They forget to consider other children’s feelings. Explore with your children how they might feel “in someone else’s shoes.”

              People of all ages experience conflict in their relationships. When children learn to recognize and respond effectively to bullying, they learn positive skills that will last a lifetime.