Bullying: What Is It and How Should Parents Respond?

Sep 02, 2023

If you are a parent, you have certainly heard of bullying and its also pretty likely your children have used the term in some context. On the positive side, schools have significantly increased instruction in guidance lessons so that children are aware of bullying and bring it to teacher’s attention immediately. However, this term can be used broadly whenever there is any negative interaction between students, such as being teased. Both are unacceptable, but what is the difference?

Bullying is persistent, aggressive behavior (verbal, physical, or a power differential) that is targeted towards a person. There are 2 general types of bullying:

  1. Direct bullying which can be physical (hitting, kicking, stealing lunch, etc.) and/or verbal (racial slurs, inappropriate sexual comments, persistent teasing, etc.)
  2. Indirect (spreading rumors, cyber bullying, persistent exclusion from a group or activity).

Why is this important to clarify? Because we need to determine if this is an opportunity for our child to handle peer conflict or if this has escalated to a point where our child needs us to take action. While conflict and some teasing may happen, bullying SHOULD NOT be a part of childhood. Bullying is also not something our children can handle on their own.

If your child reports they feel they are being bullied, here are some questions to ask:

  • What exactly is the other person doing?
  • How many times has this happened?
  • Have they already reported it to a teacher?

If the behavior seems mild, such as teasing or maybe being left out at recess occasionally, talk through ways your child can problem solve this on their own. Try to walk your child through each scenario in a step-by-step manner. For example, if they feel like a previous friend was leaving them out, discuss how they can talk to the peer directly or ask to play with someone else. If someone is calling them names, talk about how they can walk away, play with someone else, or ask an adult for help. For any solutions, role play the options with your child as this will help them build confidence and be more likely to use this solution on their own.

Does your child struggle to answer questions or seems fearful to tell the truth? Look out for these common behaviors victims display: (Please note, this would be a sudden change from previous behavior)

  • Comes home with damaged belongings
  • Requests additional snacks, school supplies, etc as they state they are losing them or do not have enough
  • Has unexplained bruises, cuts, or scratches
  • Has few friends with whom he or she spends time
  • Seems afraid to go to school, ride the school bus, walk to school, or take part in community activities with peers
  • Loses interest in school or suddenly does poorly in school
  • Seems sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he/she comes home from school
  • Complains of a variety of physical ailments (headaches, stomachaches), particularly on school days
  • Can’t sleep or complains of bad dreams
  • Avoids using the telephone or Internet
  • Seems anxious and has low self-esteem

If what your child shares seems like bullying, contact your child’s teacher to see if they can gain additional information about anything they may have observed. This also helps your child’s teacher be more watchful of potential issues arising between students. If it is determined to be bullying, have a direct conversation with your child about how the behavior of the other student is inappropriate, wrong, and needs to be stopped. As a result, you will have to take some action to ensure their safety as conflict resolution strategies will NOT be effective in this situation. Bullying is not simple conflict, this involves someone who is consistently being victimized.

Most schools have a bullying protocol which helps increase supervision and ensure safety. You will need to contact the school administration in order to have a meeting and discuss a specific plan. For example, if your child was being bullied in the cafeteria or at recess, additional staff would need to be present and aware of the situation in order to provide support, and respond to the bully. Bullying often occurs in situations with less adult supervision (e.g., cafeteria, bathroom, hallway, recess)

What are the current rates of bullying?

  • One in five (20.9%) tweens (9 to 12 years old) has been cyberbullied, cyberbullied others, or seen cyberbullying. (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020
  • 8% of tweens (9 to 12 years old) said they experienced bullying at school and 14.5% of tweens shared they experienced bullying online. (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020
  • 13% of tweens (9 to 12 years old) reported experiencing bullying at school and online, while only 1% reported being bullied solely online. (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020)

From a report in 2019 (2019 School Crime Supplement)

  • 22 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the school year, which was lower than the percentage reported in 2009 (28 percent).

Of students ages 12–18,

  • 15 percent reported being the subject of rumors;
  • 14 percent reported being made fun of, called names, or insulted;
  • 6 percent reported being excluded from activities on purpose;
  • 5 percent reported being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on
  • 4 percent of students reported being threatened with harm,
  • 2 percent each reported that others tried to make them do things they did not want to do and that their property was destroyed by others on purpose.

Special Considerations for Cyberbullying

While the internet has given individuals opportunities to connect virtually, this has also resulted in increased exposure for children to engage in behaviors and attempt to hide it from parents.

As children age, we see an increase in their exposure to cyberbullying. One of the main reasons why? More kids are allowed to have phones without adequate supervision. In a 2020 study that had 1,034 tween participants, twenty-one percent of nine-year-olds had their own smartphone compared to 68% of 12-year-olds. A major way to avoid cyberbullying is to delay giving these devices.

We highly encourage parents to consider delaying giving their children smart phones, particularly social media. Based on research with cyberbullying, as well as rates of anxiety and depression, we advise parents to wait until AFTER middle school to introduce these. When kids are being bullied, they need a place where they can escape from this experience. If they are experiencing cyberbullying, those individuals often feel like there is no where they can go to be free from it.

We also advise parents to keep all technology in central locations of their home – this includes all tablets, computers, and gaming systems. This is important for several reasons. One, parents are more likely to be aware if something inappropriate is happening, which means they can respond immediately. This also reduces the likelihood your child will act inappropriately as they know a family member could be in the room at any time.

What can you do as a parent?

  1. Have open communication and conversations with your child about bullying. Here are some questions to help guide your conversation:
    1. What does bullying mean to you?
    2. What is the difference between someone bullying versus just being mean or teasing?
    3. Have you or your friends left other kids out on purpose? Do you think that was bullying? Why or why not?
    4. How should we be treating others?
    5. What does it mean to be kind to others, even if they aren’t our friend?
    6. What do you usually do when you see bullying going on?
    7. Do you ever see kids at your school being bullied by other kids? How does it make you feel?
    8. Have you ever tried to help someone who is being bullied? What happened? What would you do if it happens again?
  2. Teach your children what to do if they feel they are either being bullied or see it happening to others. Kids need to know they can come to parents or teachers and be supported.
  3. Check to see if your school already has an anti-bullying program.
  4. Focus on teaching skills related to appropriate friendships and relationships. We want our children to know what TO DO, not just what to avoid.
  5. Read books about bullying that help inform your child and help with conversations. Here are a few:
    1.  The Juice Box Bully: Empowering Kids to Stand Up for Others by Bob SornsonMaria Dismondy 
    2.  The Not-So-Friendly Friend: How To Set Boundaries for Healthy Friendships by Christina Furnival
    3.  The Berenstain Bears Stand Up to Bullying by Mike Berenstain
    4.  Kindness is my Superpower: A children's Book About Empathy, Kindness and Compassion by Alicia Ortega
    5.  Inclusive Ninja: An Anti-bullying Children’s Book About Inclusion, Compassion, and Diversity by Mary Nhin
    6.  It's Brave to Be Kind: A Kindness Story and Activity Book for Children by Natasha Daniels

 For older tweens and teens:

  1.  Anti-Bullying Book for Girls: Practical Tools to Manage Bullying and Build Confidence by Jessica Woody
  2.  The 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids & Tweens: Worksheets, Quizzes, Games, & Skills for Putting the Keys Into Action by Signe Whitson
  3.  Emotionally Resilient Tweens and Teens: Empowering Your Kids to Navigate Bullying, Teasing, and Social Exclusion by Kim Payne & Luis Llosa

~Dr. Jordana Mortimer

Want more information? Check out these references:

Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2019). Preventing bullying.

Hamm, M. P., Newton, A. S., & Chisholm, A. (2015). Prevalence and effect of cyberbullying on children and young people: A scoping review of social media students. JAMA Pediatrics, 169, 770-777.

Patchin, J.W., & Hinduja, S. (2020). Tween Cyberbullying in 2020. Cyberbullying Research Center and Cartoon Network.


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