Bullying is a problem that can derail a child’s schooling, social life, and, most importantly, his or her emotional well-being. It’s also an issue that has been made even more pressing in recent years because of the increased use among children of the Internet, cell phones, and other means of communication as tools to harass each other. Adults may have a tendency to ignore bullying, to write it off as a normal part of life that all kids have to go through. But it’s a real problem with dangerous consequences, and it should be dealt with accordingly.

Identifying Bullying

Bullying is a behavior that can include any one of a whole range of actions that cause physical or emotional pain, from spreading rumors to intentional exclusion to physical abuse. Bullying prevention expert Dr. Ken Rigby has a useful formulation:

Bullying = a desire to hurt + hurtful action + a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor and a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim.

Everyone wants to believe that while sticks and stones may break our bones, words will never hurt us. But as teens and many children know, that’s not quite true. Words—and any kind of emotional abuse—can be just as harmful, if not more so, than physical abuse.

Bullying is insidious, and many children (particularly boys and teenagers) won’t tell their parents or teachers about it out of fear of retribution or shame. Children may also fear being blamed themselves or losing privileges (such as cell phone access) if they report being bullied. That’s why it’s important that parents, teachers, and other responsible adults are constantly vigilant in looking for bullying behaviors.

Here are some warning signs that a child is being bullied:

  • Unexplained cuts or bruises
  • Damaged or missing clothing, books, school supplies, or other belongings
  • Takes unnecessarily long routes to school
  • Suddenly loses interest in school work or begins to perform poorly
  • No longer wants to hang out with friends
  • Frequently complains of headaches or stomachaches and asks to stay home sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Emotionally reticent
  • Appears moody or depressed or appears to suffer from social anxiety and low self-esteem
  • Any unexplained change in behavior

Why is it a Problem?

Bullying has a negative effect on everyone: the bully, the target, the bystanders who witness the bullying, and anyone connected. Anti-bullying advocate Trudy Ludwig and head of the Bullying Research Network Dr. Susan Swearer pointed out some of the short- and long-term effects of bullying:

  • Although the statistics vary based on the different methodologies used to study bullying, it is commonly accepted that 75 percent of school-age kids are affected by bullying at some point of their school years.
  • Kids who are identified as a bully by age 8 are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by the time they’re 24.
  • 160,000 kids in the United States miss school daily because of bullying.
  • Targets of bullying suffer from headaches, stomachaches, depression, and eating disorders.
  • Targets of bullying have a high incidence of dropping out of school, self-mutilation, substance abuse, suicide, and violence towards others.
  • The U.S secret service found that from 1974 to 2000 there were 37 school shootings, and two-thirds of the shooters were long-term bullied or harassed at school.
  • Bystanders can suffer the same physical symptoms as the targets. They get headaches and stomachaches. They have school phobias and high levels of anxiety and feel helpless and powerless. They also tend to have poor coping and problem-solving skills.

Bullying Prevention Strategies

Engage Your Child

The first thing to do if you notice something’s wrong with your child is to talk to them. The most important thing you can do for a bullied child is to validate the situation—pay attention to the child’s feelings and let him or her know you care. You may not be able to solve all the problems for your child right away, but what’s essential is that you let him or her know that you’re supportive. “That’s the number one thing a parent can do,” says Trudy. “Really listen to your child and take your child’s problems seriously.”

Be a Role Model

Bullying is a learned behavior. Children pick up antisocial behaviors like bullying from adult role models, parents, teachers, and from media representation. A recent study done by Brigham Young University researchers found that there are an average of 52 acts of relational aggression an hour on reality TV and 33 an hour on regular TV shows. This type of general meanness rubs off on kids.

Teach your child good social behavior from an early age. Being a positive role model can have untold influence on potential bullies, targets, and bystanders. “Bullying has been conceptualized as a social-relationship problem,” says Dr. Swearer. “If people are kind to each other and adults model healthy social relationships, we have hope that we can reduce bullying.” Your child is less likely to enter damaging or hurtful relationships if his or her parent also avoids those types of negative associations.

Get Educated

Continual training and education is essential if bullying is to be eradicated from our communities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “Stop Bullying Now” campaign suggests that schools set aside 20 or 30 minutes of class time a week (or every other week) to discuss bullying with students. This will provide a regular forum for teachers to talk candidly to students about bullying and to get a feel for what the bullying climate is in the school. It will also help children understand what behaviors are considered bullying. School-wide assemblies on the subject can also be helpful in bringing the issue out into the open.

It's also important to educate school staff and other adults. “Parents, teachers, [and other responsible adults] need ongoing training through in-services and educational programming,” says Dr. Swearer. Training should include explicating the nature of bullying and its effects, how to respond to bullying in the school, and how to work with others in the community to prevent bullying.

Build a Consensus

As Trudy says, bullying is a community problem, and it requires a community solution. Everybody has to be on board to successfully stamp out bullying: parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school nurses, after-school instructors, and of course, the students themselves.

It’s important that, if your child is being bullied, you don’t confront the bully or the bully’s parent yourself. It’s unlikely to be productive and can even be dangerous. Work with the community; teachers, counselors, and administrators may have additional information and resources that can help determine the appropriate course of action. Develop a comprehensive community strategy to address bullying.

Be Consistent

Similar to the need for a coordinated community effort is the need for consistency in how bullying is dealt with. Every child should be treated equally, and emotional bullying should be addressed in the same way as physical bullying.

In an effort to reduce bullying, it is essential to change the social climate of the school. Established written policies should not only disallow bullying behavior, but also make clear that students are expected to act as “good citizens” by assisting students who appear to be in any kind of trouble. The rules should be clear and concise so that everyone can understand them at a glance.

It’s important that the rules for bullying are enforced consistently throughout the school. “Kids know what they can get away from one teacher to the next,” Trudy points out. “That’s why it has to be a school-wide systematic approach.” School staff needs to be able to intervene immediately to stop bullying, and there should also be (separate) follow-up meetings for both the bully and the target. The parents of affected students should be involved whenever feasible. 

Empower Bystanders

The Youth Voice Project, run by bullying prevention experts Stan Davis and Dr. Charisse Nixon, surveyed 11,000 teens in schools across the United States and asked them to share their experiences with bullying. Interestingly, the project uncovered the power of bystanders when it comes to fighting bullying. Bystanders are the students who see or hear of their peers being bullied. Typically, bystanders often feel powerless to help, thinking that stepping in may bring the bully's wrath on themselves or make them into social outcasts. But the Youth Voice Project found that some sort of connection with a bystander helped the victim cope with the situation. The victim felt better when a witness approached them, called, or emailed afterwards; acknowledged the situation; and said that what happened wasn’t okay.

Therefore, it's essential to empower bystanders to help. Schools should work to protect bystanders from retaliation and help them understand that their silence can make bullies more powerful. A bystander should “comfort the person being bullied,” says Trudy. “And if [he or she] doesn’t feel safe doing something during it, do it afterwards.” 

Work With the Bully

Don’t forget that the bully has his or her own set of problems to deal with and also needs help from adults. Bullies often engage in bullying behaviors out of a lack of empathy and trust or as a result of problems at home. "Many times kids don’t think that what they are doing is bullying,” says Trudy. “They think the silent treatment is just a normal ‘girl thing.’ But it’s not.”

Bullies first need to recognize that their behavior is bullying. They then need to understand that bullying will lead to negative consequences—that they are hurting themselves as much as they are hurting others. By showing bullies that there are consequences to their actions and by forcing them to acknowledge the choices they make, you can nip bullying behavior in the bud.