On average, your child spends 6 to 7 hours of their day in school — and they may spend many after-school hours with peers either online or in person. While many of those hours are productive and fun, some of them may involve bullying.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, children in middle school report the most bullying (
But regardless of your child’s age and where the bullying takes place, it can be serious. And it helps to recognize the different types. Here’s what you need to know.
Think of bullying as a type of youth violence. It includes three things:
- unwanted aggressive behavior
- power imbalance
There are different types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, cyber, and prejudicial. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Physical bullying is the easiest to spot because it’s the most obvious form of bullying. It’s also what you’re most likely to think of when you consider bullying.
This type of bullying is about using physical actions. Think pushing, tripping, kicking, hitting, spitting on. It’s also about destroying a child’s property of purpose.
If you notice the following in your child, you may be dealing with physical bullying:
- dealing with stomachaches or headaches in the mornings
- dragging out the morning routine
- refusing to go to school despite a former love for it
Their reaction is normal — most of us withdraw from whatever is making us feel stressed. It’s sort of like shoving bills in a desk drawer so you can’t see them.
Gently ask your child questions to get them talking about their friends and their social situation. Brace yourself, because your child may share things that will make you cringe. Let your child know that it’s OK for them to share their pain with you and that you can help them.
Verbal bullying is harder to spot because the bullies almost always operate when adults are off scene. Bullies will make fun of their victims, tease them, call them names, throw insults at them, and verbally intimidate them.
Whoever coined the adage Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me got it wrong. Hurtful words can break a child and can leave deep emotional scars.
While physical and verbal bullying are direct forms of bullying, relational bullying is an indirect form.
Relational bullying (also called social bullying) isn’t easy to spot because it often happens behind the back of the bullied person. A relational bully is usually set on increasing their own social standing by diminishing the standing of another child.
Relational bullying is about:
- harming a child’s reputation
- causing humiliation
- spreading rumors or lies
- making faces at the child
- mimicking the child
- encouraging or even rewarding others to socially exclude the child
Your child can learn to refuse to take part in this type of bullying by taking the position of an upstander. An upstander, unlike a passive bystander, takes positive action when they witness someone else being bullied. As well as lending support to peers, your child builds their own resilience.
A prejudicial bully targets those whose race, religion, or social standing is different than theirs. This is usually something they’ve learned from parents or others who are close to them, though not always.
Talking with your child about race and racism — along with other types of injustice — is critically important.
Aside from the immediate detrimental effects, the danger with this type of bullying is that it can lead to hate crimes.
Cyberbullying is the new kid on the street. It’s defined as aggression that happens through digital technology such as:
- social media
- instant messaging
Cyberbullying has a distinct nature from traditional bullying. It’s a particularly virulent form of bullying for the following reasons:
- Cyberbullies know that it can hard to catch them.
- Cyberbullies hide behind anonymity and say things they’d never say face-to-face.
- Cyberbullying feels more permanent — once the message is in cyberspace, it’s always there.
- Targets of cyberbullying never have a safe haven because the bully can reach them any time and any place.
- Targets are intensely humiliated because many people may know about the bullying.
Tweens and teens are particularly vulnerable because they’re plugged in all the time. At this age, tweens and teens have a deep need for connectivity and may have a hard time simply switching off their devices. They may feel alone and ostracized.
If they lose their friends, a vicious cycle sets in that actually leads to more bullying.
There’s no one size fits all for bullies. Some bullies are popular; others may be classified by their peers as loners. Some are openly aggressive; others have mastered the art of subtlety. Here’s a rundown on the types of bullies that your child may meet.
This type of bully fits the stereotypical image of bullies that most of us have. Their confidence and aggression keep their followers in line. They seem to thrive on the attention that they get. Think Draco Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” series.
A relational bully is usually at least somewhat popular. They work under the radar using rumors, gossip, labels, and name-calling to ostracize their targets. They’re often motivated by jealousy and the need to maintain their own popularity. Think the movie “Mean Girls.”
Serial bullies may come across as sweet and charming to authority figures. Behind the scenes, they can be calculated and controlling. Serial bullies rarely attack physically, but choose to inflict emotional pain on their targets over long periods. They’re skilled at being able to wiggle out of any situation if they feel threatened.
These bullies operate in a group. Catch them alone and you may not see them in action. Insulated by numbers, group bullies imitate the leader of the group and just follow along. Group bullies won’t usually admit to any wrongdoing because, “Hey, everyone’s doing it.”
Indifferent bullies are usually detached, with a seeming lack of empathy or remorse. They may enjoy seeing their targets suffer. Often undeterred by consequences, these bullies in particular may need professional counseling or other early mental health intervention.
Yes, you read that right — we’re categorizing bully victims as a type of bully because this can happen. This type of bully is usually a child who has been bullied themselves. Their bullying comes from the desire to retaliate for the pain they’ve endured and from the need to regain a sense of control in their lives. They’re often seen as loners.
If your child has been bullied or has witnessed bullying, they’re not going to forget about it easily.
An older but important review of studies over 20 years suggested that victimization is positively associated with depression. Loneliness, anxiety, social anxiety, and low self-esteem were also prevalent among victims.
Cyberbullying shares many of the dynamics of more traditional forms of bullying but is unique because it’s so hard to detect and the damage caused is quantitatively greater.
More recent research in this area shows that targets of cyberbullying often face anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions.
When your child tells you that they’re being bullied, be there for them. Giving them support when they’re being targeted is probably one of the most important things that you’ll ever do.
- Your first step is to talk to your child’s teacher. If this doesn’t help, turn to the guidance counselor, principal, or school administrator.
- Keep a log of every bullying incident and take it to the school. Include the date it happened, any abusive messages your child received, and any injuries or damage to property.
- Follow up with the school regularly to check how they’re dealing with the bullying.
- If your child has physical injuries or refuses to go to school, turn to your doctor to have this officially recorded.
- Consider taking your child to a family therapist to give them the tools to face going to school while the bullying hasn’t been resolved. Seeing your child be victimized is heart-wrenching, so don’t ignore your own need for support.
Often, bullying isn’t a result of anything your child did or didn’t do, and it says more about the bully’s home life or personal situation.
Positive parenting (with abundant warmth and support) can go a long way to protecting your child from becoming a target, but can’t always prevent it completely.
If your child has a strong circle of friends, it’s also less likely that they’ll be targeted. So check in with your child often, support their social development, and stay in the know about their friendships. If and when bullying happens, they’ll be more likely to turn to you for help.