What is bullying?
In addition to simply talking to your kids about bullying, make a practice of asking your kids about their day and their feelings.
Bullying often happens at school, summer camp, afterschool programs, or online. It can range from teasing to posting rumors online to physical threats of violence. Bullying can lead to emotional trauma. Luckily, as a parent, there is a lot you can do to protect your child from bullies.
Most children have experienced it. It goes beyond a light joke that both kids involved enjoy and laugh at. It's intentional behavior that is meant to hurt someone else. It can include:
- Silent treatment
- Exclusion from a group
- Mocking or imitating
- Spreading rumors in person or online
- Making threats
- Extortion (the classic "give me your lunch money")
- Physical violence like hitting and shoving
- Sexual harassment
- Harassment via online messaging
Bullies focus on anything about their target, including: their gender, sexuality, race, country of origin, disability, religion, and more.
Bullying is repeated behavior that happens over and over again. It also sometimes plays out the power structures present in society. For example, children with a higher status often become bullies. They could be more popular, or simply larger than their target.
How to talk to your child about bullying
Before bullying even happens, talk to your child about it. Tell them what it is and what it might look like, including examples of online bullying. This will help them to recognize when it is happening to them or another child and can prevent them from becoming a bully.
In addition to simply talking to them about bullying, make a practice of asking them about their day and their feelings. This lets your kids know that you are open to listening to their experiences without judgement, creating a safe space for them to tell you about any bullying.
You don't need to make your daily conversations focus on bullying. Let your child tell you what they want by asking open-ended questions like "How was your day?" or "Tell me the good and bad things that happened at school today”.
If they do mention anything that sounds concerning, stay calm and get more details. You can say "Tell me more about that," or "How did that make you feel?" to find out if an incident was bullying.
Signs of bullying
Even if you make a practice of encouraging your kids to talk openly with you, they may not always tell you everything. Here are other signs of bullying to watch out for:
- Acting different than usual
- More anxiety
- Not eating
- Not sleeping well
- Doesn't feel like doing activities they usually like
- More easily upset
- Avoids or resists places they usually go
What to do if you suspect bullying
Every bullying situation is different. However, the first step is often to go to your child's school. There you can talk to a teacher, a school administrator, or a school counselor depending on the situation.
If you want to speak to the bully’s parents, it's best to do so with another party, like a school administrator, present. Most schools have anti-bullying policies, and some towns even have anti-bullying laws. Research your local policies and see what can be done for your child.
If the bullying continues, and the school isn't able to do much about it, you can contact the school superintendent or even the state Department of Education.
If you believe the bullying is due to race, skin color, nationality, religion, gender, or disability, and the school isn't addressing it properly, you can contact the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
Give your child advice including:
- Use a buddy system. Your child should always have a friend around them on the bus, on the playground, or anywhere they might encounter the bully.
- Avoid the bully. Tell your child to avoid situations where they might be alone with the bully.
- Ignore the bully. Most bullies enjoy the rise they get out of their victims. By not reacting, your child won't be giving fuel to their fire.
- Don't fight. Some kids' instinct is to start a physical fight with a bully to get them off their back. However, that doesn't work. It just escalates the situation.
- Know when they can defend themselves. Make sure your kid knows the difference between starting a fight and defending themselves from a physical attack.
- Tell an adult. Give your child examples of trusted people they can tell including teachers, clergy, coaches, and counselors.
Bullying can escalate quickly. The childhood suicide rate increased by 60% between 2007 and 2018. If you think your child is depressed and considering suicide due to bullying or something else, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You or your child can also text CONNECT to 741741 to reach their text line.