What to do if your child is being bullied

Jan 25, 20245 minutes read time

Key points:

  • Bullying is when a person deliberately tries to harass or intimidate someone else. This can be in person or online (also known as cyberbullying).
  • If you find out your child is being bullied, there are several steps you can take with school officials to address it.
  • It’s also important to respond quickly if you find out your child is bullying others.

No parent wants to find out that their child is being bullied, whether it’s harassment on the playground or threats on social media. But there are steps you can take – before and after something happens – to protect your child.

Here’s what you need to know about bullying, the signs, and steps to take.

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What is bullying?

Simply put, bullying is when someone targets another person – usually someone with less power or social standing – in an effort to harass, intimidate or hurt them. Bullying is intentional, repeated behavior. Bullying can be physical, verbal or in some cases both.

Globally, around 1 in 3 children experience bullying, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics. While anyone can be bullied, some children are at higher risk than others – including LGBTQ+ kids, those with disabilities, or anyone seen as ‘different’ somehow.

It’s also important to know what bullying is not. For example it isn’t:

  • An isolated or one-time incident. Those who engage in bullying behavior typically target the same individual over and over until they are stopped.
  • A simple misunderstanding or disagreement. Bullying doesn’t take place on a level playing field. Those who experience bullying treatment are often targeted because they are viewed as vulnerable – as ‘easy marks’.

Examples of bullying behavior include:

  • Hitting or pushing
  • Making threats
  • Mocking, insulting or taunting
  • Taking someone’s belongings or money
  • Spreading false information about a person

What is cyberbullying?

Not all bullying happens face to face. Just because your child isn’t bullied at school doesn’t mean they’re not at risk. Social media and messaging apps are increasingly used to target people online – also known as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying can take many forms, including:

  • Directly harassing another person in comments, direct messages (DMs), individual text messages or group chats.
  • Doxing – that is, sharing someone’s private information without their permission. This could include phone numbers, home addresses, or even personal details such as the orientation or gender identity of someone who isn’t out yet.
  • Flaming – where multiple people target the same individual with aggressive comments.
  • Catfishing or hacking someone’s account to impersonate them.
  • Video game harassment – verbally abusing another player in an online game.

It’s important to recognize that bullying online is just as harmful as other types of bullying. According to data from the Cyberbullying Research Center, younger teens (ages 13 to 15) are more likely to be bullied online. LGBTQ+ and transgender kids are among the most likely to be cyberbullied.

What to do before your child is bullied

There are a couple steps you can take to protect your child if they experience bullying down the road – or if it’s happening now and they don’t know how to tell you.

1. Keep the lines of communication open

Talk to your child about bullying. Give examples of bullying behavior and role-play different responses with them. (More on responding to bullying in a bit.) Make sure they know it’s important to tell a trusted adult if they’re ever bullied – or if they see someone else being bullied.

2. Ask occasionally if they’ve experienced any bullying behavior

Don’t assume nothing’s wrong just because they aren’t saying anything. Try asking specific questions – for example:

Instead of: Is anyone bullying you?Try this: Have you gotten any messages from people on TikTok that made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe?

Teen boy being cyber bullied

Know the warning signs of bullying

Many kids are reluctant to tell their parents or guardians that they’re being bullied. There are a lot of potential reasons for this. They might be worried about retaliation or how their parents will react. They might even think the bullying is their fault somehow.

It’s important to recognize some of the more common signs something is wrong:

  • Do they seem more withdrawn than usual?
  • Are they more easily upset or are their mood swings bigger than normal?
  • Do they have unexplained bruises or other physical injuries?
  • Are they eating or sleeping less than normal for them?
  • Have they lost interest in their favorite activities?
  • Are their clothes or possessions damaged, destroyed or missing?
  • Are they suddenly struggling in school?
  • Do they seem to be avoiding certain situations or places?

What not to do if your child is being bullied…

We get it. The news that someone is hurting your child is enough to make most parents want to go to war. But there are four things you shouldn’t do because they might unintentionally make things worse:

  • Don’t overreact. Try to stay calm when your child talks to you.
  • Don’t go storming off immediately to your child’s school. While you shouldn’t put off contacting the school, you want to go into the conversation calm and prepared. (More on that below.)
  • Don’t confront the other child’s parents – especially if you don’t know them.
  • Don’t tell your child to fight back. Matching the other child’s aggression rarely solves anything, and it could put your child at risk of further harm.

What steps should you take if your child is being bullied?

First, take a deep breath. You and your child can get through this. There are several steps you can take to address the bullying and keep your child safe.

1. Listen to your child

It’s important to show your child that you take what they tell you very seriously. Reassure them they did the right thing by coming to you, that the bullying is not their fault, and they don’t have to deal with it alone.

2. Protect them from further bullying

Remove them from the bullying situation, if that’s possible. For example, if the bullying is taking place on the bus to and from school, see if you can make alternate arrangements until it can be fully addressed.

When that isn’t possible, try talking through (and practicing) strategies for dealing with bullying behavior. These include:

  • Avoiding situations where they’re alone with the person who’s bullying them. (For example, encourage them to use the school bathroom with a friend they trust.)
  • Not reacting to bullying behavior. Chances are, the person who’s bullying them is trying to get a response. Pretending to be unfazed might be enough to diffuse the situation in some cases. (Just make sure your child knows they don’t have to pretend not to be hurt when they’re with you.)
  • Telling the other person to stop, then walking away (if that’s an option).
  • Talking to a teacher, counselor or another trusted adult at the school.

3. Know your child’s rights

Ask to see a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy. A growing number of schools have them – in fact, every school in the UK is required by law to have one on the books. In addition, many countries and all 50 US states have passed anti-bullying laws in recent years.

4. Document everything

Get as much information as you can about what’s happening: who’s bullying your child, what they’ve been doing, where it’s taking place, when (and how often it’s happening), and so on. Write everything down so you can give school officials a clear, consistent picture of what’s going on.

5. Contact the school

Don’t show up unannounced or catch them off guard. Set up a time beforehand to meet with your child’s teacher or principal or head teacher.

When you meet, explain clearly and calmly what’s been happening. (Bring notes so you can share specifics.) Try not to get angry or point fingers. Keep in mind, bullying doesn’t usually happen when teachers are looking. They may not know what’s going on until you tell them.

Ask what concrete steps the school will take to stop the bullying. (You may want to write down what the teacher or principal says so you have a record.) Your goal is to come out of your meeting with an agreed-upon plan of action.

6. Follow up after you meet with school officials

Send a follow-up text or email thanking them and confirming the specific steps they’ve committed to take. Also check in with your child periodically to see if they are still being bullied. If so, keep documenting.

Young boy being bullied

What if the bullying doesn’t stop?

It’s understandable to worry what might happen to your child if the bullying continues after you’ve taken steps to address it. Bullying can have serious long-term effects on a child’s wellbeing.

One study found those who are bullied as children are at higher risk of depression, even decades later. There is also a relationship between bullying and suicide-related behaviors, according to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it’s unclear if bullying causes suicide-related behavior, any connection is cause for concern.

That’s why it’s essential to take further action if the bullying continues and you believe the school’s response isn’t enough:

  • You can file a notice of harassment in the US and Canada, for example, or apply for a  protection order in Australia.
  • Try contacting the school’s governing body – the local school board or the board of governors. You can also notify local or national government authorities. US, Canada, Australia: contact your state or province’s education department. US residents can also file a complaint with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. UK: report your concern to your local council.
  • Contact local law enforcement if anyone threatens to physically harm your child.
  • If your child is the target of cyberbullying, report it to your Internet service provider (ISP) and the website where it’s taking place (in addition to your child’s school).

What to do if your child is being a bully?

While it’s the last thing a parent wants to hear, you should also know what to do in the event that your child is the one bullying others.

There are a number of reasons kids bully. Many children who are bullied themselves end up doing the same to others. According to one study, 97% of all kids who bully other kids said they were also victims of bullying. Bullying can also be a way of getting attention from adults or winning the acceptance of peers.

Whatever the reason, if you find out your child is bullying others, address it with them immediately. Experts note this is essential to preventing bullying over time. Set clear expectations of how your child is to treat others.

  • Try to identify what’s behind the bullying behavior. Sometimes it can be a sign of low self-esteem or anxiety. Connect your child with a counselor or therapist who can help.
  • Set clear expectations of how your child is to treat others.
  • Use logical consequences to discourage bullying. For example, if you find out they’re cyberbullying others, a logical consequence is to take away cell phone or social media privileges for a period of time.
  • Check yourself. If children witness aggressive behavior at home, they’re more likely to imitate that behavior in their own interactions.
  • Work with your child’s school to prevent future bullying. Ask about any problems your child may be experiencing at school that might be contributing to the bullying behavior.
  • Help cultivate your child’s sense of empathy by discussing the effects of bullying and encouraging them to put themselves in the other person’s shoes.

Bullying stinks, period. It’s never ok, and it should never be ignored. It takes everyone – parents and school officials alike – working together to make sure every child is treated with the respect they deserve.

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