Do you remember the old adage, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me?” In reality, words do really hurt children’s feelings. In today’s world, we know that bullying is not just child’s play but can have serious psychological consequences for children. If your child has come home in tears after being the victim of bullying, you know the somber reality of it. Let’s consider ways we can support our children in the face of bullying.
Teasing or Bullying?
Although many of us may remember being teased at school as children, there is a difference between lighthearted childhood teasing and outright bullying. Teasing is generally fun for all children involved, and they all understand it as a joke. Bullying, on the other hand, tends to be a situation where the victim is not “in” on the joke. Bullying involves intentional (and usually repeated) teasing, name-calling, or physical aggression.1
Statistics indicate that about 20 percent of children have experienced bullying at school.2 It may seem as though this is a relatively small percentage, but bullying can have serious consequences. Children who are bullied are more likely to feel excluded or isolated and, thus, are at a higher risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.3 Although bullying is significantly associated with increased suicide risk in adolescents,4 this is a complex issue. Children and teens who commit suicide often have multiple risk factors, including the experience of being bullied.3
What Predicts Bullying Behavior?
It is essential to understand the origin of bullying if we are to end it. Although we cannot completely predict who will become a bully, research can tell us about some of the conditions that are associated with bullying behavior.
The type of parenting that a child experiences seems to be clearly linked to bullying behavior. Parents who practice a more authoritarian parenting style that includes harsh punishments and a lack of emotional support tend to raise children with higher rates of bullying behavior.5 Scholars suggest this pattern emerges because children in authoritarian homes learn that psychological control and aggression is an acceptable way to handle conflict with others. They tend to exhibit these same techniques in interactions with peers, which can lead to bullying.6
In today’s digital environment, technology now factors into bullying in many cases. In particular, children and adolescents who use social media have the risk of being exposed to cyber-bullying. Research across several countries shows that children who use social media frequently are more likely to be involved in cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying is more likely to perpetuate when social media use is intense and problematic (i.e., addictive).7 Scholars suggest that the online, social media environment can be fostering bullying since these anonymous online interactions are often fraught with more verbal aggression and intensity than in-person interactions. Additionally, children and teens who use social media frequently and intensely may miss out on the vital social-emotional skills that are gained through in-person interaction.7
What to Do If Your Child is Bullied
Even with all these insights about the origins of bullying, your child might unfortunately still experience it during their childhood. It can be difficult at times for parents to know how to support their children during this time. Here are a few ideas that can help:
Calm Yourself: For some parents, it can be very triggering when their child comes home upset after being bullied. Our instinct to protect our children kicks into high gear. Our immediate response might be anger, fear, or frustration. In order to respond appropriately, however, we need to regulate our emotions first. Take a moment to take a deep breath and calm your emotions before responding to your child’s needs.
Listen and Validate: Although bullying is not uncommon, it doesn’t mean that your child’s emotional reaction to it is any less important. Make an intentional effort to listen to your child’s experience and validate their feelings. Even if you feel they are exaggerating, continue to try to listen and really understand their experience. Being heard in their experience is a key component to helping you know how to support them. It can also be helpful to reassure children that it is not their fault that bullying is occurring and that telling you about it was a brave thing to do.1
Reach Out: Knowing when to reach out for help from school administrators or others is perhaps one of the most important aspects of handling a bullying situation.In some situations, bullying may be able to be addressed by talking to the perpetrator’s parents. However, if that does not resolve the situation, getting help from others may be necessary. Since bullying often occurs at school, it is usually most helpful to reach out to teachers, counselors, or administrators for support. Oftentimes, they can talk to the student and/or their parents directly to help ensure your child’s safety and to help prevent future problems.
Support Your Child: Supporting your child emotionally is one of the most important aspects of coping with a bullying situation. Allow them to express their anger or frustration at the situation. Depending on your child’s personality and the type of bullying situation, some parents advise their children to ignore the bully.1 This approach can sometimes be helpful in making the bully less powerful by not feeding their desire for an emotional response from the victim. You can also encourage your child to surround themselves with peers who are friendly and supportive. Lastly, help your child know that it is always okay for them to seek out help from a teacher or administrator if they feel threatened.
It is unfortunate that bullying is an aspect of any child’s school experience. Now, more than in generations past, we understand more about how bullying emerges and the damaging psychological consequences it can have. With this in mind, we can help support our children who are bullied and ensure that they are safe and put an end to bullying.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Kids Health (2022) Helping Kids Deal With Bullies. Kids Health, Nemours Children’s Health, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/bullies.html
- U.S. Department of Education (2019) Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019054.pdf
- Stop Bullying (2021) Facts About Bullying. StopBullying.gov, https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/facts
- Koyanagi, A., Oh, H., Carvalho, A. F., Smith, L., Haro, J. M., Vancampfort, D., Stubbs, B., & DeVylder, J. E. (2019). Bullying Victimization and Suicide Attempt Among Adolescents Aged 12-15 Years From 48 Countries. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 58(9), 907-918.e4, https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/107979297/1_s2.0_S0890856719302096_main.pdf
- Chen, Q., Zhu, Y., & Chui, W. H. (2021). A Meta-Analysis on Effects of Parenting Programs on Bullying Prevention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 22(5), 1209-1220, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Yuhong-Zhu-8/publication/340416676_A_Meta-Analysis_on_Effects_of_Parenting_Programs_on_Bullying_Prevention/links/60ade04c458515bfb0a34af0/A-Meta-Analysis-on-Effects-of-Parenting-Programs-on-Bullying-Prevention.pdf
- Charalampous, Kyriakos, Demetriou, Constantina, Tricha, Loukia, Ioannou, Myria, Georgiou, Stelios, Nikiforou, Militsa and Stavrinides, Panayiotis (2018) The Effect of Parental Style on Bullying and Cyber Bullying Behaviors and the Mediating Role of Peer Attachment Relationships: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Adolescence, 64 . pp. 109-123, http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/21701/1/21701%20Final%20no%20author%20identif%20resubm.pdf
Craig, W., Boniel-Nissim, M., King, N., Walsh, S., Boer, M., Donnelly, P., Harel-Fisch, Y., Malinowska-Cieślik, M., Gaspar de Matos, M., Cosma, A., Van den Eijnden, R., Vieno, A., Elgar, F., Molcho, M., Bjereld, Y., and Pickett, W. (2020) Social Media Use and Cyber-Bullying: A Cross-National Analysis of Young People in 42 Countries, Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 66, Issue 6, Supplement, 2020, p. S100-S108, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X20301075