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Created on August 5, 2017. Last updated on March 6th, 2024 at 04:49 pm

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is hurtful behavior done repeatedly to individuals who have difficulty defending themselves (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014). The hurtful behavior can be physical (e.g., pushing), verbal (e.g., name calling), or relational (e.g., gossiping). At school, bullying is more likely to occur in places with less structure, fewer rules, and limited adult supervision, such as the playground, the bus, the cafeteria, or hallways (Vaillancourt et al., 2010). Bullying can also happen out of school, especially if it involves cyber-bullying, which is bullying done through messenger apps, social media, or other digital platforms.

Some children use bullying to gain social status, display power, or get positive attention from peers. Bullying is not the same as rough play or friendly verbal exchanges, and it is different from peer conflict that is unintentional and not done repeatedly over time. Bullying is also different from other kinds of aggressive behavior that are not part of a pattern of bullying (Gladden et al., 2014).

Research suggests bullying is linked to negative short- and long-term consequences (Hawker & Boulton, 2000; McDougall & Vaillancourt, 2015). Negative outcomes include problems in school (e.g., poor grades, fear of school), physical illness or complaints (e.g., headaches, upset stomach), and emotional distress (e.g., sadness, loneliness, thoughts of self-harm). A single instance of bullying can be harmful, but typically the negative effects of bullying are the result of persistent or chronic victimization.

Who Is at Risk?

School bullying is a relatively common occurrence among school-age children and most research suggests it affects boys and girls equally (Cook, Williams, Guerra, & Kim, 2010). The good news is that for most children, bullying is temporary and seems to have few lasting effects. It does appear that the number of students who bully tends to increase in the middle school/junior high grades, but the number of students who report being bullied decreases. Thus, for a small proportion of children (2-10%), bullying is an ongoing concern. Not surprisingly, children are most at-risk for being bullied if they are actively disliked by peers and have few, if any, friends. When children are not well liked by peers, they are more easily stigmatized and isolated, thereby setting the stage for peers to avoid interacting with them and passively support bullying and teasing (Thornberg, 2015).

How Can I Help My Child?

Currently, research on how parents can help if their child is bullied is limited. There are two main reasons for this. First, school bullying is seldom a single bully acting badly toward his/her victim; instead, bullying is often a group behavior that is maintained by peers who silently support the bullying or are reluctant to defend victims (Salmivalli, 2010). This makes it hard for adults (teachers or parents) to have an effective influence. Secondly, many bullied children are reluctant to ask for help, believing that adults won’t help or can’t help, and that “help” will make matters worse (Fekkes, Pijpers, & Verloove-Vanhorick, 2005).

However, there are several important steps parents can take to help prevent and limit the negative effects of being bullied.

Look for signs that your child might be struggling with peer relationships at school

Some children will confide to parents about the difficulties they are having with classmates, but others are reluctant to do so. Signs of difficulty include a drop in their grades, a reluctance to go to school, and limited desire to spend time with peers. Ask your child’s teachers what they are seeing and if they have any concerns.

Convey a strong message of support

It is important that children feel heard and supported by parents if they are being bullied. Treating those concerns as a serious matter does not mean, however, that parents should act hastily in an effort to help (e.g., calling the parents of the alleged bullies). Focus first on whether your child feels safe and supported by you and whether he/she can safely return to school.

Contact the school

If you suspect your child is being bullied and is not safe, it makes sense to contact your child’s teacher, school counselor, or principal. Again, the focus should be on your child’s safety. Schools have rules and policies against bullying, but teachers and other staff might be unaware of the bullying circumstances involving your child. Request that school staff develop a plan for keeping your child safe and preventing bullying from happening in the future. At minimum, this should involve reminders about the rules and consequences regarding bullying and staff monitoring of places where bullying tends to happen (Farrington & Ttofi, 2009). It would be helpful to have regular contact with your child’s teacher to ensure the plan is being used and is working effectively.

Coach your child on healthy ways to cope

It might help if children are assertive in the face of bullying or if they walk away from the bullying, but seldom can children solve the problem of bullying on their own. Still, how they respond can often make a difference. Seeking the support of teachers or school counselor can be useful, as is asking a friend for help. It is not helpful for children to respond with emotionally-charged retaliation (Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2004). Sadly, there is also research suggesting that openly showing signs of being hurt by the bullying or teasing (e.g., crying, withdrawing) can lead to even more bullying (e.g., Rosen, Milich, & Harris, 2012).

Help your child build friendships

Children who are liked by peers are less likely to be bullied. Having even one friendship can help reduce the negative effects of being bullied (Boulton, Trueman, Chau, Whitehand, & Amatya, 1999). Consider ways to help your child develop better, healthier peer relationships. This is where the guidance of a trained clinical child and adolescent psychologist can perhaps be most useful. This might involve working directly with children or helping parents identify ways to promote children’s peer interactions and level of peer acceptance (e.g., youth groups, sports teams, changing schools).

Set limits and monitor online activity

Help your child develop safe online behaviors. Talk to your child about online safety, including what is and is not OK to post, who is and is not OK to chat with, and what to do if someone threatens them or posts something hurtful about them. Also, remember, that you can serve as a role model for how your children are to interact safely online.

Additional Resources


Boulton, M. J., Trueman, M., Chau, C., Whitehand, C., & Amatya, K. (1999). Concurrent and longitudinal links between friendship and peer victimization: Implications for befriending interventions. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 461-466.

Cook, C.R., Williams, K.R., Guerra, N.G., and Kim, T. (2010). Variability in the prevalence of bullying and victimization. In S.R. Jimerson, S.M. Swearer, and D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective (pp. 347-362). New York: Routledge.

Farrington, D.P. & Ttofi M.M. (2009). School-based programs to reduce bullying and victimization. Campbell Systematic Reviews.

Fekkes, M. Pijpers, F.I.M., Verloove-Vanhorick, S.P. (2005). Bullying: Who does what, when, and where? Involvement of children, teachers, and parents in bullying behavior. Health Education Research Theory & Practice, 20 (1), 81-91.

Gladden, R. M., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Hamburger, M. E., & Lumpkin, C. D. (2014). Bullying surveillance among youth: Uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements, version 1.0. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Education.

Hawker, D.S., and Boulton, M.J. (2000). Twenty years’ research on peer victimization and psychosocial maladjustment: A meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(4), 441-455.

Kochenderfer-Ladd, B. (2004). Peer victimization: the role of emotions in adaptive and maladaptive coping. Social Development, 13, 3, 329-349.

McDougall, P. & Vaillancourt, T. (2015). Long-term adult outcomes of peer victimization in childhood and adolescence. American Psychologist, 70 (4), 300-310.

Rosen, P.J., Milich, R., & Harris, M.J. (2012). Dysregulated negative emotional reactivity as a predictor of chronic peer victimization in childhood. Aggressive Behavior, 38, 414-427.

Salmivalli, C. (2010). Bullying and the peer group. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15 (2), 112-120.

Thornberg, R. (2015b). School bullying as collective action: Stigma processes and identity struggling. Children & Society, 29, 310-320.

Vaillancourt, T., Brittain, H., Bennett, L., Arnocky, S., McDougall, P., Hymel, S., & Cunningham, L. (2010). Places to Avoid: Population-Based Study of Student Reports of Unsafe and High Bullying Areas at School. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 25(1), 40-54.

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