What is bullying?

Most experts on bullying define it as the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An intentional act to hurt or harm someone
  • An imbalance of power
  • Repetition

What are the types of bullying?

Bullying can be done in various forms. Here are the ways in which people are bullied:

  • Verbal: this includes inappropriate sexual comments, name calling, teasing and taunting.
  • Social, emotional or psychological: this can involve spreading rumors, public embarrassment or humiliation or excluding someone from a group or activity.
  • Physical: this may include beatings, tripping, hitting, kicking or destroying property.
  • Electronically: also known as cyberbullying, this is when threats, hate messages and other forms of digital abuse are delivered via electronic media such as email, websites, social media or text messages.

What are the warning signs of bullying?

The best way to help your child handle bullying is to know when it's occurring and respond to it. Remember that every kid can have an "off" day and not all children being bullied show these warning signs. But look for an atypical pattern of behavior in your child.  The following are some bullying red flags to look for:

  • avoids school situations (such as after-school activities, walking to school or riding the bus)
  • sudden loss of friends
  • significant and sudden drop in academic performance (homework, grades and attendance) or not wanting to go to school
  • lost or destroyed personal belongings such as electronics, books, jewelry, money, school supplies or clothing
  • physical complaints such as stomach aches, headaches, nausea or faking illness (goes to nurse to avoid class)
  • difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares, bed wetting or cries self to sleep
  • changes in appetite like binge eating, skipping meals or hungrier than normal after school (which could be due to a stolen lunch or lunch money or avoiding the cafeteria)
  • waits to use the bathroom at home (to avoid being bullied in the school's restrooms)
  • sudden weight loss
  • low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness
  • fear of being left alone or clingy
  • distress after being on the phone or online
  • unexplainable injuries such as bruises, cuts, scratches or scrapes
  • runs away from home, talks of suicide, harms him or herself or other self-destructive behaviors

What should I do if my child is bullied?

If your child is being bullied, he or she may not tell you about it. Bullied children may feel helpless, weak, embarrassed or ashamed. They may fear that you or others will punish or judge them or be upset or angry at them. They may worry that you'll confront the bully or tell them to do so. Or they may think that you won't understand, care or believe it's happening. 

That's why you need to take the situation seriously. Talk with your child about the bullying. Ask direct questions. Find out when it happens, who is involved and what is said or done. Ask what your child has done to stop it (if anything) and what's been successful and unsuccessful. Record the details and facts objectively. The more specifics you get, the better. 

Listen to your child tell you what's going on lovingly and calmly, expressing your concern, support and understanding. Remind him or her that it's not his or her fault. Praise your child for talking to you about it, saying you're there to help and he or she is no longer alone.

If your child won't open up, look for opportunities to discuss bullying such as talking about a relevant situation on a television show or something that happened with another family member or friend. If your child won't confide in you, set up a conference with a trusted adult such as a family friend, teacher or coach. 

Then, reach out to school authorities such as a teacher, principal or guidance counselor. Find out what the school teaches students about bullying and the school's anti-bullying policies. Ask them what they can do to help address the bullying. And don't be afraid to reach out again if the bullying resumes. After you talk with school officials, you may consider contacting the police or a lawyer if you believe your child has been threatened or attacked physically or in any harmful way.

If you know a bullying incident has occurred, tell your child's teacher and school principal immediately. Ask about the school's bullying policy and for a specific action plan. Some schools have peer mediation programs, an excellent way to model and experience nonviolent conflict resolution. If the school doesn't have one, there are plenty of free resources, such as the U.S. Department of Education website.