Despite numerous campaigns to bring bullying into the national spotlight, intimidation and aggression among school-age children continues to be a serious problem in the U.S., reports the anti-bullying website Stopbullying.gov. In fact, federally collected data suggests up to 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 nationwide experience bullying at some time.

Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. In most cases, a bully uses physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity to control or harm others.

According to experts, bullying usually falls into three categories:

  • Verbal bullying, which can include teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, and threats to cause harm;
  • Social bullying, which involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. This type of bullying includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading hurtful rumors, and embarrassing someone in public; and
  • Physical bullying, which involves hurting someone or their possessions. Physical bullying commonly includes hitting, kicking or pinching, spitting, tripping or pushing, and taking or breaking another student’s possessions.

Cyberbullying has become an increasing problem in recent years, as young people spend more and more time on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and related sites, reports the Second Youth Internet Safety Survey. Cyberbullying most commonly includes sending hurtful or threatening emails or instant messages, spreading rumors, or posting embarrassing photos of others. In many cases, cyberbullying is a continuation of the physical or verbal bullying that takes place at school.   

Who’s at risk

Any child can be bullied, but some populations are at greater risk, such as lesbian, gay, and transgender youth and those with disabilities. Socially isolated youngsters also are common targets, as are those who are overweight, wear different clothing, or are perceived as somehow different. “New kids” at school — which can include members of military families who move frequently — might also be the target of bullies.

Youngsters who are bullied often hide it from their families, so bullying might be ongoing for some time before it is reported. However, there are numerous red flags parents should be aware of, including:

  • unexplained injuries;
  • lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry;
  • frequent episodes of feeling sick or faking illness;
  • difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares;
  • loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school;
  • sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations;
  • feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem; and
  • self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talk of suicide.

Children who are bullied often are reluctant to ask for help. They might feel they can control the situation on their own or that asking for help will only make the situation worse. Many youngsters who are bullied also feel humiliated by the experience and might remain silent because they are afraid they will be judged or punished for being weak.

Open communication is one of the most important tools available to a parent who suspects their child is being bullied. Experts suggest staying in close touch with your child; listen to him, get to know his friends, and show understanding about his concerns. Make sure your child feels comfortable talking to you about anything, and leave the door open to a discussion about bullying if it occurs. If you find your child is being bullied at school, schedule a meeting with a school official to address the situation. Learn the school’s official policy on bullying and make sure it is being followed.  

Dealing with bullies

Those who are being bullied should be taught how to stand up to their tormentors in a safe way. For example, practice scenarios at home where your child learns how to ignore a bully and/or develop assertive strategies for coping with a bully. However, physical violence — i.e., giving the bully a taste of his or her own medicine — is never the answer and might get your child in trouble. Similarly, a bullied child should never bring a weapon to school as that could lead to suspension and even criminal charges. Instead, encourage a child who is being bullied to stay close to an adult or a group of friends when a bully is around and to immediately report instances of bullying when they are witnessed. Silence on behalf of observers only allows bullying to continue.

Bullying once was considered a rite of childhood, but today we recognize it for what it is: an act of violence and intimidation against someone who is smaller and weaker. By listening to our children and making sure they understand the dynamics of bullying and what to do about it, we can help reduce bullying nationwide.

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