As a caregiver, you want your child to feel safe, happy, and loved all the time. You do your best to create a nurturing environment at home, but you can’t always shield your kids from every challenge they may face in the outside world—including bullying behavior.
Unfortunately, up to one in five children will experience bullying.1 That’s why every parent and caregiver needs to know how to recognize the signs of bullying and how to approach it when it happens.
Whether your child is currently dealing with bullying, or you’re preparing to deal with this common childhood experience in the future, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll review the signs of bullying that every parent should know, as well as how to help children navigate this difficult experience with confidence.
What Are Signs of Bullying?
Every parent wants to prevent bullying or help their child through it, and it’s common to wonder when they should get involved with their child's social interactions at school. Your child needs space to navigate relationships on their own, but you also need to protect their well-being. Understanding what causes bullying is one thing, but knowing what signs to look out for can make a world of difference in helping a child.
If your child is showing signs of distress, it may be time to intervene. Speak to them about what they’re experiencing to assess the extent of the problem. For example:
- Yellow flag – Your child says they’re using their social skills to stand up for themselves and express their feelings. However, the bullying hasn’t stopped. As long as your child isn’t overly stressed, let them continue handling the situation. Talk about additional skills and strategies that could help, and practice these skills using roleplaying. But even if you feel your child can support themselves, it’s important to consider communicating with their teachers or other school resources regarding your child’s experience at school and that you’re keeping a pulse on it at home. For example, you can let their teachers know that you’re aware of what’s happening at school, are not overly concerned about it yet, and are working on keeping open communication with your child at home.
- Red flag – Your child describes situations that are unsafe, like physical aggression.
- Red flag – Your child is showing serious signs of anxiety and depression, like changes in behavior, dropping grades, mood swings, withdrawal from activities or social interactions, or reluctance to attend school.
If you notice any behavioral changes, take them seriously. Check in with your child and ask questions. If you’re still in doubt, speak to your child’s teacher and find out how your child is behaving in class and how they’re getting along with their classmates.
Bullying in Preschoolers
They may be little, but even preschoolers can bully. Preschool bullying usually takes three forms: physical aggression, aggression related to an object like a toy or a snack, and being left out.2
Some signs that your preschool-aged child might be experiencing bullying include:
- Strong clinging behavior
- Becoming withdrawn
- Aggressive behavior or tantrums
- Being hesitant to go to preschool or daycare
- Trouble sleeping, bed-wetting, or frequent nightmares
At this age, children might not understand or be able to articulate what is happening to them, so parents need to be especially aware of changes in behavior.
Research has shown that bullying in preschool can have long-lasting effects on a child's development, including increased aggression, anxiety, and depression.3 Parents and teachers need to act quickly when signs of bullying are spotted among 3- to 5-year-olds.
7 Signs Your Child Is Being Bullied
When your kids experience bullying, they may tell you directly and express concern for their safety. However, this is not always the case. That being said, clear changes in behavior mean it’s time to investigate by talking to your child, their teacher, daycare provider, or other adults involved in their care. But what are those clear changes? Warning signs that you can look out for include emotional and physical signs as well as changes in behavior.
- Physical symptoms. Unexplained physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches can be caused by childhood stress and anxiety related to bullying.
- Unexplained injuries or damaged belongings. Skinned knees and toy tossing are par for the course for busy kids. However, torn clothing, missing or damaged books and backpacks, and unusual bruises or scratches can also be signs of bullying.
- Sleep disturbances. Trouble sleeping, frequent nightmares, and bedwetting can all be signs of anxiety and stress related to bullying.
- Changes in appetite. Sudden changes in eating habits or loss of appetite can indicate anxiety or depression related to problems at school, including bullying.
- Avoiding places or activities. Avoidance can be a significant sign of bullying. You may notice that your child suddenly loses interest in a specific place, like school or the park, or a certain activity, like an afterschool club. They may also avoid social situations in general, or certain groups of children.
- Poor academic performance. This may show up as falling grades, failing to complete homework, or misbehavior in class, all of which are classic warning signs of stress in children.
- Moodiness and irritability. Mental health-related signs of anxiety and depression in children can appear as mood swings, aggression at home, tantrums, or crying more easily than usual.
It’s important to note that these signs don't necessarily mean that your child is being bullied. However, these can be clues to a larger social puzzle.
7 Signs Your Child May Be Bullying Others
It's just as important to watch out for signs that your child may be bullying others. Every child is mean from time to time. But if you’ve seen your child engage in repeated hurtful behavior toward friends, siblings, or classmates, it’s time to give them extra help handling aggressive feelings appropriately.
Young children often fall back on bullying when they are struggling to express their feelings and needs. Bullying doesn’t mean your child is bad. It’s a sign that your child needs help developing stronger social skills, empathy, and self-control.4
It’s also essential to intervene early. When bullying isn’t addressed in young childhood, it can develop into antisocial behavior in later years.2
With that in mind, here are 7 signs your child may have a problem with bullying behavior:
- Lack of empathy. Young children are still developing the ability to understand that other people have feelings and needs. As they get older, if your child shows very little concern for the well-being of others, struggles to accept other perspectives, fails to understand the impact of their actions, or causes harm intentionally, they may need outside support to help them develop skills that encourage practicing and internalizing empathy for others.
- Physical aggression. If your child has a tendency to use physical force or aggressive behavior to get what they want, they may be more likely to use these strategies with their peers in the future. Hitting, pushing, pinching, grabbing toys or snacks, or shoving ahead in line, are all common forms of physical bullying in young children. However, early intervention to support them in using their words and developing self-control and coping skills can help them practice new ways to meet their needs.
- Blaming others for their actions. Children who bully often struggle to take responsibility for their actions and may shift blame to others. This may be a sign of internalized shame they’re struggling to manage on their own. If you notice your child struggling to take responsibility for their actions, work with them to help build their self esteem, cope with shame, and learn the importance of holding themselves accountable for their behaviors. And as always, remind them they are loved even if they are challenged with taking responsibility.
- Difficulty controlling emotions. Children who struggle to manage their emotions, particularly anger or frustration, may be more likely to slip into bullying others. Watch for angry outbursts, tantrums, or lashing out at others when your child becomes upset or frustrated. Communicate and work with your kids on expressing and befriending their big emotions in healthy ways so they feel comfortable with how they’re feeling.
- Lack of remorse. Children who bully often show little or no remorse for their actions, even when they have hurt someone else. If your child seems indifferent or unconcerned about the impact of their behavior on others, it can be helpful to try empathy-developing activities like role-playing and storytelling (imagining the viewpoints of different characters).2
- Dominating their peers. If you notice your child is always the first to take a turn, takes over activities, or bosses other children around, these are signs of controlling behavior—a red flag for bullying and a potential sign of anxiety derived from their need for control. Try finding ways to help them build feelings of safety and security within their environment so they can establish boundaries around inappropriate controlling behaviors.
- Difficulty with friendships. Bullying behavior can make it hard for children to form close relationships with peers. If your child seems to be excluded from activities, struggles to make or keep friends, or seems isolated, it could be a sign of bullying behavior. Being left out can result in further bullying behavior as a backfiring attempt to make friends. Consider seeking external support to help your child develop healthy friendship skills through resources like school counselors or child therapists.
How to Approach Signs of Bullying
If you notice your child in a bullying situation, you’re probably wondering what to do if your kid is being bullied, or if they're bullying others. As a parent or caregiver, you can play a role in bullying prevention, whether your child may be a victim or a bully. If you’ve seen signs of bullying, there are several effective strategies you can use to help your child. Here are some key ways you can support your child, both before and during bullying:
- Practice talking about emotions early – Develop a habit of frequent, non-judgemental conversations with your child before they’re dealing with serious problems like bullying. Building a trusting and secure relationship from a young age is the best way to ensure your child will tell you about problems before they grow out of control.
- Roleplay tricky social situations – Help your child prepare for potential bullying situations by acting out different scenarios. Brainstorm with your child about situations they think they might face at school. What if someone takes their snack? What if someone won’t share? Practice skills like speaking up, suggesting compromises, and knowing when to get an adult involved.
- Work on empathy from the start – Parents can start having conversations with their children about bullying as early as preschool, teaching them what it means to be kind and respectful to others and modeling these behaviors themselves. By building a strong foundation of empathy and respect, parents can help their children develop the social-emotional skills to avoid becoming either a victim or a bully.
- Meet with their teacher – If you suspect bullying, assessing the teacher's view of the classroom dynamic can help you suss out the roots of the issue. Have they seen your child involved in bullying? How do they feel your child relates to their peers?
- Create a plan with the school – When bullying happens at school, it’s best to work as a team with teachers and staff to form a plan. But be aware that schools aren’t always equipped to handle bullying caused by certain social dynamics, especially those involving race and gender. After meeting with school staff, take stock of the plan. Do you feel it’s sensitive to the specifics of your child’s situation? Don’t be afraid to reach out to higher-level administrators or school board members if you feel you aren’t being heard.
Find Support from Slumberkins
Recognizing the signs of bullying is a critical piece of bully-proofing your child. But it’s also important to take proactive steps to build social skills and demonstrate the importance of resilience before bullying begins.
Teaching your child how to express emotions, handle challenging personalities, and stand up for themselves gently but firmly will help them thrive long after they’ve left that bully behind.
Caregivers, teachers, and school administrators all have a part to play in creating safe, nurturing environments. Slumberkins is ready to help on this mission with our tools for caregivers and educators. Our evidence-based activities and resources are developed with one goal in mind: empowering children with kindness, empathy, and belief in themselves.
- "Bullying statistics." National Bullying Prevention Center. https://www.pacer.org/bullying/info/stats.asp
- Raisor, Jill et al. "Preschool: Guidance strategies to prevent and address preschool bullying." Young Children. May 2014. https://www.jstor.org/stable/ycyoungchildren.69.2.70
- Worke, Dieter et al. "Long-term effects of bullying." Archives of Disease in Childhood. 10 February, 2015. https://adc.bmj.com/content/archdischild/100/9/879.full.pdf
- Katz, Brigit. "My child is a bully: What should I do?" Child Mind Institute. Updated 31 March, 2023. https://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-if-your-child-is-bullying/