As a parent or caregiver, it’s heart-wrenching to learn that your child is being bullied. It’s like watching them lost in an unfamiliar forest with no clear path to safety. You want to guide them through the hazards—and yet you may not know the way out either.
But just like a compass and map can steer you through tough terrain, there are tools you can give your child to help them cope with bullying.
In this guide, we’ll explore how to recognize the signs of bullying, and what to do if your kid is being bullied. We’ll also cover practical strategies and social-emotional skills that can help your child feel safe and confident as they find their way through even the thorniest of schoolyard conflicts.
How to Recognize Bullying
Before you can address bullying, it’s important to understand what bullying is—and what it isn’t. Bullying is a repeated behavior that is intended to harm someone, and that includes a power differential between the bully and the victim. Some researchers have found that the power differential and intentionality aspects are actually more harmful than the frequency of bullying.1 Nonetheless, there are a few factors that come into play when understanding what causes bullying.
Some examples of the kinds of power differentials that can come into play between children include:
- Physical strength – This is often the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about childhood bullying—the big kid picking on the little kid. However, there are a number of other, more subtle power imbalances that come into play in social settings between children that may even be more harmful.
- Socioeconomic status – Children who are perceived to be less affluent may be teased or singled out by their peers.
- Age – Older children may use their age as a way to intimidate or control younger children.
- Cultural background or ethnicity – Children from different cultural backgrounds or ethnicities may be targeted for bullying due to differences in appearance, language, or customs.
- Gender – Boys, girls, and kids with gender non-conforming kids may be bullied differently based on gender stereotypes and expectations. Some research has found that girls are more likely to be victims of bullying than boys.2
Adults must consider these power differentials when defining and addressing bullying behaviors. By understanding the underlying dynamics, parents, and caregivers can help children navigate these challenges effectively while developing healthy relationships with their peers.
What Does Bullying Look Like?
Bullying may take a number of forms. Some are more subtle and easy for parents and teachers to miss. The most common forms of bullying include:
- Physical bullying and aggression (punching, pinching, hitting, etc.)
- Verbal aggression (name-calling, mocking, teasing)
- Social/emotional aggression (being excluded, being targeted by rumors, etc.)
Keep in mind certain behaviors may be interpreted differently depending on one's background, race, gender, etc. For example, some children may have been raised to think teasing is a way to joke with friends. Another child who was not raised with this kind of interaction may feel bullied even though the first child didn’t intend to hurt.
Adults need to be cognizant of these differences when addressing conflicts between children. Fostering open communication with both children can help identify different ideas about what is and isn’t bullying across different backgrounds.
Teaching Your Child to Recognize Bullying
When it comes to practicing healthy parenting skills, it’s vital to teach your child that it’s safe to tell you or another trusted adult if they are being bullied. However, it’s also important for children to know that not all conflicts or disagreements are bullying.
For example, imagine your child argues with a friend. That friend loses their temper and calls your child a name. Maybe they even push your child to the ground. If your child reports this incident to you and says their friend is a bully, you can discuss the difference between an argument and bullying.
Remember, bullying is:
- Intended to harm
- Based on a power imbalance
In this case, you could talk to your child about how people can do unkind things sometimes without intending real harm. And while this may not be classified as typical bullying behavior, remember to let your kids know it is inappropriate in any regard. Have an open conversation in which you:
- Encourage your child to think about the difference between a mistake (which we all make) and a pattern of unkind actions
- Talk about setting boundaries around how others treat us
- Let your child know it’s okay not to spend time with people who make them feel bad, even if that person isn’t a bully
- Address examples of healthy behaviors between peers to let your kids know what types of behaviors are okay and which are not. You might even encourage your kids to make a list of their own boundaries.
How to Deal With Bullying
Being bullied can have a range of effects on children, both physically and emotionally. Physical responses of a bullying victim may include:3
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
These physical reactions can be caused by the stress and anxiety of being bullied, and can lead to further difficulties such as missed school or decreased performance in academic and extracurricular activities.
Emotional responses can also vary depending on the child and the severity of the bullying. Children who are bullied may experience:4
- Feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or embarrassment
- Low self-esteem, social isolation, and difficulty trusting others
- In extreme cases, bullying can even lead to depression or suicidal thoughts
How to Talk to Your Child About Bullying
After understanding what bullying can look like, it's important as a parent or caregiver to help your child following a bullying incident. If you suspect your child may be being bullied, it’s time to open up a conversation. Ask open-ended questions about how they are feeling at school, who they like spending time with, and any difficulties they’re having.
Try to approach this conversation in a calm, non-judgmental manner by:
- Validating their feelings – Let your child know that their feelings matter and that they have a right to feel the way they do. This can help your child feel understood and supported and can encourage them to continue sharing their emotions with you.
- Encouraging expression – Guide your child to express their emotions in a healthy and constructive way. If they’re uncomfortable talking about how they’re feeling, writing in a journal or drawing can help.
- Providing reassurance – Let your child know you are there to support them. Help your child devise a plan for how to address the bullying behavior, and let them know that you will be there every step of the way.
Strategies to Respond to Bullying
If you determine that your child is being bullied, you’ll need to help them plan how to respond. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for how to do this. You and your child should work together to think of strategies that your child feels good about using.
For example, children are often advised to look a bully straight in the eye in order to show confidence. But direct eye contact can be uncomfortable for many people. Instead, look for ways your child can respond that are comfortable for them and that they can carry out with confidence. Here are some examples:
- Practice a confident posture – No eye contact? No problem. Teach your child to practice standing tall, with their shoulders and back strong and their hands unclenched. Take deep, regular breaths into the belly (which also helps with calming nerves).
- Keep it short – Bullying can leave your child feeling powerless and tongue-tied. Instead of trying to argue, call names, or yell, suggest that your child practice a brief, firm response, such as:
- "That's not funny."
- "I don't like it when you call me that."
- "That's not my name, please use my real name."
- "I'm not going to listen to this. Goodbye."
- "What you're doing is not okay."
- "I'm not going to let your words affect me."
- "You're being hurtful, stop it."
- Walk away – Sometimes leaving a conflict is the strongest statement you can make. Let your child know there is nothing wrong with simply walking away from a bully without giving them a response.
These types of responses can help your child take control of the bullying situation and communicate to the bully that their behavior is not acceptable. Be sure to remind your child that they don’t deserve to be bullied, and they are not responsible for the bully's actions.
What To Do When Your Kid Is Being Bullied
While you want to empower your child to handle tough social situations on their own when they can, there are times when the caregiver needs to step in to stop a serious bullying situation.
If you see signs that your child is becoming depressed or anxious about going to school, it’s time to take further action.
- Contact the school – If you find out that your child is being bullied, it’s appropriate to report the incidents to the teacher or other school authorities. Don’t assume the staff is aware of the issue—with understaffing and large class sizes, even the most well-meaning teachers and administrators can miss problems brewing. Work with your child’s teacher, school counselor, and school administrators to develop a plan to address the bullying behavior.
- Move up the ladder if necessary – Caregivers should be aware that teachers may not respond equitably or appropriately to bullying behavior in some situations, particularly for minoritized groups. If you feel your child is not receiving equal treatment, you may need to raise your concerns with the school administration or school board.
- Stay attuned to changes – Be aware of situational changes that may impact your child's experiences, such as changes in classroom dynamics, a new substitute, or a change in playground supervision. Encourage your child to communicate with you about their feelings and experiences at school. Be prepared to take action if necessary to ensure that your child feels safe and supported both at home and at school.
- Seek outside support – It’s never a bad idea to seek additional help from mental health professionals or family support groups. When it comes to parenting with confidence, you can rely on these types of resources to provide additional guidance and support.
Seek Support From Slumberkins
Bullying is an emotionally challenging situation for caregivers and children alike. However, by teaching your child to recognize bullying and respond with grace, confidence, and strength, you can help them not only overcome this challenge but build their emotional intelligence and illustrate the importance of resilience as they encounter future challenges as well.
With resources from Slumberkins, you can help your child develop communication skills and resilience—the map and compass they’ll need to navigate difficult situations lifelong.
Check out our collection of educational resources for caregivers, where you’ll find activities to support your child’s emotional development in areas like self-esteem, conflict management, and much more. You can help your child overcome bullying—let Slumberkins be your guide.
- Malecki, Christine et al. "Frequency, power differential, and intentionality and the relationship to anxiety, depression, and self-esteem for victims of bullying." Child and Youth Care Forum. February 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265412313_Frequency_Power_Differential_and_Intentionality_and_the_Relationship_to_Anxiety_Depression_and_Self-Esteem_for_Victims_of_Bullying
- Schumann, Lyndall et al. “Power differentials in bullying: individuals in a community context.” Journal of interpersonal violence vol. 29,5 (2014): 846-65. doi:10.1177/0886260513505708
- Committee on the Biological and Psychosocial Effects of Peer Victimization: Lessons for Bullying Prevention, et al. Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Edited by Frederick Rivara et. al., National Academies Press (US), 14 September 2016. doi:10.17226/23482