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Harvard Medical School
Chrome 2001
Chrome 2001


Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Bullying is when one child keeps picking on, or acting roughly toward, another child who is smaller, weaker or defenseless. Bullying is not only physical fighting, but also can involve psychological, verbal or emotional abuse. Bullies try to control other children by picking on them or scaring them.

Unfortunately, bullying is a common problem, affecting 1 of every 10 American school kids each day. More than three-quarters of children report being bullied some time during their school years. Bullying affects both girls and boys, with a child most likely to be bullied around 7 years of age.

Do not think bullying is just a harmless part of growing up. It can cause lots of damage to the mental and physical health of victims, bullies and those children who witness an episode.

  • Victims may suffer physical injuries and commonly experience fear and anxiety. Since bullying often happens at school, a child’s school performance can go down due to missed school time, being late for school, not being able to concentrate, and low self-esteem. Victims of bullying may refuse to participate in activities that involve other children; they may not do any social activities and begin to lose friendships. They seem to always be anxious and depressed.
  • Bullies themselves are at risk of social problems that often get worse and may last into adulthood. For example, studies show that adults who bullied someone during childhood were more likely to have a criminal record.
  • Children who are simply bystanders also are affected by bullying behavior. After witnessing an assault on another child, they may experience emotional distress and may worry that school is not a safe place

It is important to remember that any child could be a victim or perpetrator of bullying. Given the potential consequences, parents, educators and other adults must do everything possible to keep bullying out of all children’s lives.

While nobody can know for sure which children will be bullied or will become bullies, there are some typical characteristics of bullies and victims. Victims tend to be smaller and weaker compared with their classmates, and often react more passively and anxiously to threatening situations, frequently by crying. They also spend more time alone in school, especially at recess, and have a more negative view of themselves. On the other hand, bullies tend to be bigger, stronger and often act roughly toward their teachers, parents and siblings. Their attitudes and play reveal an acceptance of violence, and they may use violent means to resolve conflicts. Bullies also tend to be more socially outgoing and to have higher self-esteem.

Certain physical complaints are often associated with being bullied, usually because of the stress involved, which results in difficulty sleeping, stomachaches, headaches, not wanting to eat, and wetting the bed. Children who are being bullied also may exhibit secretive behavior or unusual behavior like temper tantrums, excessive trips to the school nurse, or rushing to the bathroom as soon as they get home after school (because they have been avoiding rest rooms at school).

If your child is the victim

If you fear that your child is being bullied, the first thing you should do is talk with your child and try to find out whether your thinking is correct. Keep in mind that children who are being bullied may be reluctant to talk about their experience because they are embarrassed or afraid that the bullying will get worse. You can ask your child directly about being bullied or you can try indirect questions, such as:

  • Which children in your school or neighborhood tease other children?
  • Do you know anybody in school who has been teased or bullied?
  • What is it like when you walk to school or take the bus?
  • What do you do during lunch period?
  • Do you usually play with other children or by yourself at recess?

Once you have determined that a bully is victimizing your child, your next instinct may be to jump in and take action to defend and protect your child. However, this will not solve the problem, and in fact, may reinforce the behavior. Do not encourage your child to fight back or get revenge because this places your child at risk and continues the cycle of violence. Telling your child to ignore the bully will not solve the problem, either.

The best way to help your child is to teach him how to show self-confidence and how to avoid situations that put him at risk of being bullied. Try the following suggestions to help your child learn to deal with bullies:

  1. Help your child develop self-confidence. Encourage your child to do extracurricular activities, such as sports, music or drama, which he enjoys and can do well at. Children who feel good about themselves are less likely to be picked on.
  2. Teach your child how to show self-confidence. Suggest to a child that if confronted by a bully, look the bully in the eye and say something like, “Stop. I don’t like what you’re doing,” then walk away with confidence, ignoring any further taunts from the bully.
  3. Encourage friendships. Children who are loners are more likely to get picked on, and some children even spend time with bullies because they do not have other social options. Help your child make other friends by joining clubs or teams, or by inviting other children over to play. Friendships will also give a child more confidence and self-esteem.
  4. Advise your child to travel in groups. Your child is less likely to be a target for bullies if he travels to and from school, between classes, and on the playground with other friends.
  5. Teach your child the importance of body language. Children who learn to make direct eye contact, stand tall, hold their heads up high, keep their arms and hands relaxed, and use a firm voice are more effective at dissuading bullies. Practice this at home with your child.
  6. Talk with other parents. If your child is being bullied, other children at school or in your neighborhood are probably also being bullied, so their parents may have suggestions.
  7. Inform the school of your safety concerns. This is a crucial measure because you will depend on the school to keep your child safe during the day. Your efforts will be most effective if you involve other parents, as well. Encourage the school to increase supervision in the hallways and at recess. Studies show that more adult supervision at school helps reduce bullying.

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If your child is the bully

If your child is accused of being a bully or you see that he is bullying others, take it seriously. At first you may be defensive and want to deny the problem, but remember that bullying during childhood can lead to lifelong problems, and now is the time when you can help to change your child’s behavior. Talk with your child and gather information about what has happened. Do not blame your child for the behavior. Instead, try to determine why it may be happening. For example, some children experience verbal or physical abuse from another child, parent or sibling, and then pass this on to the next victim.

Try the following suggestions to help your child stop bullying other children:

  1. Stress that you will not tolerate bullying. Make sure your child knows that bullying is never acceptable, and help him understand how bullying hurts other children. Set firm and definite limits for this behavior and respond to bullying incidents with negative consequences, such as loss of time spent with others.
  2. Teach alternative approaches. Help your child develop constructive strategies for getting what he wants. Teach and practice negotiating skills and nonviolent problem solving. Practice the new behaviors with your child.
  3. Be a positive role model. Children can learn how to treat others with respect and kindness. Model good behavior and show your children how they can get what they want without teasing, threatening or attacking.
  4. Supervise your child more closely. Stay nearby as much as possible when your child is playing with others. Encourage your child’s participation in supervised extracurricular activities such as sports, music or scouts. These activities will help your child develop skills and interests, while also serving as a socially acceptable outlet for excess energy or aggressive behavior.
  5. Consult a school psychologist. A mental-health professional can help your child understand the triggers for his bullying behavior and can help your child learn different ways to handle these problems.

Last updated July 31, 2014

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