What Every Parent Should Know About Bullying and Behavioral Health

Emily Snow — October 19, 2020

In the United States, one in every five students is a victim of bullying1. When we think of bullying, it’s natural to think of causing physical harm to others. However, many different behaviors, including teasing, social media harassment and exclusion from social groups, are considered bullying. In this post, I will address the different types of bullying, the effects it has on behavioral health, what to do if you suspect your child is a victim of bullying, and actions parents can take if they are concerned their child is bullying others.

How Bullying Takes Form

Bullying is repetitive, unwanted behavior indicative of an observed or perceived imbalance of power2. It can take many forms, and may include one or a combination of the below: 

  • Verbal Bullying: Teasing, taunting, name-calling and threats
  • Social or Relational Bullying: Peer pressure, spreading rumors, public embarrassment or purposeful exclusion from a social group. Bullies who exhibit these behaviors are often seeking to improve or maintain their social status or harm another’s reputation. This type of bullying is common among young girls and can be more difficult to identify because it is not as overt as other types of bullying.
  • Physical Bullying: Pushing, shoving, punching, tripping or stealing
  • Cyberbullying: The percentage of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying doubled between 2007 and 20163. Cyberbullying includes harassment via social media, text messaging, instant or direct messages, online forums and chat rooms, email, or other digital media.

Bullying and COVID-19

Bullying behaviors, especially cyberbullying, have increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic4. The pandemic has increased the time children are spending online and in front of screens, which puts them at higher risk.

We have also seen a spike in racially charged bullying, as parents of Asian-American children have reported mistreatment from both kids and adults who make disparaging remarks or exclude them due to the pandemic5.

It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed in light of all that is going on, but it’s more important than ever to keep tabs on your child’s activity and to model healthy behaviors at home.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Child is Being Bullied

If you believe your child is a victim of bullying, the first thing you should do is to help your child understand it’s not their fault.  Don’t assume they did anything to provoke the bullying, and allow them to explain the situation and express their feelings. Some additional tips:

  • Let your child know that what’s happening to them is wrong and you’re proud of them for coming forward.
  • Contact your child’s school and make them aware of the issue.
  • Teach your child how to contact their teacher or another authority figure at school to report the bullying behavior. Help them understand it is the right thing to do for their safety and for others.
  • Avoid criticizing your child or anything about their bully (apart from their behavior). Don’t encourage retaliation, physical or otherwise.
  • Help your child develop hobbies or interests that help build resilience. These activities include team sports, karate and other hobbies that help self-regulate emotions. It can also help children to make friends outside of school and connect with other children who share their interests.
  • Encourage your child to embrace professional help and underscore that seeing a therapist or counselor is brave and perfectly normal.
  • Create a safe, loving home environment in which your child feels comfortable.

What To Do If You Think Your Child is Bullying Others

There is no universal profile for a bully. Children who bully come from different backgrounds, income levels and home situations, but share similar characteristics including lack of empathy, tendency to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, underdeveloped social skills, the need to feel in control, anxiety and depression, and having been bullied themselves.

If you suspect that your child may be exhibiting bullying behaviors toward others, there are several steps you should take:

  • Help your child understand what bullying looks like and the impact it has on others.
  • Find out whether your child is experiencing peer pressure or if they are being bullied themselves.
  • Confirm your child is bullying and that their behavior is not a result of a social disability. If your child has a social disability that is causing him or her to lash out at others, work with your child’s school to add bullying prevention goals to their Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Try to understand your child’s feelings and what may be causing him or her to turn to bullying behaviors.
  • Let your child know that his or her behavior has consequences, and be specific about those consequences (for example, loss of a privilege or favorite activity).
  • Model healthy behaviors at home, and practice roleplaying situations of bullying to help your child understand acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
  • If possible, enroll your child in team sports or another activity that requires cooperation and collaboration.
  • Reach out to your child’s school administration to let them know you are aware of the behavior and are working to remedy it. Ask them if they have any resources available to help.
  • Praise your child and practice positive reinforcement when they are behaving well.
  • If the behavior persists, speak with a therapist, psychologist or pediatrician to address the behavior and prevent it from escalating or causing other issues later in your child’s life.

It’s important to keep in mind that bullying behaviors can be unlearned and are reparable if addressed in a timely manner. It takes patience and understanding from both parent and child. If bullying behaviors aren’t properly addressed, they can lead to personality disorders or other issues.

The Effects of Bullying on Behavioral Health

Whether a child is a bully, victim or bystander, bullying causes stress, anxiety and mental health conditions. This is why it’s critical to teach all kids how to be empathetic and nonviolent.

Kids who are bullied often experience difficulty in the classroom or express depressive characteristics. Bullying victims are also at heightened risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors. These are signs that indicate that you should get a professional, such as a guidance counselor or therapist, involved.

Parents should feel empowered to seek professional help for their kids who are victims of bullying or are bullies themselves. In particular, I recommend working with a therapist who specializes in helping kids who are being bullied and/or who practice roleplay and teach empathy. If you are a Blue KC member, you can consult a Mindful Advocate 24/7 or use the Mindful by Blue KC mobile app to identify a professional who fits your and your child’s needs. For additional resources, visit StopBullying.gov or the National Bullying Prevention Center.