Sad looking girl with other girls laughing Although bullying is sometimes viewed as “a normal part of growing up” or “just kids being kids,” it is actually a harmful form of youth violence — with consequences for kids who bully others, are bullied, or even observe bullying as bystanders.

The Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has studied youth aggression and bullying and developed programs to reduce its incidence and impact. VPI experts share key findings and suggestions here for parents and kids.

What is bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior (behavior that is intentional and mean) that occurs repeatedly over time and that involves a power imbalance. The child who bullies may be physically stronger or more popular than the child who is bullied. Bystanders, children who observe the bullying, play an important role by providing an audience, even if they seem to offer no encouragement.

Bullying takes different forms:

  • Physical bullying, most common among boys, can include hitting, kicking and threatening violence.
  • Verbal bullying uses insults, cursing or yelling to harm others.
  • Relational bullying, most common among girls, involves the manipulation of social standing or reputations by tactics such as starting rumors and social exclusion.
  • Cyber bullying uses electronics and social media to harm others.

Who is affected by bullying?

Research shows that bullying increases in late childhood and peaks during the middle school years. (Though verbal and emotional bullying can continue into adulthood, and can be a problem in the workplace.)

  • Between 21% and 49% of adolescents report being bullied in the past year, and over 70% report being bystanders to bullying.
  • In a 2010 study, 20% of girls and 25% of boys said they were bullied, bullied others, or both in the last month.

How does bullying affect kids?

Bullying has consequences for everyone involved.

Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Increased feelings of sadness and loneliness
  • Health complaints
  • Loss of interests in activities they used to enjoy
  • Decline in academic performance

These effects can last into adulthood. A small number of victims of bullying may retaliate with violence. Victims of cyber bullying are eight times more likely to carry a weapon to school than their peers.

Kids who continually bully others are more likely to:

  • Get into fights, vandalize property and drop out of school
  • Abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults
  • Be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses or children as adults

Kids who witness the repeated victimization of peers are more likely to:

  • Use tobacco, alcohol or other drugs
  • Experience depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
  • Miss or skip school

What can parents do about bullying?

Watch for warning signs that your child may be the victim of bullying. Children are often reluctant to talk about bullying with adults, out of embarrassment or fear of retaliation. Signs of a bullying problem include:

  • Injuries your child can’t explain
  • Lost or destroyed clothing or belongings
  • Signs of unusual anxiety, including frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in eating habits, or difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness, worthlessness or depression

Be alert to signs that your child is bullying others. If your child gets into physical or verbal fights, is increasingly aggressive, gets into discipline trouble at school, seems excessively worried about reputation or popularity, or has friends who bully others, find out what is going on. The CHOP article, 4 Ways to Avoid Raising a Bully, has ideas on preventing bullying behavior.

Talk to your child about friendship problems and bullying. Take time to talk with and listen to your child every day about what is going on in their life. Let your child know they can talk to you without fear of overreaction or repercussions.

If your child is the victim of bullying

  • Take the bullying complaint seriously, but remain calm and don’t react emotionally.
  • Focus on the facts. Ask your child questions to understand the bullying behavior — when and where it happened, how long it has been going on, and what your child has done to deal with it.
  • Help your child come up with strategies to deal with future bullying incidents. The CHOP handout, Stopping Bullying, written for kids, may have helpful ideas.
  • Consider having your child talk with a professional. A school counselor, psychologist or private therapist has the experience to help your child talk about and cope with the situation.
  • If the bullying behavior is serious or continues, reach out to and work with school administrators to make sure they are aware of the problem. Do not contact the parents of the bully or others involved in the conflict. Help in the school’s investigation of the problem.

For more information

CHOP’s Violence Prevention Initiative has created a set of helpful fact sheets for parents and kids on preventing and dealing with bullying:

Two books may also be helpful:

  • Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping your daughter survive cliques, gossip, boys, and the new realities of girl world, by Rosalind Wiseman (Harmony, 3rd edition, 2016)
  • Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons (Mariner Books. Revised edition, 2011)

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