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Feeling — Bullying

Bullying in Children

Two kids teasing and laughing at another kid.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 31 Jan 2022

What is Bullying in Childhood?

Bullying in childhood is targeted harmful behavior by someone more powerful than the victim. 

Bullying among kids may include a wide range of behaviors

  • social exclusion
  • making threats
  • making inappropriate sexual comments
  • using rude hand gestures
  • spreading rumors
  • making fun of someone
  • leaving someone in a dangerous place
  • physically hurting someone (aggressive behavior)
  • breaking someone’s things
  • vulgar text messaging
  • mistreating someone in chat rooms
  • saying mean things on social media platforms 

Perhaps in part due to the sometimes tragic consequences, bullying is a hot topic these days. We often hear about bullying on the news. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center 1 in 5 children report being bullied. 


Cyberbullying is a growing concern with so much social media access for children. Cyberbullying may include social media platforms. Bullying can extend to instant messaging, text messaging, and cell phone apps. 

If your child is truly the victim of bullying, you will observe a few telltale signs that will be discussed in this article. It is also important, though, that we know what bullying is not. Some kids just aren’t that nice, but they are not necessarily bullies.

True Bullying Requires These Three Ingredients

1. Targeted behavior: this means that the individual who is bullied has been singled out by the bully. Targeted acts of bullying are repeated and often relentless. This behavior is different from peer conflict. Peer conflict is often mistaken for bullying.

In peer conflict, the children may alternate between being friends and enemies. These ‘frenemies’ are not bullies. 

2. A bully intends to do harm to the victim: by way of intimidation or harassment, with words or actions. This intention is different from a child who is just not very nice or socially appropriate.

Harm might include behavior that is intentionally hurting the child’s self-esteem, mood, confidence, or peer relationships. The bullying behavior may cause sleep problems, physical injury or psychological distress. 

A ‘mean kid’ is not a bully if he or she is just generally rude to everyone, with no true pattern of who is the unlucky customer on a given day. These mean kids are somewhat indiscriminate and do not truly have an intended victim. 

When a child is mean to another child in a targeted way, they are bullying them. A child is bullying when they intentionally cause harm to another child, including on social media. These attacks can look like they are making threats, continually embarrassing them, encouraging other children to exclude them, or otherwise using excessive peer pressure to hurt another child. 

3. Power: refers to physical size, social status, position, age, and grade, or any facts about the bully that gives them power over the victim. This may be called a ‘perceived power imbalance.’ When there is a perceived power imbalance, the bully has a degree of control and influence over the victim. 

Taken together, bullying has to include all three of these ingredients: targeted acts, with intent to do harm, and from someone with power over the victim. Peer conflict and meanness are not the same. Those issues, although the source of suffering, are separate and apart from bullying. It is important to know the difference and identify if your child is either being a bully or the victim of bullying. In any case, action must be taken on your part.

This short video covers what relational bullying is and how it differs from peer conflict.

Signs of Bullying in Children

General signs that bullying might be happening to your child

  • Reporting that they are being picked on at school
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling afraid to go to school
  • Withdrawing from activities and clubs
  • Coming home in tears over the same ‘mean girl’
  • Saying that he is afraid of another child
  • Going to great lengths to avoid another child

More serious observable signs your child is experiencing symptoms of bullying 

  • Avoidance: your child may start avoiding situations in which they may run into that person. If your child loved Girl Scouts and suddenly wants to drop out, this behavior could be a sign of trouble. 
  • Anxiety: Another possible sign of bullying is a sudden increase in anxiety in situations in which the bully is present. For example, your child may become very nervous when walking into the classroom or into the lunchroom for fear of running into the bully. Your child may be having nightmares, panic attacks, or intensely nervous habits. Such nervous habits might include chewing a hole in clothing, licking lips, pacing non-stop, or nail-biting. A very scared child may wet their pants, hide, or refuse to talk. 
  • Withdrawal: The most worrisome type of bullying is when these signs are not so evident. Sometimes, your child may simply become sad and withdrawn. In this case, parents will need to start doing some detective work to understand the problem. If this sadness and withdrawal persist for more than a couple of weeks, it is well advised to get professional help. 

Bullying is more severe than peer conflict 

Bullying will result in more extreme feelings of fear and shame than the anger and tears that may result from relationship issues or peer conflict.

Peer conflict is a conflict between two people or groups of people that goes back and forth. Often, both children in the relationship take turns being unkind. For example, your child’s friend may say, if you don’t do this particular thing, I won’t be your friend, or I will tell your secret. This behavior is unkind, mean, and unhealthy. This is peer conflict. 

What can help here is to have conversations with your child about what healthy friendships and relationships look like and model these for your kids. For example, as a clinician working in the schools, I once had a mother who would call me each week to share the latest gossip among her daughter’s friend group. She wondered why there was so much drama in her daughter’s friend group. She was modeling it. If you are modeling gossip, your child may behave this way among their friends. Gossip and being unkind are hurtful; they are not bullying. 

Possible differences in bullying between girls and boys

This is not a hard and fast rule, but often bullying in females tends to be more relational, whereas bullying in males tends to be more physical. 

Relational bullying (more common in girls):  is tricky to uncover because it can be challenging to tease apart from peer conflict. One possible way to tell these apart is by the general nature of the relationship. For example, if your child reports one day that a child is a friend and then she is a bully the next week, it is probably peer conflict rather than bullying. 

Relational bullying is a person or a group of people who come together using the relationship to get what they would like. It often looks like one person or a group of people targeting a specific person. Bullying includes the act of targeting. For example, a group of kids is continually going after your child. It can look like creating a fake social media account and posting untrue information about your child, playing nasty jokes to embarrass or humiliate, encouraging others to exclude your child, or leaving notes in your child’s locker that are threatening in nature. It can be targeted group text messaging with the intent to destroy your child’s image. Relational bullying is often one-sided. The purpose is to harm and isolate. 

Physical bullying (more common in boys):  is targeted acts of violence against your child. Bullying is one-sided behavior targeted and repeated by one person or group of people. Physical bullying may include hair pulling, punching, pinching, stealing items, damaging property, repeated threats of physical harm, or sending someone to harm your child physically. 

Verbal bullying (common for boys & girls): is targeted name-calling, insults, teasing, making homophobic, racist, demeaning comments about your child continuously. 

Cyberbullying (fairly common among girls and boys) In today’s world, cyberbullying occurs from about 3rd grade on up. Unfortunately, most children are not mature enough to handle the power of social media at such young ages and this ‘power’ can have disastrous consequences. As a parent, you need to know that cyberbullying and cyber crimes are common and not at all an exception in most middle schools and high schools today. Your child may be on either side of the equation at any given time. These cyberbullying incidents may include: targeting your child through social media, imitating your child on social media, slandering and making fun of your child, and spreading hurtful rumors. When this behavior occurs, it is generally considered bullying because it is targeted, with the intent to do harm, and there is some hidden power of being behind the screen. 

Causes of Bullying

Why does bullying happen? Let’s explore the main reasons.

The bully has been mistreated by someone who has power over them

Often children who bully others have been mistreated in the past by someone who has a power differential over them. This person may be a parent, sibling, or other bully. This experience taught the bully that this is an acceptable way to treat others and to feel less small yourself. 

The climate of the setting is not inclusive

The best way to prevent bullying is via a culture that is anti-bullying and accepting of all walks of life. Research has shown that a school-wide (not targeted) bullying curriculum works best. It is possible to prevent bullying when students come together and hold their peers accountable for kind, respectful, and community-building behavior. In reality, when only the adults are watching to protect children, bullying will occur behind their backs. When peers become allies and advocates for other children, bullying is not tolerated. The adult must model an intolerance for bullying behaviors as well as encourage the children to do the same.

The bully has gotten what they want in the past by targeting and being unkind to other students

If a bully obtains status and power by mistreating a child and is able to get away with it, this behavior will likely continue. Then, other students may model and imitate some of the behavior they see. This point comes back to a school climate that must disallow bullying behaviors as much as possible and address these behaviors when they occur.

There is a lack of appropriate adult oversight and trust between the adults and students

Students need to trust that adults are there to support them and that all together students and teachers make up a community. Having a sense of trust and communication allows any challenges to be brought out and dealt with in the open. If the students do not feel comfortable going to the school or do not feel they will be heard, this could lead to a climate that is permissible for bullying.

The school has a bullying ‘no tolerance’ policy but has no follow-through

Research shows that simply throwing a ‘no tolerance’ policy on any behavior is not enough to enact meaningful change. Instead, students need to see that administration models and follows through with a climate of tolerance and respect. If instead, they say one thing and do another, the kids will see that hypocrisy and respond with more bullying.

Effects of Bullying

There are many possible emotional ramifications of being bullied. A child will experience emotional symptoms if they are bullied and are not believed or supported. Some children may feel unable to trust someone with this information.

  • Depression: Being bullied can lead a child to feel sadness, guilt, and lower self-worth. Children are building a sense of self in their childhood and teen years, and they often have fragile self-esteem. Young children are more susceptible to teasing, to internalizing the comments and actions of others
  • Loneliness: Feeling like there is no one to turn to is very lonely. Children need a peer and family support system to grow up happy and healthy in normal circumstances
  • Fear: If someone is targeting or mistreating you, it is quite natural to experience fear, to avoid going to certain places, and to change your life to avoid this person’s wrath. Fear and anxiety can be physical with stomach aches or emotional issues like panic or excessive worries
  • Low self-esteem: As noted above, children and teens are more susceptible to judgment from peers. They tend to internalize the criticisms, believing that ‘the bully must be right about me.’ Unfortunately, children and adolescents have what psychologists call ‘egocentrism.’ This means that they believe that any event that happens is either about them or because of them. The result is that they feel guilt and shame when bad things happen. This worldview makes things feel very personal and catastrophic. Combining this belief system with being bullied can be a toxic mix for children
  • Withdrawing from activities, clubs, or loved ones: Sometimes when a child is bullied they are more likely to withdraw or try to become small. They want to pull into their own world as they do not feel safe. Open and trusted communication with your children is so important to reverse this pattern
  • Suicidal thoughts or acts: Being bullied or bullying others increases the risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors 
  • Poor school performance: Children who are bullied often end up distracted and disengaged from school. They may have poor grades or school performance, and they may even miss school
  • Behavior problems: Being bullied can certainly lead a child to act out in the wake of all of the emotional consequences of being bullied 

How to Prevent Bullying

For more minor types of bullying issues that are not interfering with daily functioning, here are a few basic guidelines.

1. Do not tell your child to ignore the bully. Unfortunately, although this advice is offered by many well-meaning adults, the research does not support it. Rather, teaching your child to use assertive language to stand up to the bully tends to yield the best results. Practice being assertive with your child, such as using a firm confident voice, strong body posture, and using quick and short statements. 

If your child can gather together with peers and stand up to the bully together, this approach can be effective as well.

2. Go ahead and reach out to the classroom teacher and administration for support for your child. It is NOT recommended that the principal pull the bully and the victim into a meeting together. Your child should have a chance to voice his or her concerns privately. The bully should meet with the administration separately. Generally, disciplinary action is helpful to curb cruel behaviors.

3. Avoid one or two-day assemblies. In a school building, be aware that the one- or two-day assemblies, also known as ‘Anti-Bullying in a Box’ programs are not recommended. Research shows they are not very effective. The best way to fight bullying is through the fostering of caring communities.

4. Find programs that teach social skills. Programs that teach social skills and conflict resolution tend to have good outcomes over the long term. Keep in mind that these programs are educational programs. It tends to take many years before results are shown in terms of school-wide reduction in peer conflict and bullying. Evidence-based programs include Second Step, Collaborative Problem Solving (Ross Greene), Positive Action, and many programs from the Restorative Practices model.

When to Seek Help for Bullying

Depression and other emotional ramifications of bullying are the most significant concerns. If your child suddenly withdraws from social interaction or from activities they used to enjoy, be concerned.

Bullying may carry with it a sense of shame, as your child begins to believe the unpleasant comments the bully has made about them. If your child is feeling shame, experiencing withdrawal, or talking about death, get help. A serious mental health emergency exists. Get help now and don’t delay. Parents or children can call Safe 2 Tell: (877) 542-7233 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Children who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation are at increased risk. The likelihood and danger of bullying increases dramatically.

Similarly, children with disabilities, particularly autism, are more vulnerable to bullying. Children on the autism spectrum tend to be more gullible and susceptible to bullying. They can struggle to assess the intentions of others, rendering them the more likely victims of harsh treatment from peers.

Further Resources on Bullying

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context, evaluate for emotional or neurodevelopmental challenges
  • School psychologist: to advocate for your child, lead a friendship group, or spearhead the school’s positive and supportive community. Classroom-based intervention, teacher training, and peer counseling programs may be led by your school psychologist
  • Psychologist or counselor (school and/or community): to address feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and develop coping strategies
  • School administration: to help with bullying issues. Reporting the problem will allow the school to address this behavior in a larger context and help protect your child. Research shows that school and community-wide bully prevention efforts are the best way to build bystander power, allies, and stop bullying

Resources on Bullying in Children

Department of Health and Human Services:

National Association of School Psychologists: Bullying Prevention Resources

For parents

Ross Greene (2014). Lost at School: Why our kids with behavior problems are falling through the cracks and how we can help. 

For schools

Positive Action:

Second Step:

Restorative Practices:

Pacers National Bullying Prevention Center:

Random Acts of Kindness:

For kids

Dewdney, Anna (2013) Llama Llama and the Bully Goat

Fox, Debbie & Beane, Ph.D., Allan L. (2009) Good-bye Bully Machine

Frankel, Erin (2012) DARE! Part of a 3 part series on bullying. This story is told from the perspective of the bystander.

Frankel, Erin (2012) TOUGH! Part of a 3 part series on bullying. This story is told from the perspective of the bully. 

Frankel, Erin (2012) WEIRD! Part of a 3 part series on bullying. This story is told from the bullying victim.

Otoshi, Kathryn (2008) One.