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Bullying: A big problem with big consequences

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Bullying is a big problem with adolescents and pre-adolescents. Unfortunately, bullies can cause lasting psychological and physical damage to other kids. Because youth typically do not bully others in front of adults, teachers and parents are often unaware of bullying. As a result, they rarely step in to stop bullies or to help children cope with being bullied.

What is bullying?

Bullying occurs among teens when one or more of them uses physical, emotional or verbal abuse to make life miserable for another. Bullying is not normal childhood behavior and should not be dismissed as “kids will be kids.”

Signs of being bullied include:

  • Moodiness
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • A drop in grades
  • Fearfulness or anxiety
  • Lack of friends
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained reluctance to go to school
  • Asking for extra school supplies or extra lunch money
  • Sleep disturbances

When bullying becomes physical you might notice:

  • Lost or torn clothing.
  • Unexplained bruises.

Gender differences

Research has found that males were both more likely than females to bully or to be victims of bullying. Physical bullying is the most common for males — being hit, slapped or pushed. Females were more likely to report verbal and psychological bullying, such as exclusion from a group or sexual harassment.

For girls, bullying often involves controlling or manipulating others by damaging or threatening to damage their close relationships. Teen girl bullies do this by intentionally spreading rumors about another person. They might do this online or in person. They also use body language or nonverbal actions to exclude others, or they might exclude someone from a group text.

This type of bullying is much harder for parents to get a handle on because it's sneaky, quiet or underhanded. It's harder to see and involves one person's word against another.

The bystander

Some experts suggest that changing the attitudes and involvement of bystanders could have the biggest impact on bullies. Bystanders are kids who witness but are not victims of bullying. Since bullies love an audience, a bystander's encouragement or tolerance of the bully will make the bully stronger. Training through role-playing can help youth recognize a potentially harmful situation and do something positive. By simply saying (or typing), “That's not cool,” or “Knock it off,” a bystander can stop a bully's activities. Give your teen words they can use and encourage them to come up with words that feel more comfortable to them.

Youth need to know that taking a stand for what is right can be very effective. Strive to turn your teen into a change agent. Explain the difference between tattling and telling. Tattling is when you report something just to get someone in trouble. Telling is when you report that you or someone else is being hurt or in danger.

What you can do if your teen is the victim of a bully

Typically, assertive, self-confident children do not become victims of bullying. Youth who are overweight, wear glasses, or are smart are no more likely to be bullied than others. Youth are usually singled out because of psychological traits, such as being passive (or not standing up for yourself), sensitive to criticism, or having low self-esteem. Here are some actions to take if you suspect your teen is being bullied:

  • Ask questions. Ask how he or she is spending lunch break and time before and after school. Ask what it’s like riding the bus or walking to school. Ask what kinds of things kids talk about online. Ask if there are peers who are bullies without asking whether your teen is being bullied.
  • Listen to your teen’s reports of being bullied and take them seriously. Encourage speaking out.
  • Report all incidents to school authorities. Keep a written record of who was injured and how, and those you reported it to.
  • Teach your teen how to respond to aggression. With bullies, they should be assertive and leave the scene without violence. Role-play with your teen on how to react and respond in non-aggressive ways.
  • Do not tell youth to strike back. This gives the message that the only way to fight bullying is with more bullying. It also makes them feel that parents and teachers don’t care enough to help.

What to do if your teen bullies others

  • Objectively evaluate your teen’s behavior; don't rush to justify it.
  • Teach your teen to recognize and express emotions in ways that are calm and non-violent.
  • Teach conflict management and conflict-resolution skills.
  • Emphasize talking out the issue rather than hitting.
  • Promote empathy by pointing out the consequences for others of verbal and physical actions.
  • Don’t put down your teen. Bullies are intolerant of personal insults.
  • Model the behavior you want your teen to exhibit. Perhaps you have a bully that you work with or know from the neighborhood. Talk with your teen about how you respond to that behavior.

Adults must make it clear that bullying behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. When bullying is tolerated, everyone loses — the bullies, the victims and the bystanders.

Related resources

Bullying Concerns and Ways to HelpMinnesota Department of Education — Get videos and other resources to help someone who has been bullied, as well as information on how to prevent bullying and intervene when it happens.

Bullying Resource CenterAmerican Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry — Get answers to frequently asked questions about bullying and access concise up-to-date information on other issues that affect children, teenagers, and their families.

Bullying ResearchCenters for Disease Control and Prevention — Bullying is one type of youth violence that threatens young people's well-being. Bullying can result in physical injuries, social and emotional difficulties, and academic problems.

Kathleen A. Olson, program director in partnering for school success, and Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Family Social Science

Revised by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Family Social Science.

Reviewed in 2023

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