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Bullying: A big problem with big consequences

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

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Bullying is a particular 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."

Symptoms of being bullied include:
  • Lost or torn clothing.

  • Unexplained bruises.

  • Fearfulness or anxiety.

  • Moodiness.

  • Withdrawn behavior.

  • A drop in grades.

  • Lack of friends.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Unexplained reluctance to go to school.

  • Asking for extra school supplies or extra lunch money.

  • Sleep disturbances.

What the research says

Studies reveal that bullies identified by 8 years of age are six times more likely to be convicted of crimes as young adults. They are also more likely to physically punish or abuse their own kids when they grow up. Here are other research findings on bullying in the United States.

  • In schools, 24 percent of sixth graders reported being bullied, compared to 7 percent of twelfth graders.

  • Among youth age 12  to 18, 28 percent reported being bullied at school; 9 percent reported being cyber-bullied (bullied online) in 2011.

  • Bullying occurs most frequently in sixth through eighth grades, with little variation between urban, suburban, small town, and rural areas.

  • Among 8- to 11-year olds, nearly three-quarters say teasing and bullying occur at their school.

  • Teens rate teasing and bullying as “big problems” that rank higher than racism, and the pressure to have sex or try alcohol or drugs.

  • Academic problems due to bullying are reported by 22 percent of fourth- through eighth-graders.

  • Youth who are bullied are at greater risk of anxiety, depression, loneliness, unhappiness, and low self-esteem.

  • A child who is a bully is more likely to engage in other negative behavior such as stealing and using drugs.

Here's how things break down for students who reported being bullied at school:

  • 18 percent reported they were made fun of, called names, or insulted.

  • 18 percent reported being the subject of rumors.

  • 6 percent reported being excluded from activities on purpose.

  • 5 percent reported being threatened with harm.

  • 3 percent reported others tried to make them do things they did not want to do.

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 push. Females were more likely to report verbal and psychological bullying, including sexual harassment and rumor mongering.

A significant bullying problem involves controlling or manipulating others by damaging or threatening to damage valued relationships. Teen girl bullies do this by intentionally spreading rumors about another person. They also use body language or nonverbal actions to exclude others.

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 explain, 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 toleration 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, "That's not cool," a bystander can stop a bully's activities.

Youth need to know that taking a stand for what is right can be very effective. Strive to turn your teen into a catalyst for change. 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 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. Surprisingly, youth who are overweight, wear glasses, or are smart are no more likely to be bullied than others. Youth usually are singled out because of psychological traits, such as extreme passivity, sensitivity to criticism, or low self-esteem. Here are some actions to take if you suspect your teen is being bullied, or to help him or her avoid 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 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 avoid the situations that expose him or her to bullying. Direct your teen toward experiences tailored to improve his or her social skills.

  • 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 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 violence is by using more violence. It also makes them feel that parents and teachers don’t care enough to help.

  • Avoid watching violent games, TV shows, and movies as much as possible.

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 non-violently.

  • 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.

Adults must make it clear that aggressive behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. When aggression 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 2018

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