Bullying can begin as soon as children start playing together. There are several types of bullying, including physical (aggressive), verbal (mean teasing or threatening), and relational (spreading rumors or leaving someone out). This behavior can first occur in toddlers (even between siblings) and may continue from elementary school through high school.
Adults have a responsibility to prevent and stop aggressive behavior in the classroom and at home. We can teach children not to take part in—or become victims of—bullying.
Children who bully others often find it difficult to start friendly interactions, express their feelings, or ask for what they need. If these children do not improve their social skills, they will continue to have problems relating to peers throughout their lives. In addition, if other children see that aggressors get what they want through bullying, they are more likely to accept or imitate this undesirable behavior.
Young children who do not stand up for themselves are easy targets for aggressive playmates. These children inadvertently reward bullies by giving in to them, which increases the chances they will be bullied again. Adults do not help by speaking for victims and solving their problems. Children must learn that they have the right to say "no," not only when they are threatened, but in many different everyday situations.
The key to promoting positive interactions among young children is teaching them to assert themselves effectively. Children who express their feelings and needs while respecting those of others will be neither victims nor aggressors.
Adults must show children that they have the right to make choices (within boundaries) in which toys they play with, what they wear, or what they eat. The more children trust and value their own feelings, the more likely they will be able to resist peer pressure, be respectful and care for others, and be successful in achieving their own goals.
How do I teach my child to be assertive, yet respectful?
- Demonstrate assertive behavior (for example by saying "no" to another child's unacceptable demands). Let your child role play with puppets or dolls.
- Teach your child to ask for things directly and respond directly to other children. Friendly suggestions are taken more readily than bossy demands. Teach your child to ask nicely and to respond appropriately to polite requests.
- Intervene when interactions seem headed for trouble and suggest ways for children to compromise or to express their feelings in a productive way.
- After a conflict between children, ask those involved to replay the scene. Show children how to resolve problems firmly and fairly.
- Remind your child to ignore routine teasing by turning his or her head or walking away. Not all provocative behavior must be acknowledged.
- Teach your child to seek help when confronted by the abuse of power (physical abuse, sexual abuse or other) by other children or adults.
What if I see bullying behavior at home?
- Be firm in your response. For example: “I just saw you _____. It is not acceptable to do what you just did to _____. I would never let anyone treat you like that. This needs to stop.”
- Ask your child how they could make the situation right again and assist with how to apologize. State the rules and expectations for your child’s behavior in the future.
- If this behavior occurs again, then there needs to be a consequence of reducing time with friends or siblings.
What can I do if my child is being bullied or teased?
- Review and role play with your child about what he or she can say or do to stop the bullying.
- If the bully is being aggressive or threatening your child, he or she should turn and walk away calmly and confidently. Do not turn around; find the nearest adult to report.
- If the bully is teasing your child in a mean way, he or she can give a brief comeback with a calm voice and a neutral face while maintaining eye contact, and then walk away:
- I don’t think so.
- No! Stop it!
- That’s weak, give it up.
- Knock it off, or I’ll report it.
- If mean teasing occurs again, despite your child standing up for him/herself, then instruct your child to report it to an adult (teacher, guidance counselor, or parent) quietly and privately. Do not tell other students that you reported it. If it happens again, go back to the adult.
- If your child will not report bullying, then you should intervene and contact school officials to make an appointment and discuss the problem. Make sure to document the incidents, including any witnesses, and photograph any damage. Make a record of all conversations with the school, including what the school says they will do.
- If needed, you can ask your child’s school to increase adult supervision during high-risk times, including recess, lunch, or hallways during passing time.
- You can also talk to other parents to see if anyone else is being targeted. Then, you can approach the school administrators as a group of concerned parents, making sure that the school’s anti-bullying policy is effective.
- Be sure to support your child who is being bullied:
- Be empathic and understanding about your child’s experience of loss of safety, self-esteem, or sense of belonging/acceptance.
- Try to increase your child’s social network, consider new settings with new friends, such as a new activity, club, church group, or volunteer activity.
- Assist with planning social opportunities for your child with nice classmates or friends.
- Address bullying among siblings. Help your children to develop empathy for each other by asking them to think about how they would feel if someone did that same to them.
Children and teens: What can you do when you have a conflict with a friend?
- Ask to speak with your friend in a quiet, private place; in person, not by text or by phone.
- Plan what to say in advance. It’s best to share your feelings without insulting your friend.
- Something’s been bothering me.
- I was really hurt (sad, upset, embarrassed) when you …
- How do you feel about what happened?
- Listen, then, without interrupting your friend.
- Tell your friend what will help you to make things right again.
- It would help me if you could explain why you did this.
- An apology would help me feel better.
- It would help me if I knew that you wouldn’t do this again.
- Apologize, too, if you need to.
- If your friend can’t see your point of view, you may need to agree to disagree. However, if your friend continues to hurt you, then you need to put some distance between yourself and your friend and take a break in your friendship.
- Helping kids deal with bullies and Cómo ayudar a los niños a enfrentar el hostigamiento (kidshealth.org)
- Dealing with bullies and Cómo lidiar con el hostigamiento – for kids (kidshealth.org)
- Dealing with bullying and Cómo reaccionar ante la intimidación– for teens (teenshealth.org)
- National Association for the Education of Young Children
- The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Teasing by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain (for younger children)
- Stop Picking On Me (A First Look At Bullying) by Pat Thomas (early elementary)
- Weird!: A Story About Dealing with Bullying in Schools (The Weird! Series) by Erin Frankel (elementary school)
- Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies & Bossiness and Finding a Better Way, (American Girl Series) by Patti Kelley Criswell and Angela Martini (middle school)
- The 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids & Tweens: Worksheets, Quizzes, Games, & Skills for Putting the Keys into Action (8 Keys Series) by Signe Whitson
- The Bullying Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Social Aggression and Cyberbullying by Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, and Julia V. Taylor, PhD
Reviewed by Jeanne Seyfried, MD
Updated January 2018