What to Do If Your Child Is Bullied or Is a Bully

During a school year, 1 in 3 children will get bullied, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. “Bullying is not something we should just expect kids to deal with and get over,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW. “It should be taken very seriously.”

Defined as unwanted, usually repeated aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance, bullying can be physical, verbal or social. Young children, in particular, are known to switch roles—getting teased one day, teasing the next.

Georgia’s anti-bullying laws give a more specific definition and govern how a school should respond. For example, schools are required to notify the parents of any incident of bullying. If your child is involved with bullying, don’t panic. Here’s what you need to know.

Child feeling isolated with other people around

There are 3 main types of childhood bullying:

  • Physical bullying involves hitting, kicking, tripping, shoving, damage to property, etc.
  • Verbal bullying includes name-calling, teasing, intimidation and other abusive words.
  • Social bullying aims to humiliate or damage the reputation of another child. It might involve spreading rumors, playing mean jokes or encouraging others to exclude the child. Cyberbullying is a common form of social bullying in which the bully hides behind a digital device.

There are exceptions, of course, but boys are more likely to engage in physical and verbal bullying, while girls are more prone to social bullying.

Child taking something without consent

Learning that your child bullied another child can be devastating.

Here’s what to do:

  • Ask your child what happened—and listen. According to Baumstein, “Behavior is communication. Most kids aren’t bullying because they think it’s fun.” Is your child adjusting to a recent stressor or change in their life? Has your child been overwhelmed by peer pressure? Consider, does your child have low self-esteem?
  • Acknowledge what happened, and be firm with your child that the behavior is not acceptable. Encourage empathy (the ability to understand what another person is experiencing) by discussing how the other child may have felt.
  • Forgive. Everyone makes mistakes. Emphasize that the behavior was bad, not the child himself.
  • Get help, if necessary.

Here’s what not to do:

  • Harshly punish your child without hearing their side of the story.
  • Dismiss the incident, saying, “My child wouldn’t do that,” or “Kids will be kids.”

Father talking to upset daughter

A child who is being bullied needs support and protection.

Here’s what to do:

  • Ask your child what happened, and don’t rush to judgment. There are 2 sides to every story; try to get as much information as you can.
  • Acknowledge their pain, and spend time just listening.
  • Ask your child how they think the situation should be handled, and try to work together on a plan to handle the bullying. If there is a safety concern, be upfront with your child that you may have to handle it with the school or other parents; don’t go behind their back.
  • Notify administrators (or the coaches or parents), and ask for a plan to prevent it from happening again if the bullying took place at school (or on a sports team, at a friend’s house, etc.).
  • Check in frequently with your child, and watch for any behavioral changes.

Here’s what not to do:

  • Downplay your child's feelings or tell them to “toughen up.”
  • Encourage them to fight back or get revenge.
  • Overreact. You want your child to feel comfortable sharing their problems with you. If you become hysterical (or if your child thinks you can’t handle the situation), they may not come to you the next time.
  • Don’t take matters into your own hands by confronting the bully yourself.

Child looking upset at computer

Kids connect on social media, in gaming communities and via text message, and that opens them up to cyberbullying—bullying via digital device. Cyberbullies post mean, threatening or private content about someone else online. Because such posts are public, and may or may not be erased, they can cause lasting harm to both the victim and bully.

Talk to your child about cyberbullying. Remind them that it’s easier to be mean online than to a person’s face, and whatever they say is on public record. If your child has ever the victim of cyberbullying, you need to know.

And because kids don’t always tell parents things, monitor your child’s internet use. Whether you use a monitoring app, share a password or conduct random phone searches, you are not invading their privacy; you are keeping them safe.

Teen sitting in therapy session

If bullying is an ongoing issue for your child—whether they are the bully or are being bullied—and social or emotional issues are at the root, consider talking to a mental health professional. You can also talk to your school’s counselor or your child’s pediatrician for more help.