Sometimes it's hard for parents to tell whether their child is dealing with normal peer conflict or something more severe, like bullying.
Some types of bullying are obvious and easy to detect. But there are subtler forms of bullying that many adults miss.
You can (and should) talk to your kids about reporting bullying. However, you can also help them learn how to respond to a bully safely.
Having the occasional argument with a friend or changing peer groups is a normal part of growing up, especially for teenagers. But when this happens, it might be hard for adults to tell whether their child is dealing with conflict or something more severe, like bullying.
To make things even more confusing, some kids worry that if they get the bully “in trouble” by reporting them, things might get worse. So, unfortunately, a child might deny that bullying is happening when you ask them about it.
Here are some bullying signs to look for and a few tips for how to talk about it with your child.
Bullying is an imbalance of power and repeated harmful words or behaviors. It can take many forms. But there are a few common signs to watch out for if you suspect your child might be dealing with it.
If you’re noticing any of the following, it might be time to get involved and consider talking to a trusted adult who can help keep your child safe.
Most children spend an average of 7 hours a day at school. Sadly, this means bullying is more likely to occur there. If your child frequently refuses to get ready for school, tries to get sent home, skips classes, or feels sick in the morning, they might be getting bullied at school.
Of course, any unexplained physical injuries on your child (like bruises, cuts, scratches, or bite marks) should be cause for immediate concern. If this occurs, talk to an adult in the setting where your child was injured and make a safety plan.
Bullying can cause worry and anxiety that interrupts sleep habits, appetite, and the ability to concentrate. These changes can lead to declining grades, a loss of interest in things your child once enjoyed, and physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches.
All kids lose personal belongings sometimes. But if you notice that things like books, clothes, toys, or other items go missing or get damaged repeatedly, it could be a sign that bullying is occurring.
Bullying can take many different forms. Some of the more obvious forms are easy to detect. But there are also more subtle forms of bullying that can fly under the radar of even the most caring adults.
Here are some of the most common forms of bullying:
Physical harm (kicking, hitting, biting, scratching, hair pulling, tripping, pinching, pushing)
Damaging property (stealing or breaking personal items)
Verbal abuse (name-calling, taunting, threats, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone on purpose)
Social isolation (leaving someone out on purpose or telling other kids not to hang out with that person)
Cyberbullying (bullying using technology)
Threats (either to make the victim fear for their safety or to prevent them from reporting the bullying)
Besides the immediate harm it causes, bullying can have long-term damaging effects on kids and teens. Exposure to bullying has been shown to cause:
Increased risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns
Sleep difficulty and/or nightmares
Poor grades and/or dropping out of school
Loneliness and social isolation
Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts
Emotional numbness or blocking out memories of bullying experiences
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, talk to them in a calm, reassuring tone. Let them know that you take bullying seriously and remind them that reporting bullying is very different than tattling. Tattling is designed to get someone in trouble, but reporting is designed to keep someone safe.
When bullying happens at school or during an extracurricular activity, talk to the adult in charge and let them know what’s happening. If your child is worried about retaliation, make sure that the response to the bullying is handled sensitively.
For example, you might ask the adult to refrain from sharing any identifying information about your child when they talk to the bully or the bully’s parents. Let the adult know that you’ll be following up with them for an update.
Many kids say they no longer bother to report bullying because they feel like the adults “don’t do anything.” So after alerting someone, follow up your child and school staff and make sure that the situation is being monitored. Kids are more likely to speak up when they know that adults will respond and take action.
Help children understand when they should seek adult help. And help them understand when it might be safe to stand up to the bully, like when no one is in danger of being physically hurt and there’s an adult nearby.
You can even role-play together so your child can practice what they’ll do and say with your support. For example, model standing up straight and telling the bully to stop whatever they’re doing in a strong, clear voice.
While previous generations may have seen bullying as “just part of growing up,” we now know it doesn’t have to be that way. Bullying can cause serious harm to a child’s emotional and physical well-being that may require professional help to overcome.
If the effects of bullying are affecting your child’s ability to learn, grow, and thrive, it may be time to consider speaking to a professional who can help.
You can search for child and adolescent mental health professionals online using databases like Psychology Today or GoodTherapy. Your child’s pediatrician may also be able to provide a referral or a recommendation for additional support.
As a parent, you can help keep your child safe by having frequent talks about bullying and how to report it (whether it’s happening to them or someone else). If your child’s confidence and self-esteem have been affected by bullying, get them involved in activities where they have the opportunity to shine, make new friends, and be in a supportive environment. For more information on how to prevent bullying, visit StopBullying.gov.
American Psychological Association. (2011). How parents, teachers, and kids can take action to prevent bullying.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Preventing bullying.
Committee for Children. (2016). Why don’t kids report bullying?.
Dong, E. (2022). Parent’s guide to cyberbullying. Boston Children's Hospital Digital Wellness Lab.
GoodTherapy. (n.d.). Child therapist/counselor.
PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. (n.d.). Speaking up about being bullied isn’t “tattling” — And our kids need to know the difference.
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Find a child therapist.
StopBullying.gov. (n.d.). StopBullying.gov.
StopBullying.gov. (2019). Effects of bullying on mental health.
StopBullying.gov. (2020). Bullying and trauma.
StopBullying.gov. (2021). Warning signs for bullying.