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Signs of Bullying

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 03, 2020

What Is Bullying?

Bullying happens at school, in neighborhoods, and online. Both children and adults can be victims of bullying, but most often you hear about children bullying other children. It is a serious issue that can lead to many mental health problems or worse if not handled well. If you think you or someone you know is being bullied, seek help from various resources available in your community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying among youths as aggression from an individual or group of five to 18-year-olds toward another youth. Bullying involves an imbalance of power that’s repeated or likely to be repeated. 

Aggression means unwanted, harmful behavior or threats of harm. Sibling violence and teen dating violence can involve similar behaviors but are considered separate issues. An imbalance of power means that the person being bullied doesn’t feel they can stop the aggression. The bully is physically stronger than them or has others’ support.

Types of Bullying

Bullying of all forms harms the person who experiences it. It can lead to low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety. Different types of bullying include:

Physical

The bully uses physical force to frighten another youth or inflict pain. This can include hitting, kicking, tripping, pushing, biting, pinching, hair pulling, or spitting.

Verbal

The bully communicates orally or in writing in a way that causes harm to another youth. This can involve name-calling, mocking, threatening, or unwanted sexual comments.

Relational

The bully sets out to harm the reputation or relationships of another youth by excluding or ignoring them, spreading rumors, sharing private information, or posting humiliating comments or pictures.

Property Damage

The bully steals, damages, or alters another youth’s belongings with the intent to cause harm. This can involve taking their things and refusing to return them or destroying them. It can also include deleting the youth’s electronic information.

Cyberbullying

The bully uses a phone, tablet, or computer to carry out verbal, relational, or property damage. The most common forums for cyberbullying are through social media, texting and instant messaging, emailing, chat rooms, message boards, and gaming communities.

Signs of Bullying

The best way to know whether a young person is being bullied is to talk with them regularly about their school and friends. Let them know that if they are ever bullied or see it happening to someone else, they should talk with you or another trusted adult.

Watch for the following warning signs to tell if your child might be the victim of bullying:

Injuries or Property Damage

  • repeatedly has bruises or scratches they can’t explain
  • often “loses” personal belongings
  • repeatedly comes home with clothing or books damaged

School Avoidance 

  • makes excuses to avoid going to school or suddenly refuses to go
  • seems afraid to go to school or nervous about riding the bus
  • takes a strange route when walking to and from school

Declining Grades

  • loses interest in schoolwork
  • suddenly starts doing poorly in school

Symptoms with No Medical Explanation

  • frequent headaches or stomach aches
  • fakes illness to get out of school
  • often feels sick or tired, even when otherwise well

Changes in Sleeping and Eating Patterns

  • loses interest in food or eats much less than before
  • skips meals
  • suddenly starts bingeing or stress eating
  • has trouble falling or staying asleep
  • experiences frequent nightmares

Low Self-Esteem

  • feels like they can’t do anything right or will never have friends
  • often comes home from school sad or teary-eyed
  • seems depressed or anxious in general

Isolation

  • frequently irritable for no apparent reason
  • shuts themselves away in their room
  • shows little interest in spending time with peers
  • loses friends or says they have no friends
  • avoids social situations they normally would have enjoyed

Dealing With Bullying

In a recent survey, one in five students aged 12 to 18 said they had experienced bullying in the last year. If bullying appears in your life or in the life of someone you know, there are ways you can handle the issue. Below are some suggested steps to take.

If You or a Friend Are Being Bullied 

1. Talk with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult. The bullying isn’t your fault, and an adult can help you make it stop.

2. Stick together. Bullies tend to target people who are alone. Friends can help each other by staying together in places where bullying tends to be a problem.

3. Stay calm. Easier said than done, but bullies are looking for a reaction — anger, fear, or hurt. Practice calmly and clearly telling them to stop and walking away.

If Your Child or Teen Is Being Bullied

1. Listen calmly to the whole story before responding.

2. Thank them for coming to you. Tell them they did the right thing. Assure them that you believe them, the bullying is not their fault, and you’ll figure out a solution together.

3. Don’t tell them to just ignore it or encourage them to fight back. Don’t call the bully’s parents, as this can make things worse.

4. Take it seriously if they say they’re afraid the bullying will get worse because they told an adult. Carefully consider the best approach. This often means contacting a teacher or school counselor, who can offer suggestions and help prevent future incidents.

5. Ask your child or teen what can be done to make them feel safe. Explore ideas with them, but make sure that the solution doesn’t single them out or feel like a punishment.

6. Follow up to see how things are going. Bullying may not stop instantly. Commit to making it stop and supporting your child throughout the process.

Show Sources

Sources:

Boston Children’s Hospital: “Bullying.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “BULLYING SURVEILLANCE AMONG YOUTHS.”

Nemours Foundation: “How to Help Kids Deal with Bullying.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Warning Signs for Bullying.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “What Is Cyberbullying.”

Violence Prevention Works: “Warning Signs of Bullying.” 

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