What Does Bullying Look Like?

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on May 18, 2016
5 min read

Mia Dand knew something was up when her daughter Rhea’s behavior took a sharp turn for the worse. Her 10-year-old started to burst into tears at the drop of a hat, act out at home, and make excuses to skip school, she recalls.

At the time, Dand blamed her recent divorce for the outbursts.

“This went on for months, so I finally sat her down and asked what was going on,” she says.

Dand was blindsided by the answer. Rhea, now 12, was the target of “mean girls” at her small private school in the San Francisco area.

“This group of girls completely alienated her and started a whispering campaign. They would mutter ‘secrets’ to each other when she was around to make her feel like an outcast.”

Rhea was miserable.

What happened to Rhea goes beyond “normal” childhood teasing.

“Teasing typically happens among friends or kids trying to fit in with their peers,” says Patricia Agatston, PhD, president of the International Bullying Prevention Association.

When it goes back and forth equally between kids, it’s usually playful. If one person asks for it to stop, the other does so, she says.

For adolescent boys, teasing is a “rite of passage” and an important part of friendship, says David Dupper, PhD, professor of social work at the University of Tennessee.

Teasing can get rough, but it’s not meant to hurt the other person, he says.

“On the other hand, a bully fully intends to harm his or her victim and has the power and the means to do so.”

This person might be more popular or physically stronger, and the victim may have a hard time defending themselves, Dupper says.

Kids who are seen as different or don’t “fit in” are typical targets, he says. This includes children who have a disability, are overweight, or are thought to be homosexual.

Bullying tactics include:

  • Hitting, punching, or pushing
  • Name calling or rumor spreading
  • Taunting on social media, the Internet, and cell phones, also called “cyberbullying”
  • Leaving a child “out” on purpose

Dand was shocked her daughter didn’t share what was going on right away. “I thought she would feel comfortable coming to me or her dad.”

But it’s pretty common for kids to suffer in silence. It’s estimated only about a quarter tell a parent or other adult, Dupper says.

Kids keep it secret for many reasons. They may think telling their parent will make things worse, Agatston says. Or, like Rhea, some think they need to handle it on their own.

Since most kids won’t fess up, watch for these warning signs:

  • Unexplained cuts or bruises
  • Few friends
  • Your child doesn’t want to go to school or ride the bus
  • Headaches or stomachaches
  • Asks for or steals money. (They might be trying to “pay off” the bully.)
  • Moodiness
  • A noticeable drop in grades

If you think your child may be getting bullied, use meal times to bring up the subject in a roundabout way, Agatston suggests. Ask if they’ve ever seen a friend be bullied. If they say yes, ask what they think might help, she adds.

It may be tempting to tell your child to fight back, but don’t. Instead, encourage them to clearly and confidently tell the bully to stop, or simply walk away and tell an adult.

When it happens regularly it can cause lasting problems like depression and low self-esteem. It also raises the risk of suicide in kids with other problems like mental health or substance abuse issues, Dupper says.

John Halligan of Farmingdale, N.Y., knows this all too well. His 13-year-old son Ryan took his own life in 2003 after years of torment.

Halligan and his wife knew Ryan was having trouble back when he was in the fifth grade. In the seventh, Ryan started spending a lot of time on the computer in his room. After the suicide, Halligan logged on to his son's instant messaging account and found out he'd been the target of cyberbullying for months.

Thirteen years later, Halligan is using the tragedy to teach kids about bullying, depression, and suicide. He’s visited more than 1,600 schools to tell his son’s story and stress the importance of speaking up and getting help from adults.

Halligan shares his lessons learned with parents, too. Looking back, he says his biggest mistake was underestimating the power of emotional bullying.

It’s a mistake that a lot of fathers of boys make, he says.

“We want our sons to toughen up and stand up to these people. That might have worked a generation ago, but the Internet has unleashed the capability to demolish somebody emotionally. That’s what happened to my son.”

If your child is constantly bullied online or in person, here’s what you can do:

Gather evidence. “Start a journal and write down the details of each episode,” Halligan says. Jot down what happened and who did it. Include the date, time, place, and the names of bystanders.

If it happened online, quickly take a screen shot before the evidence is deleted, he says.

Go to the school. Review your state’s anti-bullying law and set up a meeting. Bring your evidence so you can make a strong case.

“Have a very business-like discussion and try to keep your emotions in check,” Halligan says.

Ask the school to work on a plan to help your child feel safe. Agatston says you may want to suggest:

  • A change in schedule
  • Choosing an adult your child can confide in
  • More supervision during “problem times”

Don’t confront the bully. As much as you may want to do that, it's a bad idea that often backfires, Halligan says. It makes you look like the bully and can set up a situation where families are feuding back and forth, he adds.

Consider switching schools. Some have bad administrators and bullying flourishes, Halligan says. If you change schools, tell the new teachers and even the principal about past problems, Dupper says. Ask what the new school will do to keep those troubles from happening again.

That’s how Dand made things better for her daughter. Rhea now goes to a big public school. “There is more diversity and a larger group of kids, so she was able to find her 'tribe,'” she says.

Keep talking. “No matter how well you think you know your child and no matter how close you are, they will not tell you everything,” Dand says. So she checks in with Rhea regularly. “I make her shut down all her devices, and take her for a long drive or walk until she talks to me about everything good, bad, or otherwise in her world.”

Halligan says less technology and more talking could have changed things for Ryan.

Every moment his son spent alone on the computer trying to deal with the bullies “was a missed opportunity to have a conversation with Mom or Dad about what was going on in his life,” he says.

You can read more about Ryan Halligan at www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org, and you can learn more about bullying and the laws in your state at stopbullying.gov.