Bullying: A big problem with big consequences
Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for School success, and Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Family Social Science
Revised March 2016 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Family Social Science.
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Bullying is a particular problem with adolescents and pre-adolescents. Unfortunately, bullies can cause lasting psychological and physical damage to other kids. Because youth typically do not bully others in front of adults, teachers and parents are often unaware of bullying and rarely step in to stop bullies or to help children cope with being bullied.
What is Bullying?
Bullying occurs when one or several youths use physical, emotional, or verbal abuse to make life miserable for another. Bullying is not normal childhood behavior and should not be dismissed as "kids will be kids." Symptoms of being bullied include lost or torn clothing, unexplained bruises, fearfulness or anxiety, moodiness, withdrawn behavior, a drop in grades, lack of friends, loss of appetite, unexplained reluctance to go to school, asking for extra school supplies or extra lunch money, and sleep disturbances.
What the Research Says
Studies reveal that bullies identified by 8 years of age are six times more likely to be convicted of crimes as young adults (Olweus, 1993; Ttofi & Farrington, 2012). They are also more likely to physically punish or abuse their own kids when they grow up. Here are other research findings on bullying (Robers, Kemp, & Truman, 2013):
- In schools, 24% of sixth graders reported being bullied, compared to 7% of twelfth graders.
- Among U.S. youth ages 12 to 18, 28% reported being bullied at school; 9% reported being cyber-bullied (bullied online) in 2011.
- Bullying occurs most frequently in sixth through eighth grades, with little variation between urban, suburban, small town, and rural areas.
- Among 8- to 11-year olds, nearly three-quarters say teasing and bullying occur at their school.
- Teens rate teasing and bullying as “big problems” that rank higher than racism, and the pressure to have sex or try alcohol or drugs.
- Academic problems due to bullying are reported by 22% of fourth- through eighth-graders.
- Youth who are bullied are at greater risk of anxiety, depression, loneliness, unhappiness, and low self-esteem.
- A child who is a bully is more likely to engage in other negative behavior such as stealing and using drugs.
Research has found that males were both more likely than females to bully or to be victims of bullying, with physical bullying the most common for males — being hit, slapped, or pushed. On the other hand, females were more likely to report verbal and psychological bullying, including sexual harassment and rumor mongering.
A significant bullying problem involves controlling or manipulating others by damaging or threatening to damage valued relationships. Teen girl bullies will do this by intentionally spreading rumors about another person or using body language or nonverbal actions.
This type of bullying is much harder for parents to get a handle on because it's sneaky, quiet, or underhanded. It's harder to see and explain, and involves one person's word against another.
Research has found that males were more likely than females to bully or to be victims of bullying, with physical bullying the most common for males — hitting, slapping, or pushing.
Females were more likely to report verbal and psychological bullying, including sexual harassment and spreading rumors. Psychological bullying can also mean controlling or manipulating others by damaging or threatening to damage valued relationships. Teen girl bullies will do this by intentionally spreading rumors about another person or using body language or nonverbal actions to exclude someone or harm their sense of self-worth. This type of bullying is much harder for parents to get a handle on because it is sneaky, quiet, or underhanded. It is harder to see and explain, and it involves one person's word against another.
Some experts suggest that changing attitudes and involvement of kids who witness but are not victims of bullying may have the greatest impact on bullies. Since bullies love an audience, a bystander's encouragement or toleration of the bully will make the bully stronger. Training through role-playing can help youth recognize a potentially harmful situation and do something positive. By simply saying, "That's not cool," a bystander can stop a bully's activities.
Youth need to know that taking a stand for what is right can be very effective. Strive to turn your teen into a catalyst for change. Explain the difference between tattling and telling. Tattling is when you report something just to get someone in trouble. Telling is when you report that you or someone else is in danger.
What You Can Do if Your Teen is the Victim of a Bully
Typically, assertive, self-confident children do not become victims of bullying. Surprisingly, youth who are overweight, wear glasses, or are smart are no more likely to be bullied than others. Youth usually are singled out because of psychological traits such as extreme passivity, sensitivity to criticism, or low self-esteem. Here are some actions to take if you suspect your teen is being bullied, or to help him or her avoid being bullied:
- Ask questions. Ask how he or she is spending lunch break and time before and after school. Ask what it’s like riding the bus or walking to school. Ask if there are peers who are bullies without asking whether your teen is being bullied.
- Listen to your teen’s reports of being bullied and take them seriously. Encourage speaking out.
- Report all incidents to school authorities. Keep a written record of who was injured and how, and those you reported it to.
- Teach your teen how to avoid the situations that expose him or her to bullying. Direct your teen toward experiences tailored to improve his or her social skills.
- Teach your teen how to respond to aggression. With bullies, they should be assertive and leave the scene without violence. Role-play with your teen how to react and respond in non-aggressive ways.
- Do not tell youth to strike back. This gives the message that the only way to fight violence is by using more violence. It makes them feel that parents and teachers don’t care enough to help.
- Avoid watching violent games, TV shows, and movies as much as possible.
What to Do if Your Teen Bullies Others
- Objectively evaluate your teen’s behavior; don't rush to justify it.
- Teach your teen to recognize and express emotions non-violently.
- Teach conflict-management and conflict-resolution skills.
- Emphasize talking out the issue rather than hitting.
- Promote empathy by pointing out the consequences for others of verbal and physical actions.
- Don’t put down your teen. Bullies are intolerant of personal insults.
- Model the behavior you want your teen to exhibit.
Adults must make it clear that aggressive behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. When aggression is tolerated, everyone loses — the bullies, the victims, and the bystanders.
Coloroso, B. (2004). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander. New York: Harper Resource.
Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2003). Research on school bullying and victimization: What have we learned and where do we go from here? School Psychology Review, 32, 365–383.
Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P., & Agatston, P. W. (2012). Cyberbullying: Bullying in the digital age. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. New York: Blackwell.
Robers, S., Kemp, J., & Truman, J. (2013). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2012 (NCES 2013036). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.
Ttofi, M. M., & Farrington, D. P. (2012). Risk and protective factors, longitudinal research, and bullying prevention. New Directions for Youth Development, 2012(133), 85–98.
Wiseman, R. (2003). Queen bees and wannabes: Helping your daughter survive cliques, gossip, boyfriends, and other realities of adolescence. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. (2014, June 13). MMWR: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(4).
Bullying Concerns and Ways to Help — Minnesota Department of Education — Get videos and other resources to help someone who has been bullied, as well as information on how to prevent bullying and intervene when it happens.
Bullying Resource Center — American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry — Get answers to frequently asked questions about bullying and access concise up-to-date information on other issues that affect children, teenagers, and their families.
Bullying Research — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Bullying is one type of youth violence that threatens young people's well-being. Bullying can result in physical injuries, social and emotional difficulties, and academic problems.
Stop Bullying Now — This website has ideas for schools, for parents, and for young people to reduce bullying and to help children and teens who have been bullied.
Dealing with a Child's Anger — Help your child deal manage their anger and channel it into more positive action.