It wasn't very long ago that bullying was regarded as an accepted part of childhood. Bullies are nothing new, of course. Every neighborhood has them and in the hierarchy of the schoolyard, bullies are the top predator. They rule by fear, intimidating their victims:

  • Physically (punching, pushing, kicking)
  • Verbally (name calling, taunting)
  • Through technology (harassing texts and harmful Internet posts)

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that is ongoing. It's not an isolated incidence of name calling or pushing in the lunchroom but a targeted campaign against an individual.

Investigations into childhood suicides—sadly committed by kids as young as 11—along with countless other tragedies involving the school age population, have implicated bullying and altered its status. Today, bullying is taken more seriously. We know now that children who are bullied experience real suffering that can result in a poor self-image, depression, and anxiety. The emotional and psychological damage can be long lasting and permanent.

Is Your Child Being Bullied?

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, bullying is a common experience. Surveys indicate as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 160,000 children each day miss school because they are afraid to attend. Boy bullies tend to be physical with their threats and intimidation; girls are more likely deliver verbal abuse and target other girls.

Bullies target their peers for all sorts of reasons, including a child's:

  • appearance
  • academic ability
  • disabilities
  • hobbies
  • parent's financial status
  • weight
  • sexual orientation, even if the child is just perceived as being gay

Bullies pick on children with low self-esteem because they are less likely to stick up for themselves. Places that lack sufficient adult supervision such as the lunchroom, locker room, restroom, or school bus are the places where bullying most often happens.

Kids who bully generally come from homes where violence is accepted and used as a means for solving disputes. Bullies may not be well supervised at home and may have parents who model bully behavior. They thrive on the powerful feeling they get from dominating a child who is perceived as weaker physically or emotionally.

Bullying peaks in middle school due to the age group's intense need for social acceptance, says Elizabeth Englander, PhD, psychology professor and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at Bridgewater State University. Peer perception largely dictates individual self-worth and many middle schoolers aren't experienced enough mentally to handle the non-stop social fluctuations that are so typical in this period of development. "Their friends are their world and middle school is a place where a casual look in the hallway—or even saying hello to someone—can have meaning," she explains.

Englander, admits that heightened awareness about bullying is a double edge sword. "There's an important difference between transient meanness and bullying," she says. "Flinging a pudding cup across the lunchroom isn't nice but if it's an isolated incident it's not bullying."

Parents may be tempted to jump in and try to fix every problem, but Englander believes doing this is a disservice to the child. "Sure it's painful to see your child hurt by mean behavior but it's impossible to set up a world where she is completely protected—and you wouldn't want to," she explains. "A child who doesn't experience meanness will never learn how to handle it."

A Surprising Risk of Bullying? Smart Phones

The psychologist links a huge portion of bullying to young children having too much technology before they are old enough to handle it. Her study of 40,000 school children showed that by the fifth grade, 50 percent of kids have smart phones.

"What many parents fail to consider is that smart phones aren't phones. They are powerful computers that should not be given to young children without training and many conversations at home about the device and its capability," Englander explains. "Young children don't understand or have the capacity to know what they are doing which I have found to be a risk factor for getting bullied."

The other problem is that cell phones enable bullying to go on 24/7. To prevent this from occurring, experts recommend shutting phones off at night and establishing a central cell phone station where family members store their phones until morning.

Lacking face-to-face contact makes bullying via the Internet meaner, too. In middle school when many kids are concerned about where they fit in, technology can make it harder for them to understand what a real friendship looks like. Many experts believe middle school children should not have access to social media. (Note: Facebook's minimum age for an account is 14 yet loads of younger children are involved with it.)

What You Can Do About Bullying

If your child is the victim of cyber bullying you can contact the bully's cell phone provider or the host of the email account or website to report the problem. Even anonymous cyber bullies can be traced and stopped. Off campus bullying—such as that conducted via the Internet—can be a murky area for educators in school districts where discipline codes are vague. Legally the issue is fraught with complexity protections on student speech and school searches so you may need to bring the matter to local police.

Many parents feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing technology, says Englander. It's not necessary to become a computer expert to keep your kids safe, she stresses. Instead, have frequent discussions as a family about bullying. "Talking is really the key. Ask your kids what's happening with their friends. What they see and what they think about it. Kids need to hear from you to know what is good for them and what isn't. Bringing up the issue lets them know you are paying attention and that their world matters to you."

Some students think they can handle ridicule from bullies by themselves so you may have to do some digging. Others are concerned parents will overreact. "Middle school kids are an extremely sensitive group. Many told me they hesitate bringing up their concerns because they fear their parents will flip out and call the school or the bully's home," Englanders says. "Encourage your children to bring their concerns to you. Tell them you will work through any problems together."

In the meantime, seek help from your child's teacher or the school guidance counselor if your child becomes withdrawn, depressed or reluctant to go to school.  If you see a decline in school performance, seek additional counseling as soon as possible. Early intervention decreases the risk of lasting emotional consequences. An adolescent psychiatrist or other mental health professional can help your family and the school to develop a strategy for dealing with the bully.

Elizabeth Englander, PhD, reviewed this article.



U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The National Center for Education Statistics

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry