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Bullying

By

Steven D. Blatt

, MD, State University of New York, Upstate Medical University

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023
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Bullying is a form of violence in which repeated verbal, emotional, physical, and/or psychological attacks are done to dominate or humiliate another person.

Bullying can occur at all ages, from preschool through adulthood. Almost all children will at some time experience bullying behavior, whether they are bullying other children, are being bullied, and/or are a bystander of others being bullied. Both boys and girls can be bullies. Although adults have often viewed bullying as a normal part of childhood, it is not normal. Many victims are physically and/or emotionally harmed by bullying. Furthermore, the bullies themselves learn negative behaviors that, if not corrected, can lead to further violence. With rising tensions in the world over reproductive health, sexual orientation and gender issues, and racism and other hate speech and actions, children and adolescents are at increased risk of being bullied for their beliefs or perceived differences.

A survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States in 2021 found that, in the past year, 15% of high school students reported being bullied on school property and 16% reported being bullied electronically (called cyberbullying). According to the CDC survey, female students were more likely than male students to be bullied on school property, and LGBQ+ students and students who had any same-sex partners were more likely than other students to be bullied on school property. Black students were less likely than students from most other racial and ethnic groups to be bullied on school property. American Indian or Alaska Native and White students were more likely than students from most other racial and ethnic groups to be cyberbullied, and LGBQ+ students and students who had any same-sex partners were more likely than other students to be cyberbullied.

Forms of bullying

Bullying can take several forms, including

  • Frequent teasing

  • Damaging property

  • Threats

  • Exclusion

  • Intimidation

  • Harassment

  • Violent assault

  • Cyberbullying (electronic bullying)

Cyberbullying is using digital media (such as emails, texts, tweets, and social media sites) to purposely embarrass or communicate false or hostile information about another child. "Sexting," which is the act of sharing sexually charged messages, photographs, or videos (usually via cell phone), can be a form of cyberbullying if the messages or images are purposefully shared with other people to embarrass or harm the child who originated the message or image.

Children who are bullied

Children who are bullied may tell family members or friends, but they are often too embarrassed and frightened to tell teachers or other adults in a position of authority (such as coaches). Teachers are often unaware that bullying is going on. Victims of bullying may refuse to go to school, appear sad or withdrawn, or become moody. They are also at risk of self-inflicted injury, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. Many victims of bullying become bullies themselves.

Children who are bullied need reassurance that bullying is always unacceptable. They can respond to the bully by

  • Telling an adult

  • Walking away

  • Changing their routines to avoid the bully

  • Attending counseling

For safety reasons, victims of bullying should not directly confront the bully. Children should be taught to ignore and not be bothered by the bully, which reduces the bully's satisfaction and eventually lessens the bullying. Praising the victim's courage for reporting bullying can begin to rebuild self-esteem.

If bullying occurs at school, parents should inform school officials. The parents of the child who has been bullied may or may not feel comfortable informing the bully's parents but should avoid confrontation, which could be counterproductive by making the bully's parents defensive. Victims may fear that telling the bully's parents will worsen bullying, but it often stops bullying, particularly if the discussion is positive and not accusatory, but instead is focused on the harmful behavior.

The bully's parents should make it clear to their child that bullying is not acceptable. Parents should insist that the bully apologize and make amends to the victim. Doing so can help the bully learn right from wrong, can make the bully more sensitive to other children, and can make others see the bully more sympathetically. The bully's parents should watch their child closely to ensure that bullying stops.

Counseling is recommended for both the child who has been bullied and for the child who is doing the bullying. Often, bullies are expressing their unmet needs or modeling the aggressive behavior of a parent or older sibling.

Bullying should never be ignored. The most important thing a parent, teacher, or other adult can do when observing bullying is to address it immediately. The best way to intervene depends on the children's age and nature of the bullying as well as the adult's relationship to the children. However, whether dealing with young children or high school students, regardless of the type of bullying, adult intervention is needed.

Bullies

Many children bully other children. Children who bully others are at risk of poor outcomes and are more likely to be imprisoned in later life. Bullies are less likely to remain in school, be employed, or have stable relationships as adults.

Unfortunately, there are many examples in national and social media of adults behaving as bullies toward other adults. Parents should view these examples as learning opportunities for their children. It is important for parents to identify bullying behavior in politicians, celebrities, other public figures, and ordinary adults and teach their children why that behavior is considered bullying and how they should respond if they encounter it.

More Information

The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

  • YRBS Data Summary & Trends: Resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) providing information about trends in youth risk behaviors (for example, sexual behavior, substance use, and mental health) among high school students in the United States from 2011–2021

These resources provide information about bullying, such as different types of bullying, how to identify and avoid bullying, and how to stop and stand up to bullying:

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