Bullying and Children: What Parents Need to Know
Millions of children across the country are excited to be back in school after months of remote learning, but for many, back to school also means a return to bullying.
About 1 in 5 schoolchildren in the United States is a victim of bullying in middle or high school, and the harm caused by bullying can last into adulthood, says Columbia psychologist Anne Marie Albano, PhD, an expert in child and adolescent psychology and founder of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety & Related Disorders.
To help parents navigate the issues around bullying and to suggest concrete steps they can take, we recently spoke with Albano.
Nationwide, how prevalent is bullying among school-age children? At what ages is bullying more common or problematic?
For decades, bullying among school-aged children has been increasingly recognized as a significant public health concern, affecting the mental health, social functioning, and overall well-being of youth in the United States.
Bullying increases with age and grade up to middle schools, which have the highest prevalence of bullying. Bullying declines during high school.
When considering youth in grades 5 through 12, recent data from the U.S. Department of Education found about 21% of students are involved in bullying either as a bully, a victim, or combined bully-victim. (Bully-victims get bullied by dominant individuals but then also bully others.)
In general, males exhibit higher levels of bullying than females. Boys start bullying earlier and are more physical. Girls who bully are more likely to bully known peers and to bully verbally. In terms of victimization, around 23% of females and 19% of males report being bullied in middle and high school.
Students with disabilities, including autism, have a higher prevalence of bullying and over time may develop aggressive behaviors to combat victimization, which may then place them as bully-victims. LBGTQ youth have a higher rate of physical, verbal, and relational victimization at school than their heterosexual peers, and this is often compounded by a lack of teacher or staff intervention on their behalf. Immigrant youth are more likely to be victimized by bullying than youth born in the United States.
Why is it important to address bullying?
The consequences of bullying are damaging to the youth involved—both victim and bully—and the impacts can often extend well into adulthood.
For victims of bullying, school refusal behavior is a common response. Victims also experience an increase in fear and anxiety and have feelings of isolation and loneliness. For bullies, there is often a decrease in their involvement in school and an increased risk of criminality and antisocial behavior.
Mental health suffers for victims and bullies, with anxiety, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and increased suicide ideation and attempts, as well as death by suicide. Very often, there is social isolation, loneliness, physical health problems, and poor academic performance. Anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use can persist into adulthood.
What signs might indicate that a child is a victim of bullying?
There are some tell-tale signs: complaints of headaches, stomach aches, or feeling sick to avoid school or peer-related activities are common clues. Watch for changes in habits: Do your kids come home hungry because they didn’t eat lunch in school? Do they run to the bathroom when they get home because they won’t use school bathrooms, which are common sites for bullying.
New sleep disturbances; unexplainable injuries, scratches, or bruises, on the child; lost or damaged belongings; or a loss of friends or avoidance of social situations are also common signs. Kids who start crying, isolate themselves in their rooms, or express feelings of helplessness, self-loathing, and low self-esteem are sometimes the victims of bullies. Finally, kids can become self-destructive, engage in self-harm, talk about suicide, run away, or start using illegal substances.
What should parents do when they suspect a child is a victim of bullying?
We often ask parents to remain calm and show concern. Simply ask, “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself lately,” and briefly report what you noticed, like, “You no longer want to participate in school clubs.”
Parents should be ready for just about any response, from “leave me alone, I’m fine” to tears, to pushing you away. Be ready to listen and hear what your child has to say, without judging them. Repeat to them what you hear: “The junior boy calls you names in front of everyone.” Validate your child’s feelings: “You’re angry and scared.” Let them know you are sorry they are going through this and that you want to hear what they think would be helpful.
As parents, we want to jump in and fix the situation. We want the bully to be identified and punished and the school to respond and protect our children. However, it is sometimes more complicated for your child, even in horrific situations. They need to feel understood, supported, and that your intervention will not make things worse for them by causing a backlash from the bully or their larger peer group.
You will need to listen to your child and be patient if the situation allows. Think through a plan with them that addresses the situation and protects your child’s self-esteem and feelings of agency. If the situation physically endangers your child, immediate action is warranted. Call the authorities at the school or law enforcement to report the situation and get help. Let your child know that you must step in for their safety.
What signs might indicate that a child is a bully?
A child who becomes increasingly aggressive and controlling of others, even of those in your home, may be bullying other children. They may get into physical or verbal fights, come home with money or items that you did not give them, get detention or suspensions from school, refuse to take responsibility for their actions, or run with a more disrespectful and aggressive crowd.
It is often difficult for parents to see that their child is bullying others. They may be in a state of denial or find reasons to excuse the child’s behavior. These are not uncommon reactions. However, parents must take bullying seriously. Not only has the targeted child suffered, but the bullying child is at high risk of having been bullied themselves. At the very least, they will experience lasting, negative effects of being a bully.
Talk openly to your child about what you have learned about their behavior. Let them know you love them and are concerned for them but that you will not tolerate the behavior and it must stop. You need to tell them that you support school decisions regarding punishment. It is important to emphasize to them that bullying causes others harm and great pain, and it is wrong in all forms. It is important to give your child time to talk, but you cannot excuse their behavior or agree that it’s okay for them to bully in some circumstances—even if they were the targets of bullies in the past.
Let your child know that you will help them change their behavior. It is critical to understand that bullying is an expression of a lack of empathy for others. Therefore, empathy must be expressed by parents and others in the child’s life, so that they see models of caring and respect for the feelings of others. Empathy must be taught and valued at home and at school. If your child is lacking in empathy for others, this must be a focus of therapy, along with interventions to address your youth’s coping and interpersonal skills.
When should parents seek help?
It is never too early for parents to reach out for help from a mental health professional, as bullying impacts not only the child directly but also the parents and family system. A child psychiatrist or psychologist, particularly one with experience in working with victims and perpetrators of bullying, can provide a safe and confidential space for parents to process their own reactions as well as offer concrete advice or referrals for additional help (such as a family therapist, legal counsel, or a medical specialist).
What additional resources are available for parents? For children?
Each site has sections for youth and parents, with practical advice on what to do if you are bullied or see someone being bullied, and engaging videos to help kids and teens understand how to respond and get help. In addition, there are separate sections for adults. These sites also address specific populations at elevated risk such as LGBTQ and youth of color.
Anne Marie Albano, PhD, is a professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and is board-certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology. Albano founded the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, which offers individual, group, and family-based cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition to conducting her own research, Albano supervises the research and clinical training of interns and postdoctoral fellows in psychology and psychiatry. She has served as editor of the journal Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and as president of the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology of the American Psychological Association.