This guide will help you discuss:
- What bullying is, how it happens, and who it happens to
- How to spot signs of bullying
- How to protect my teen from bullying
- How to teach my teen to stand up for themselves and others
More than Lunch Money
We all know the stereotypical bully. He is male, large, intimidating, and unintelligent, just like Moe from Calvin and Hobbes or Biff from Back to the Future.
Bullies can indeed have these characteristics, but the truth is that there is no profile when it comes to bullying. Roy Moore, Founder and Executive Director of Be Strong, a nonprofit dedicated to ending bullying, says, “Bullying does not respect boundaries.” A petite teenage girl could actually be the one bullying a huge football player—maybe not physically, but psychologically and emotionally.
Bullying is a complex issue. As such, it does not have a simple solution. Your kids might not have a propensity to bully or be bullied, but even if they are just bystanders, bullying still impacts them. And it’s possible that bullying is even more common among adults than it is among kids. It’s crucial for you to make bullying one of your regular and ongoing conversations with your kids so they know how to react to it when they either experience it or see it—or in case they’re the bullies.
What is bullying?
Just because kids are rude or aggressive does not mean they’re bullying others. Roy Moore says that bullying must include the following:
- One or more parties harassing one or more parties
- A real or apparent imbalance of power
- The action(s) occuring over an extended period of time
While bullying certainly includes physical intimidation, it’s not at all limited to it. Bullying roughly falls into the following categories:
To be clear what we’re talking about when we use the term “bullying,” it can include, but is not limited to, the following behavior:
- name calling
- spreading rumors or lies
- pushing or shoving
- hitting, slapping, or kicking
- excluding others
- stealing belongings
- sexual comments or gestures
Moore notes that it’s important not to confuse sexual bullying (bullying which uses sexualization and unsolicited sexual language, or which focuses on someone’s sexuality and gender) with predatory behavior. The impetus behind sexual bullying is the same as the one behind other kinds of bullying: to ostracize, isolate, and humiliate the person being bullied. Sexual predators have other motivations and methods, which you can read more about here.
Reflection: What is your experience with bullying? Have you ever been the victim of bullying, or seen it happen to someone else?
What’s special about cyberbullying?
We can define “cyberbullying” as “Bullying that happens through digital devices such as phones or computers…[it] often takes the form of sending or harming harmful or mean content about someone to embarrass them.” On the internet, someone could be told, “kill yourself” (or KYS), for anything from having expressed a desire to commit suicide to having played poorly in a video game. Cyberbullying can look like teens gossiping and lying through texting, creating fake accounts and profiles for others, or taking embarrassing photos of people when they don’t expect it and then posting them online for anyone to see.
Technology gives us distance from each other, removing us from the consequences of our actions. It’s easier to be cruel online because we don’t have to face the consequences. Because people can access the internet anywhere, if someone is a target of online bullying, it’s not as though they can transfer schools to escape it. Cyberbullying allows for greater anonymity and cruelty, as well as extensive victimization because posts can go viral.
According to the CDC’s latest report on high-risk behavior among youth, 19.5% of students were bullied at school in 2019. In 2019, 15.7% of high school students were bullied electronically, and electronic bullying is much more common for females (20.4%) than for males (10.9%). It’s probably worth noting that the number of students who report experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” in 2019 is 36.7%, a number that has been steadily increasing since 2009.
Reflection: What do you know about cyberbullying? Have you ever heard of anyone being cyberbullied, or seen it happen in media?
What are the risk factors for being bullied?
We want to emphasize again that anyone can bully or be a target of bullying: “The power imbalance can come from a number of sources—popularity, strength, cognitive ability—and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.” That being said, there are people groups who tend to get bullied more often than others. Roy Moore says that about 80% of all bullying happens to people for the following reasons:
- body shape
- having a disability
- being a religious minority
- being a racial minority
- sexual orientation
- being in foster care or adopted
- being a first-generation immigrant
Only about a third of kids who are being bullied will actually ask an adult for help. It’s therefore crucial that you’re aware of the warning signs that your kids might be being bullied. These include:
- problems sleeping
- changes in eating habits
- loss of possessions
- injuries they can’t account for
- loss of interest in activities they enjoy
- decline in academics
- isolation or loss of friends
- lowered self-esteem
- self-destructive behaviors
With cyberbullying specifically, look for behaviors that demonstrate your kids are anxious about their devices. For example, watch for if they become upset before, while, or after using their devices or if they don’t want to talk to you about their online activity.
Reflection: Do you know anyone who might be at risk for bullying? Why might a bully single someone out to harm them?
What are risk factors for being a bully?
Sherri Gordon of Verywell Family points out that, “Bully victims often rise up after being bullied. They bully others weaker than them because they, too, have been bullied. Their goal usually is to regain a sense of power and control in their lives.”
Kids who bully others might be popular and well-connected (Mean Girls, anyone?), but they also might be isolated loners with low self-esteem. They might be aggressive, violent, and have problems with authority. Their home life could be difficult or dysfunctional, with minimal parental involvement, and they could have friends who bully others. Moore also notes that sometimes kids learn bullying at home. The following behaviors are indicators that a child might be bullying others:
- growing aggression
- repeatedly in detention or sent to the principal
- tendency to get into fights (physical or verbal)
- concern over popularity and what others think about them
- having money or possessions they can’t account for
Your kids might be cyberbullying others if they’re particularly protective or controlling about their devices. They might get upset if they can’t use them, hide them from you, or hide their activity when you come around. Other signs are if they use their devices all the time (even at night), create multiple online accounts, and don’t want to talk to you about their online activity. While these behaviors won’t always necessarily prove that your child is cyberbullying, or being cyberbullied, it’s important to take notice of your child’s activity just in case.
Recognize that children can play multiple roles depending on their circumstances. Moore observes that kids might bully others in one school hall, be bullied in another hall, and be bystanders in another. It’s important to keep this possibility in mind as you address the issue of bullying with your children.
Reflection: Have you ever bullied anyone? Have you ever known someone who was a bully?
How does bullying affect us?
Research shows that people who are bullied as children experience greater mental health problems as adults. This was in fact the case with a man we talked to who was bullied in his youth and never told anyone about it at the time. He says that the bullying he experienced had a long-term impact on his overall self-worth and still affects him now.
Bullying also has a harmful impact on those doing the bullying. Kids who bully tend to be more likely to be sexually active at an early age, engage in substance abuse, be violent and abusive, and commit crimes. Perhaps more surprising is the negative effect of bullying on those who observe it. Bystanders who watch bullying have an increased tendency toward mental health problems, substance abuse, and truancy.
Bullying also has a negative impact on parents, according to research out of Australia. 89% of parents who have a child being bullied said that the bullying negatively affected the entire family. Many parents of bullied children experience feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, and helplessness.
Reflection: What are the effects of bullying you’ve seen in your life? How does it impact the people involved?
What should I do if my kids say they’re being bullied?
Remember, the majority of kids who experience bullying won’t tell anyone. If your kids come to you and actually tell you that they’re being bullied, that means the pain they’re experiencing is more significant than their fear that the bully will hurt them or that they’ll be seen as a tattletale.
If you find out that your kids are being bullied, it’s critical that you’re first and foremost empathetic and make sure your children know that you hear them. Moore says that one of the toughest things you’ll have to deal with as a parent is controlling your reaction when you hear your kids are being hurt. You will be tempted to go right into “protect” mode, become upset or angry, and swiftly mete out justice. But you must remain calm and gather all the facts—otherwise, you’ll shut your kids down. Make sure they know you don’t blame them for what’s happening. Kids are often afraid to share because they blame themselves.
Keep in mind that if your children come to you with a story about someone else being bullied, what they’re saying might or might not be genuine. They could present the information to you as though it were about a third party, but actually be talking about themselves.
When your kids come to you, the first thing you need to do is determine if they’re either: 1. emotionally stable and frustrated; or 2. in crisis, meaning they’re in fight or flight mode and could be considering self-harm or suicide.
Students who experience both bullying and cyberbullying are much more likely to have suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide. If your kids are in a crisis state, ask if they’ve thought of hurting themselves. If so, ask them why and how they’ve thought about hurting themselves. Your goal is to find out if they’ve progressed so far as to actually be planning how to take their lives. Most kids will not have gotten to the planning stage, but if they do have a plan, you need to get in touch with a psychologist immediately (not the school) and get your kids long-term help. See our “Parent’s Guide to Suicide & Self-Harm Prevention” and the Additional Resources section below for more information.
Reflection: What relationships do you have in your life that make you feel safe? What is it about those relationships that makes you feel that way?
How can I help my kids deal with bullying?
It’s important to address bullying from a correct viewpoint of who God is and who people are as fallen beings made in His image. We must not react to aggression out of hate, anger, or vengeance—but we also do not have to submit to abuse. While Be Strong is a secular organization, it approaches the issue of bullying using the following Scripture-based principles:
- All people are fearfully and wonderfully made.
- Treat others better than you want to be treated (modified Golden Rule).
- Love your enemies.
Note that loving your enemies does not mean being a doormat. As Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend emphasize in their book Boundaries, loving people includes confronting their sinful behavior in appropriate ways.
If you stumble across bullying or your children come to you and tell you that bullying is going on, you should:
- Separate the kids involved
- Stay calm and don’t assign blame
- Get the facts, from multiple sources
- Determine if what happened was actually bullying, according to our definition earlier and the questions listed here
If your kids are not in crisis, address the problem based on the kind of bullying that is occurring (physical, social, verbal, cyber). As you seek to help your kids, be on the lookout for how you can empower them to handle their situations without you getting involved. Do intervene if that’s what’s necessary. But if your kids can safely deal with the problem themselves, that’s ideal.
If the bullying has happened online (e.g., if there are texts or sexts or posts), save as much of that info as possible with screenshots. You will need it if third parties become involved. As you work toward potential solutions, get your kids’ opinions on what they think are the best strategies. See this page for advice for parents on addressing bullying. Bear in mind that in worst-case scenarios, the best solution might in fact be transferring your kids to another school.
Physical bullying. Physical bullying is assault, meaning it’s a crime and therefore a reportable offense. As soon as you find out about it, you should intervene by contacting the school authorities, the bullying student’s parents, and the police if necessary. Scenarios in which you’ll need to involve the authorities immediately include if there is a weapon involved, physical injury, violent threats, and sexual abuse. But what about when your kids are caught in the moment with no one to defend them? Should you tell them to fight back?
There are only two choices for how people can react if someone is attacking them: fight back or take it until it stops (i.e. “turn the other cheek,” which may not mean what we think it means). There could be serious consequences either way. If you counsel your kids to fight back and they do, your child might in fact overcome the bully, potentially putting a stop to the bullying. But the parents of the other child could take legal action against you. And what if other kids join in the bullying as a group? What if your child fights back and loses? If that happens, your kids have just made their situation much worse. Your children will have to make the call at the time and decide what will minimize the harm at that moment, as well as in the future. For more on this, try this post from Pastor Chris Nye.
Verbal bullying. Again, get your kids’ opinions on how they think you can best help them. You could talk to their teachers, but this could have negative consequences, like causing the other kids to see yours as a snitch and a teacher’s pet. You could contact the other kid’s parents, depending on what you know about them and if you think they’ll respond well. You will have to use wisdom in evaluating the situation. If you can empower your kids to handle it on their own, that is the most effective tactic.
For the most part, when people participate in verbal bullying, they’re looking for a payoff in the form of an emotional reaction. If kids don’t give them the result they’re looking for, bullies will often eventually quit, although your kids might have to try this strategy multiple times. If someone is verbally bullying your children, they can:
- Stay calm and not react in sadness, anger, or fear.
- Be reasonable and respond to the bullying kid’s comments without owning them. Do not agree with anything that’s not true.
- Give the bully compliments. The goal is to create dissonance within the bullying child, who will not expect your kids to respond to an attack with kindness.
- See if you can get the bullying kid to reveal why he or she is saying those words. For example, if the bully says something like, “You’re ugly” or “No one likes you,” stay calm and ask, “Why?” As the bully responds, continue asking “Why?” Then compliment the bully and immediately walk away.
There are variations on the responses that people can give to a verbal bully. For example, this nine-year-old responded to a bully by saying, “Did you mean to be so rude?” See also this video from Be Strong (starting around 27 min.) for further examples of how to handle a verbal bully.
Social bullying. Social bullying (such as exclusion, publicly embarrassing others, and spreading rumors) has a lot to do with whether your kids are isolated or have friendships. If other kids are bullying yours by excluding them socially, your kids can deal with this problem by making friends. If your kids don’t have friends at school, encourage them to get involved in a club and make good connections with people there. Friends have the ability not only to provide inclusion but also to defend each other when other people spread rumors and lies.
Most of the time social isolation happens during lunchtime. With that in mind, your kids could consider starting a We Dine Together club at their school so that no one ever has to eat alone. One girl who was suicidal discovered Be Strong and started her own We Dine Together club. Doing so turned her entire situation around because it gave her a voice and a “safe place,” she says.
Reflection: What are different ways you’ve seen bullying play out in your life? What does the Bible and the life of Jesus say about bullying?
How can I help my kids deal with cyberbullying?
The first and most important step you can take to help your kids if they’re being cyberbullied, as with other kinds of bullying, is to provide empathy, love, and support: “Targets of cyberbullying (and those who observe it) must know for sure that the adults who they tell will intervene rationally and logically, and not make the situation worse.” Work with your kids to figure out potential solutions to their bullying problem. Depending on the situation, you might need to talk to the school or the parents of the kid who is doing the bullying. If the situation involves criminal behavior or physical threats, you will need to involve the police.
Encourage your kids not to react to minor instances of aggression, and teach them resilience to hostility. Words do have power to hurt us, but the more your kids can work on not internalizing hurtful words, the more resilient they will be, not just now, but for the rest of their lives. Limiting who they have contact with online can go a long way toward reducing the harm they experience from others. They should also save any evidence of cyberbullying in case this information is needed if the authorities have to be involved.
By far the most important steps you can take to protect your kids from cyberbullying is to have good relationships with them, have open communication, and teach them what proper and safe online behavior looks like. According to teens themselves, the best ways to stop cyberbullying are by blocking the aggressor, ignoring him or her, getting parents involved, taking a break from technology, and reporting abusive behavior to the hosting site or app.
You have a serious advantage if, when your kids first start going online, you intentionally moderate their activity (see our “Parent’s Guide to Internet Filtering & Monitoring” and “Parent’s Guide to Smartphones”) and disciple them in their technology use. As your kids grow older, be more hands off. Don’t invade their privacy unless you believe them to be in serious danger. You shouldn’t have to or want to control every aspect of your kids’ online behavior as they grow up, but hopefully you will have good communication and good relationships with them. That way, if something bad does happen, you can help them.
We think it’s wise to have a contract for how your kids use their devices—see our “Parent’s Guide to Smartphones” for more thoughts on that. Check out this PDF for more info on cyberbullying, as well as what to do if you find out your kids are cyberbullying others.
Reflection: Is your relationship with your devices healthy or unhealthy? What might you be modeling to your teen?
What are errors that Christians might fall into when it comes to addressing bullying?
Roy Moore says that faith communities tend to fall into two pitfalls. One is that some people think that trusting in God means taking no action against bullying. Trusting God and praying are good and important, but won’t magically make the bullying problem go away.
The second pertains to LGBTQ+ teens. Such kids are bullied about four times more than others. Sometimes people in faith communities think that protecting kids who aren’t heterosexual or cisgendered (identifying as the sex they were assigned at birth) is tantamount to supporting their lifestyles. This view is false and misguided. Think about it this way: If you see kids in the street about to be hit by a car, you’re not going to stop and try to figure out their sexual orientations or gender identities as a way to decide if you should save them. You’ll run into the street to rescue them. In the same way, all children deserve to be protected from bullying. See this page for other common mistakes to avoid when dealing with bullying.
Reflection: Have your biases and beliefs ever hindered you from treating others the way Jesus would?
What if my kids are bystanders?
Over 70% of kids say they’ve witnessed bullying at school. StopBullying.gov states, “When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.” Moore says the reason that bystander intervention is effective is that a huge part of the payoff for the bully is social affirmation. Once, in elementary school, a man we talked to defended another boy who had a disability and was being bullied. The man didn’t know the bullied boy well, but the boy who was rescued was so grateful that he wrote him a letter years later, thanking him and saying he saw him as a close friend.
Prepare your kids to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders—that is, to take action if they see bullying going on, whether it is online or offline. This could look like defending a target of verbal bullying, finding an adult if someone is being physically bullied, or befriending someone who is being socially bullied. Your kids can also share their knowledge with kids who are being bullied. For example, if they see students being verbally bullied, besides intervening they can take them aside privately and tell them about the tactics we mentioned earlier. The help of bystanders is crucial because targets of bullying often feel powerless. And when bystanders do nothing, they are indirectly encouraging the bullying.
When it comes to cyberbullying, bystanders shouldn’t “like” hurtful comments. Anything they say if they choose to address the bullying should be reasonable and calm. It might be good if they private message the person doing the cyberbullying with their concerns, although this could backfire if the bully turns their aggression on your kids. But definitely encourage your children to reach out to the targets of the bullying with affirmation and encouragement.
Reflection: How can you help your teens understand what bullying is so they can know when to step in?
Stand Up for the Little Guy
If you don’t already, start to see bullying as a necessary topic to discuss with your kids. It’s just as essential to talk about as academics, partying, or relationships. Use any opportunity that gives you a natural way to bring the topic up, whether it’s a school assembly, something in the news, or a situation in a TV show.
Be shrewd and don’t assume that your kids are immune to being bullied or to bullying others. Roy Moore says that if parents can add bullying to the other conversations they have with their kids, we’ll “make meaningful progress” toward stopping bullying.
There are a lot of actionable steps you can take when it comes to bullying, but don’t forget to pray, too. As we said at the beginning, bullying is complex. Even though we’ve tried to offer you strategies and resources for dealing with it, when your kids are in the thick of a difficult situation, it can be hard to know what to do. See the resources below for further help.
Finding out your kid is involved in bullying in one way or another is a harsh reality, one you might be reluctant to address. But doing so will not only make a huge difference in the lives of the victims, but possibly also in the bully’s and the bystanders’ lives.
Reflection: What are ways that you can be, and encourage your teen to be, kinder and more empathetic towards those around you? How can you show Jesus to others?
Invitation to Generosity
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