Bullying: how to prevent it and help children who are victims

By Lea Simms, Sarah Bushman, MPP and Sarah Pedersen
Updated 2015

Bullying has become a major topic in schools and communities. The Columbine shooting in 1999 was committed by two teenagers who had been harassed and ostracized by athletes and other students in their school. Since then there have been other well-publicized incidents of bullied students retaliating with violence. What exactly is bullying, how is it linked to violence, and what can you do to prevent bullying and its harmful impact on children you care about?
bullying image

What is bullying?

Bullying is defined as unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance that is either repeated or a single event.1

Bullying can be:

  • Verbal (teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, threatening to cause harm)
  • Social (leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public)
  • Physical (hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, making mean or rude hand gestures)
  • Cyber bullying (happening via internet, text, or email)1

Although the types of bullying vary, research has shown that psychological distress is similar in all of them. The main difference is that some types, such as cyber bullying,are harder to detect.2

How common is bullying?

In 2013, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System surveyed 13,583 high school (grades 9-12) students and found that:

  • 20% of students nationwide experienced bullying,
  • Females are bullied more often (24%) than males (16%),
  • The most likely student to get bullied was a white female in the 9th grade,
  • Nationwide, 15% of students have been electronically (cyber) bullied and rates were also highest among 9th grade, white females.3

Who gets bullied?

The typical child or a teen who is likely to get bullied is “observably vulnerable”2
, which means he or she may:

  • Have delayed puberty;
  • Be gender non-conforming;
  • Have a unique physical appearance;
  • Be socially rejected and isolated.

A study by Hailee Dunn and her colleagues found that students, especially girls, who reported having engaged in sexual intercourse were more likely to report having been bullied at school or electronically. Students of both genders who reported both engaging in intercourse and being bullied had higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts when compared to students who reported neither of these experiences.4

Who is a bully?

The typical bully is usually psychologically not well adjusted and commonly has:4

  • Low empathy;
  • Problematic home life;
  • Inability to handle emotions (emotional reactivity).

Researchers divide bullies into two types: those seeking status and those who go after more vulnerable victims.5

Bullies that are motivated by social status tend to target their friends and other more popular schoolmates. Those who target vulnerable victims are less popular themselves, are anxious or depressed, and are less likely to target their friends, instead targeting less popular schoolmates. Males are usually more likely to bully in physically aggressive ways, while females are more likely to use verbal, social, and cyber bullying.2

Bullying and violence

One of the first studies to examine the link between bullying and violence asked whether it was the bully or the victim who was most likely to be dangerously violent by measuring four violence-related behaviors:

  • Carrying a weapon in the last 30 days
  • Carrying a weapon in school in the last 30 days
  • Frequent fighting during the last year
  • Sustaining an injury during the last year from a fight that required medical care.

The study, published in 2003, was based on more than 15,000 students who participated in the Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, a nationally representative survey of youth in grades 6 through 10 in public, Catholic, and other private schools during the spring of 1998. The youths completed anonymous questionnaires during one class period.6

The results showed, that violence-related behaviors were more common in boys (ranging from 13%-27% among those who reported each behavior) than girls (ranging from 4%-11%).

While the study did not conclude that the victims of bullying were the kids most likely to be dangerous, it did find that victims are more likely than kids who have never been bullied to feel that violence is a solution to their problems. Kids who bully or are bullied are more likely to be involved in one or more of the four violence-related behaviors. The youths most likely to carry a weapon reported bullying others in or away from school or being bullied away from school. Boys and girls who bully fight more often and are more likely to get injured in a fight. This is also true for boys who are bullied away from school.

A child who bullies and is also a victim of bullying can be at even higher risk for certain violence-related behaviors. For example, youths who were sometimes bullied in and away from school, and who also bullied others away from school weekly, were 16 times more likely to carry a weapon.

The authors of the study concluded that bullying often occurs in conjunction with more serious aggressive and antisocial behavior, and therefore should not be considered a normal and accepted part of youth behavior, even though it is common.6

Other consequences of bullying

Besides violent related behavior, research has also shown that both the victims of bullying and the bullies bear emotional and behavioral consequences that result from bullying.  For the victims of bullying, the consequences are also the signs that should alert parents to suspect that a child might be bullied:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Loss of interest in activities a child used to enjoy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Lowered GPA or standardized test scores
  • Lack of school participation
  • High rates of absences/dropping out of school. 1

One of the most common and damaging effects of bullying is a common belief among the victims that bullying is their fault, which leads to self-blame and lowered self-esteem.7

Bullying also has long-term consequences for the bullies who are more likely to:

  • Abuse alcohol and other drugs later in adolescence and adulthood
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Drop out of school
  • Have criminal convictions/traffic citations as adults
  • Be abusive towards family members as adults.1

What to do about bullying?

To prevent bullying, the goal is to change the conditions that make bullying possible.2 This can be done by reducing the acceptability of bullying and making sure bullying doesn’t go undetected. When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying, they convey the message that it is not acceptable. It is  important to know  that having just one friend can protect against the distress of bullying.8 Other students witnessing the bullying are also important in stopping bullying, which suggests the importance to teach students  to show compassion and discourage bullying.2
In non-supportive environments, bullying is unable to thrive. Lastly, teachers, counselors,and family members need to ensure that children who are bullied know that it is not their fault.8

The school, community, and home all affect the behavior of the child, and for this reason bullying interventions should target all three of these environments. A family-school collaboration including parent-teacher conferences, newsletters and brochures for parents, group parent meetings and trainings together reduced the frequency of bullying by 20-23%.9 

Parents should contact their child’s school counselor to ask about bullying programs and how to become more involved.

Tips for parents to prevent and cope with bullying:

  1. Talk with your children 10
    1. Help them to understand what bullying is so that they can identify it if they are being bullied or acting as bullies themselves.
    2. Give them tips about how to handle bullying, such as moving towards an adult (teacher, parent, or counselor) in bullying situations, saying “stop” in a direct and confident way, or using humor.
    3. Encourage them to help other children who are getting bullied by showing kindness both during the acts of bullying and comforting them after.
  2. Support and empower your child 11
    1. Ask them about their feelings.
    2. Build their confidence by asking them what they like most about themselves.
    3. Let them know it is not their fault if they are being bullied.
  3. Learn your rights. Check your state’s legislation on bullying (http://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html)1
  4. Think through who else should be involved: Teacher, guidance counselor, friends parents, etc, and turn to them for help10
  5. Look into anti-bullying programs that can be suggested to your child’s school
  6. Refer your child to an anonymous bullying hotline if they feel they can’t talk to you or a counselor about it
  7. Get involved so that the other adults in your child life can report any issues with bullying to you and you can work together to prevent and solve it9

    1. Attend workshops, events or trainings in your community or your child’s school.
    2. Exchange phone numbers with other parents so that you can all share information.
    3. Greet the bus driver so that they feel open to reporting any future problems to you.
    4. Read class newsletters, school flyers, and school websites and discuss with your child in order to stay up to date on events in your child’s life.
    5. Attend parent teacher conferences and “Back to School Nights” so that you build a relationship with your child’s teachers.

Resources for parents:

  • StopBullying.Gov provides information from various government agencies. It is a good tool for background information about bullying:  http://www.stopbullying.gov/.
  • To look up your states legislation on bullying: http://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html.
  • Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center has helpful toolkits for parents, teachers, and students as well as for children with special needs who are getting bullied: http://www.pacer.org/bullying/.
  • Beyond Bullies has an online chat for bullied teens to provide support. It runs bystander and prevention workshops, teen leadership trainings, and a video competition to let bullied youth know they are not alone: http://beyondbullies.org/.
  • Stomp Out Bullying is an anti-bullying nonprofit that has a chat line, runs the “anti-bullying blue shirt campaign”, and runs many social media campaigns: http://www.stompoutbullying.org/.


  1. What is Bullying. (n.d.). Retrieved July 6, 2015, from href=”http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html”>http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html  
  2. Juvonen, J. & Graham, S. (2001). Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims (English). Annual Review of Psychology (Print), 65159-185.  
  3. Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S., & Flint, K. (2013, June 13). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States, 2013. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from href=”http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6304.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=youth-risk-behavior-surveillance-united-states-2013-pdf”>http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6304.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=youth-risk-behavior-surveillance-united-states-2013-pdf  
  4. Dunn, H. (2014). Association between Sexual Behaviors, Bullying Victimization and Suicidal Ideation in a National Sample of High School Students: Implications of a Sexual Double Standard. Women’s Health Issues, 24(5), 567-574.  
  5. Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2014). Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and Their Consequences. American Sociological Review, 79(2), 228-257. doi:10.1177/0003122414524573  
  6. Nansel TR, Overpeck MD, Haynie DL, Ruan WJ, Scheidt PC. Relationships Between Bullying and Violence Among U.S. Youth. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2003;157:348-353.  
  7. Schacter, H. L., & Juvonen, J. (2015). The effects of school-level victimization on self-blame: Evidence for contextualized social cognitions. Developmental Psychology, 51(6), 841-847. doi:10.1037/dev0000016  
  8. Hodges, E. E., Boivin, M., & Vitaro, F. (1999). The power of friendship: protection against an escalating cycle of peer victimization. Developmental Psychology, 35(1), 94-101.  
  9. Kolbert, J. B., Schultz, D., & Crothers, L. M. (2014). Bullying Prevention and the Parent Involvement Model. Journal Of School Counseling, 12(7).  
  10. Helping Your Child. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2015, from href=”http://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/helping-your-child.asp”>http://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/helping-your-child.asp  
  11. How to Talk About Bullying. (n.d.). Retrieved July 6, 2015. http://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/talking-about-it