Signs Your Child is a Bully or Being Bullied

Emma Winsor Wood
Aug. 4, 2011

"I just had the worst day of my life," announced Kristin's* twelve-year-old son Ben as he slumped into the passenger seat.

Earlier that day, Ben had silenced a classmate making rude comments with a terse, "Shut up." While Ben's response could have been more polite, it did not warrant the day of torture that followed. Max the bully hounded Ben for the remainder of the day -- shoving him in the hallway, loudly teasing and taunting, calling him names -- until Ben retreated to a classroom for protection.

Kristin, who lives in Rockingham County, NH, promptly called the school to inform them of what happened -- and to say that she would not send Ben back to school until they could guarantee his safety. After a brief investigation, the school decided to suspend Max for three days.

But when he returned, the bullying resumed. While Max continued to physically and verbally abuse her son, Kristin continued to meet with teachers and administrators. Since the school had suspended Max once prior to the incident with Ben, this was his third strike. Still they did not expel him.

"The school's policy of zero tolerance for bullying is a bunch of fluff they put together to make the parent's feel good. They're not putting their money where their mouth is. At some point, Max shouldn't have been allowed in school -- for the safety of all the children, not just my son."

Kristin feels relieved that her family had already planned to move towns before the bullying began.

Sadly, Kristin's story is not unique. According to "Bullying Behaviors among US Youth," a 2001 study published in JAMA by Tonja Nansel, Ph.D, 1 in 3 youths in grades 6-10 experience bullying once or several times a week.

Staying at home, however, no longer protects kids from bullying. "Technology has made bullying easier to engage in and spread, as well as harder to escape," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. Parenting Expert at

Indeed, according to, 42% of middle schoolers (grades 4-8) have been bullied online and 53% of them admit having said something mean or hurtful to another person online.

Bullying is not new, but it is pervasive -- not to mention scary, embarrassing, and humiliating. And unfortunately not all children are as forthcoming as Ben was. How can you tell if your child is struggling with bullies too?

Is Your Child Being Bullied?

According to Dr. Joel Haber, bullying expert and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, your child could be a victim of bullying if he/she:

  • Is reluctant or refuses to go to school
  • Clams up when you try to discuss school
  • Demands some sort of change in a long-standing routine, like riding the bus to school or going to the park on Saturdays
  • Does not want to participate in after-school activities or play with old friends
  • Seems hungrier than usual after school - it might be a sign that someone is stealing his lunch money or that he is unwilling to brave the cafeteria at lunchtime
  • Shows signs of physical distress such as headaches, stomach-aches, or nausea
  • Goes to the nurse in order to avoid going to class
  • Performance in school (grades, homework, attendance) suddenly declines
  • Acts sullen, angry, and frequently wants to be left alone
  • Uncharacteristically uses bad language
  • Shows marked behavior change after computer time or a phone call
  • Starts asking for more lunch or transportation money without a clear explanation of why it is needed
  • Has unexplained bruises or injuries

Could Your Child Be the Bully?

While you could never imagine your own sweetie excluding or teasing a classmate, 1 out of 5 kids in grades 6-10 admits to being a bully or doing at least some "bullying" (Nansel, et al, 2001). Children know that bullying is wrong. That's why they do it when parents aren't around. That's why cyberbullying has become so common (the Internet is like one huge parentless mansion). And because adults are left in the dark, they don't often face repercussions for their actions. So they keep doing it.

Of course you don't want to admit that your child could be a bully. But you definitely don't want to let your child stay a bully. Look for the signs -- and then find a way to check the behaviors.

» Read the article about how Parents' #1 Fear is Bullying

Dr. Haber says that your child could be a bully if he/she:

  • Is exclusive - refuses to include certain kids in play or study
  • Persists in certain inappropriate or unpleasant behavior even after you have told him/her to stop
  • Is very concerned with being and staying popular
  • Seems intolerant of and/or shows contempt for children who are "different" or "weird"
  • Frequently teases or taunts other children
  • Constantly plays extremely aggressive videogames
  • Hurts animals
  • Observes you excluding, gossiping about, or otherwise hurting others: As parents we have a tremendous influence on our children. As human beings, we all occasionally exhibit some bullying behaviors. It's only natural and it doesn't mean we're bad people. But think honestly about your own behavior and then ask -- do your kids also show these traits?

Bullying seems scary, but as Dr. Haber reminds us, "It's always been going on. And it's probably been going on at the same level as it always has, but it's gotten much more media attention as of late." So don't let it overwhelm you or distract from your main goal: raising your child to be a kind, understanding, well-adjusted person.

* All names have been changed to protect identities.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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