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Bullying 101

How is bullying defined? – Bullying is when someone aggressively uses their “power” to target another individual with repeated, unwanted words or actions. Those targeted are hurt either physically or emotionally and have a hard time stopping what is happening to them.

Students often describe bullying as when “someone makes you feel less about who you are as a person.”

Conflict vs. Bullying – Bullying is different from conflict.

  • Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views.
  • Bullying is negative behavior directed by someone exerting power and control over another person.

Bullying is done with a goal to hurt, harm, or humiliate. With bullying, there is often a power imbalance between those involved, with power defined as elevated social status, being physically larger, or as part of a group against an individual. Students who bully perceive their target as vulnerable in some way and often find satisfaction in harming them.

In normal conflict, children self-monitor their behavior. They read cues to know if lines are crossed, and then modify their behavior in response. Children guided by empathy usually realize they have hurt someone and will want to stop their negative behavior. On the other hand, children intending to cause harm and whose behavior goes beyond normal conflict will continue their behavior even when they know it's hurting someone.

What is the difference between bullying and harassment? – Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably when talking about hurtful or harmful behavior. They are very similar, but in terms of definition, there is an important difference.

Bullying and harassment are similar as they are both about:

  • power and control
  • actions that hurt or harm another person physically or emotionally
  • an imbalance of power between the target and the individual demonstrating the negative behavior
  • the target having difficulty stopping the action directed at them

The distinction between bullying and harassment is that when the bullying behavior directed at the target is also based on a protected class, that behavior is then defined as harassment. Protected classes include race, color, religion, sex, age, disability and national origin.

Why use the term “bullying prevention” instead of “anti-bullying”? – PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center uses the term “bullying prevention” instead of “anti-bullying” to place the emphasis on a proactive approach and philosophy, framing bullying as an issue to which there is a solution. While the use of “anti” does appropriately indicate the concept of being against bullying, the focus on “prevention” recognizes that change is ultimately about shifting behavior and attitudes, which can happen through the positive approach of education, awareness, and action.

How is “direct bullying” different from “indirect bullying”?

Direct bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates and is overt, obvious, and apparent to anyone witnessing it. The actions and words are easy to identify, the identity of the person bullying is usually known, and the acts are directed toward the person being bullied – they know about the bullying as it is happening.

Indirect bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates, which is often covert, subtle, and not always immediately acknowledged as bullying. The words and actions can be harder to identify, can be done anonymously and discreetly, and the target might not find out about the bullying until long after it has happened.

Why is prevention important?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” These sayings are familiar to many people, but how many of us have ever thought about how we could prevent a big problem like bullying or how our individual efforts could make a difference? Have you ever wondered what changes would need to occur in our daily lives to prevent bullying or reduce the chance that it will happen? If we only think or act when bullying is already happening, we are then solely focused on intervention and we may never see the end of this behavior. Promoting and modeling positive social behaviors before negative outcomes like bullying occur is a good way to create safer, healthier schools and communities for all children.

Why do we use “target” vs. “victim” and “child who bullies” vs. “bully” – You’ve likely heard statements such as “My child is a victim of bullying” or “That student is a bully.” Though these phrases are commonly used, are they the best terms to describe a child’s behavior and actions?

When referring to those involved in bullying situations, avoid stereotyping them into categories. Focus on behavior, not on labels.

For example:

  • Instead of “bullying victim,” replace with the phrase “he’s a target of bullying.” This shows that the child is not powerless, and that with support and education they can change what’s happening to them.
  • Instead of “she’s a bully” use instead, “she’s someone who bullies.” This shows that bullying is a part of who she is, but with support and education she can make changes in her behavior.

Does bullying happen more often than adults think? – There are many different types of bullying a student may experience, such as physical, verbal, emotional, or cyber. While all forms are equally hurtful, many behaviors harm students emotionally rather than physically, or happen in online environments versus the physical world — making it harder for adults to identify.

Physical bullying is often easier for adults to detect because the behavior is overt or signs are left behind (bruises, broken bones, damaged belongings). However, the words, gossip, rumors, or shared secrets that constitute verbal and social bullying don’t leave a physical trail of the emotional pain.

Bullying in online environments usually happens outside of adults’ view as well. While it often leaves behind an electronic trail of hurtful words or images, adults don’t know it is happening unless the student tells someone or an adult is monitoring their online activity.

What Are Some Common Misconceptions about Bullying? – In spite of the significant impact that bullying can have on a target, it often continues to be viewed as acceptable behavior. There are many misconceptions that adults may have about bullying, all of which can lead to minimizing the behavior. Learn more about responses such as “boys will be boys” or “it’s only teasing.”

Helpful Information for Adults

Why is it important for students to advocate for themselves and how can adults help them learn those skills? – Speaking up for oneself, expressing needs, and taking action are essential self-advocacy tools for youth of all ages. When children know that there are options for regaining control or influencing a difficult situation, they gain the resilience to move through the obstacles that life brings. Children who actively participate in learning self-advocacy skills are better prepared to resolve problems themselves and understand when a problem requires adult help. Whether it’s a disagreement with a friend or a serious situation like bullying, teaching self-advocacy can reinforce a child’s understanding of how they create change in their world.

What are some strategies to reinforce messages of kindness, acceptance, and inclusion at a young age? – Positive adult role modeling, mentoring, and age-appropriate approaches to kindness, acceptance, and inclusion can make a big impact on how children treat each other in the classroom, on the playground, at home, and in the community. Young children are just learning what it means to get along, how to share toys, discovering ways to work together, and understand how their feelings and behavior affect others. Practice role-playing activities, play games, create art, explore feelings, and establish a clear set of behavioral rules. These strategies reinforce positive relationships and behaviors, and is one of the keys to helping kids get along, which ultimately can help prevent bullying.

How does bullying impact students’ health? – Do you remember hearing “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

Research shows that this age-old saying simply isn’t true. Often, the physical impact of bullying (the “sticks and stones”) is easy to recognize, such as a child getting up after being pushed, damaged personal items, or having torn clothing.

However, bullying often impacts our children in ways that aren’t so obvious. While words don’t physically injure, they do still hurt, and can cause emotional harm. Verbal and emotional bullying, such as teasing and social exclusion, as well as physical bullying, have the potential to negatively impact a student’s overall health, along with their sense of well-being.

What are some strategies for adults to redirect bullying behavior? – When a child is bullying others, it’s important that parents and educators take action. It is equally important for adults to recognize that bullying is about behavior, and they should choose responses that acknowledge behavior can be changed. Reframing the focus from labeling a child as a “bully” to referring to them as a “child with bullying behavior” recognizes that there is capacity for change. While children who are bullying others should be given appropriate consequences for their behavior, adults should be talking with their children to learn why they are bullying others. Children need to understand the impact their behavior has on others and realize the hurt they are causing. With adult guidance, redirecting bullying behavior toward an understanding of differences, as well as the practices of kindness and inclusion, are good strategies for reshaping a child’s behavior.

How do I start a conversation about cyberbullying with my child? – The internet is the newest place for children and teens to communicate and share moments with their peers. While it can be a positive place for students to interact, the rise of technology has also led to a new and serious form of bullying, known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to send or share mean, threatening, or embarrassing messages or images to or about someone. It might be in a text, email, message, on social media, or in a post online. Just as it’s important to talk with your child about bullying, it’s important to discuss cyberbullying as soon as your child starts to interact online. Discuss what information is and isn’t appropriate to share online, as well as establishing cyber rules together, such as what sites your child will be allowed to use and hours of usage. During this conversation, explain that if something hurtful is shared online (via words, images, videos, etc.), it counts as cyberbullying, and it’s important that you know about it. Together, you can strategize a plan to respond to the cyberbullying and keep kids safe online.

What should parents do when a team culture of teasing leads to bullying? – Merriam-Webster dictionary defines teasing as, “Making fun of or disturbing or annoying with persistent irritating or provoking behavior, especially in a petty or mischievous way.” Many children participate in teasing, both as the one exhibiting the behavior and the one being teased. Teasing, in and of itself, is not considered bullying. However, when the behavior meets distinguishing hallmarks, including no longer being fun or funny to the intended target, causing emotional distress, being repeated, or continuing despite the target’s desire for it to stop, it then reaches the level of bullying. When a child is on a team in which the coach or teammates view bullying behavior as “just teasing” or dismiss it as “kids being kids,” parents should first ensure that their child feels supported, and next address the concern directly with the coach or adult leaders by examining how the culture of teasing impacts team members.

How Do You Help Your Child Recognize the Signs of Bullying? – Children may not always realize that they are being bullied. They might think it is bullying only if they are being physically hurt; they might believe the other child is joking; or they may not understand the subtle social norms and cues. Children can benefit from a definition of the differences between friendly behavior and bullying behavior. The basic rule, which is not a legal or comprehensive definition: Let children know bullying is when someone is being hurt either by words or actions on purpose, usually more than once, feels bad because of it, and has a hard time stopping what is happening to them. Parents can prepare themselves to talk with their children by considering how they are going to respond to their child’s questions and emotions. They can also decide what information they would like to give their child about bullying.

Why Does Inclusion Matter for Bullying Prevention? – Inclusion helps foster a sense of “belonging” for all and increases the possibility that students will find meaningful connections among their peers, as well as support when they need it. When all are included and valued in the life of a community, bullying is less likely to occur.

Helpful Information for Youth

Can a friend be bullying me? – Friends will sometimes have bad days. Friends will sometimes disagree. Friends will sometimes hurt each other's feelings, have an argument, or simply need time away from one another. This is normal and can happen in any friendship, no matter how close. If you are experiencing treatment from a friend that hurts you and you have asked that friend to stop, but it still continues, then that is not friendship. That behavior could be bullying. Friendship behaviors do not include hurting someone on purpose or continually being mean even when asked to stop. A friend will change or be remorseful for her behavior if she finds out she's hurting you. If you aren't certain if what is happening is part of a normal friendship or if it is bullying, talk to an adult you trust and get help sorting out the relationship. And yes, it is okay (and the right thing to do) to ask for help.

How does peer pressure impact bullying behavior? – Peer pressure occurs when a peer group or individual encourages others to change their attitudes, values, or behaviors to conform to those of the influencing group or individual.

Peer pressure can impact bullying behavior both in positive and negative ways. For example, the influence can have negative effects if a peer group’s bullying behavior encourages others to laugh at someone. It can also be negative when the group views other individuals as not worthy to be part of their group. The impact of negative peer pressure can create environments in which individuals are intimidated to speak out on behalf of someone being hurt or harmed.

Peer pressure can also be positive and healthy. For example, when the peer group encourages kind and inclusive behavior, such as inviting others to join them at the lunch table or letting someone know that they care what is happening to them. The action of peers encouraging each other to reach out to those who are struggling can have a positive impact on the group and other individuals who want to speak out against bullying.

For students: What if you told an adult and it wasn’t helpful? – Have you told someone about being bullied and nothing has changed? Don’t give up! Did you know that you have the legal right to be safe at school? If the bullying continues even after you told an adult, know that there are laws designed to protect you (find your state law or policy at It is very important for students to reach out to another trusted adult and ask for help again. This adult can be a parent, a teacher, a coach, or anyone from the community. Let them know that you need their help and that you wouldn’t be coming to them if you could fix the situation on your own.