Skip to main content

What Parents Should Know About Bullying

Definition, Impact and Roles

Definition of Bullying

What is bullying? At first glance, it might appear that this behavior is easy to define. A common image of bullying might be of a physically intimidating teen beating up a smaller classmate or one child shoving another inside a hallway locker. While these examples are still considered bullying, it's important to know that bullying behavior can be much more complex and varied than historical stereotypes.

For example, while some bullying is physical and easy to recognize, it can also be social-emotional, occurring quietly and covertly through face-to-face gossip, on a phone, or the internet, causing emotional harm. As a starting point, there are common elements included in most definitions of bullying. Although definitions vary from source to source, most agree that an act is defined as bullying when:

  • the behavior is aggressive, unwanted and
    • hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally,
    • those targeted by the behavior have difficulty stopping the action directed at them and struggle to defend themselves, and
  • there is a real or perceived “imbalance of power” which is used to control or harm others; and
    • the student demonstrating the bullying behavior can have more “power” in ways such as higher social status, is physically larger, has access to embarrassing information, or is emotionally intimidating, and
  • the behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated

It’s important to note that bullying issues are complex, and there are several important factors to consider when looking at behavior. Definitions of bullying might also include or address the following:

  • The types of bullying: The behavior can be overt and direct, with physical behaviors such as fighting, hitting, or name calling, or it can be covert with emotional-social interactions such as gossiping or leaving someone out on purpose. Bullying can also happen in person or through technology on digital devices like phones, computers, and tablets; and in apps, texts, social media, or gaming.
  • Distinction about amount and duration: Many definitions indicate that bullying is repeated or chronic with the behavior directed at an individual over a period of time. However, the reality is that bullying can also be circumstantial, the result of a single situation, such as a social media post reaching thousands.
  • Perception of aggression: Aggressive behavior can be defined as forceful words or actions. For bullying, it is important to note not all bullying behavior will be immediately evaluated as “aggressive.” Acts such as physical fighting and name calling are easy to recognize while acts that exhibit more covert and subtle behaviors are often difficult to assess but no less aggressive in their impact on the target (e.g., manipulation of how someone is perceived, damaging someone’s reputation or status, or spreading false information).
  • Intent versus impact: Some definitions may include that behavior is considered bullying if the intent is to willfully and knowingly cause hurt or harm. However, in some instances intent can be difficult to identify and assess by those involved in the situation: the person doing the bullying, the target, the witnesses, or even adults who receive the reports of bullying. While it is important to address the intention or purpose behind the bullying behavior, it is equally important to look at the impact of the behavior on the target. Focusing on impact verses intent can be useful in situations where the person bullying indicates that, for example, “it was just a joke” or that the target “took it the wrong way.”
  • The implications for all students: It’s important to note that bullying is not just about the implications for those targeted by the behaviors, but is also about the behavior’s impact on all students in the school including those who witness the behavior and those that engage in the behavior.
  • Additional factors: These can include the differentiation between bullying and harassment, enumeration of protected classes, statements around the use of technology, how the behavior impacts educational performance, and the physical locations that would fall under the jurisdiction of school sanctions.

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

Note: This is not a legal definition, but rather a way to help understand and identify bullying. For your school’s definition, check the district’s bullying prevention policies. For a legal definition, consult your state’s law on bullying at

For more information read responses to the Question Answered: How is bullying defined?

Help Your Child Identify Bullying

If your child tells you about a situation and you aren’t sure if it’s bullying, use this checklist:

  • Does your child feel hurt, either emotionally or physically, by the other child’s behavior?
  • Has your child been the target of the negative behavior more than once?
  • Does your child want the behavior to stop?
  • Is your child unable to make the behavior stop on their own?

If the response to one or more of these questions is “yes,” the more likely it is that the behavior would be considered bullying.

Download Bullying Prevention 101, A Quick Guide for Adults, a 2-page handout with an overview of how bullying is defined, the roles involved, and helpful tips to address bullying.

Types of Bullying

There are many different types of bullying. No matter what type your child is experiencing, it’s important that you take it seriously and be aware of the impact it can have on him or her mentally, emotionally, and physically. The types of bullying include:

  1. Verbal: Verbal bullying is the most common type of bullying and the easiest to inflict on other children. It is quick and direct. Children learn at a very early age how to bully other children verbally. It begins with unsophisticated name calling, usually using words that adults tells children are forbidden or unacceptable. As children mature, they begin to understand how words can be used in powerful ways to hurt one another. Boys generally like to name-call and use threats, while girls use slander and gossip to gain social power. Generally, verbal bullying peaks in middle school and begins to decrease as children become more socially conscious and accepting of others’ differences.


  • Teasing
  • Name calling
  • Making threats against the target
  • Intimidating
  • Making demeaning jokes about someone’s differences
  • Spreading rumors
  • Gossiping
  • Slandering (spreading false, negative information)
  1. Emotional/Social: Emotional bullying is the most sophisticated type of bullying because it is generally very calculated and is often done in groups. It can be the most difficult behavior for children to define as bullying because they may feel as if they did something to deserve it. They may not recognize the behavior as bullying because it is typically not physical, or they may not understand why it is happening to them. Emotional bullying is generally difficult for the casual observer to detect, since he or she doesn’t have full knowledge of the social nuances or social structures surrounding the behavior.


  • Exclusion
  • Social manipulation
  • Telling someone who they can and cannot be friends with
  • Spreading rumors
  • Humiliation
  1. Physical: Physical bullying can be the easiest type of bullying to recognize, since it is the most visible behavior. This type of bullying includes perceived intent to harm, such as threats or “pretending” to physically harm the target (e.g., flicking fingers or extending hands close to the target’s eyes or face to cause a withdrawal reaction). Physical bullying can begin in children as young as 4 or 5 years old. This behavior is not considered bullying until the child realizes his or her actions cause another person pain.


  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Pushing
  • Taking or damaging property
  • Forced or unwelcomed contact
  1. Sexual: Understandably, this may be the most difficult type of bullying for a child and parents to discuss. Even though the subject may be uncomfortable to talk about, children need to know acceptable boundaries and appropriate behavior in social relationships. Students need to be provided with the appropriate social rules and norms for dating and flirting so they can act with respect toward their peers and recognize when someone is not respecting them sexually.


  • Sexually charged comments
  • Inappropriate or lewd glances
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Targeted sexual jokes
  1. Cyber: The Internet has become the “new bathroom wall,” a place where children can post mean and inappropriate comments about their peers. The rise of the Internet and other technology has led to a new, very serious form of bullying: cyberbullying.  Cyberbullying is when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.


  • Sending harassing, embarrassing, or otherwise unwelcome emails or text messages
  • Threats
  • Sexual harassment
  • Hate speech
  • Ridiculing someone publically in online forums
  • Posting lies, rumors or gossip about the target and encouraging others to distribute that information

Bullying is Different from Conflict

Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides share their views.

Bullying is done with a goal to hurt, harm, or humiliate.

Bullying behavior is often about having power and control over another person. In bullying there is often a power imbalance between those involved, with power defined as elevated social status, being physically larger, or 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.

For more information read responses to the Question Answered: Conflict vs. Bullying: What's the Difference?

Conflict Resolution

The difference between bullying and conflict is important to note, because conflict resolution or mediation strategies are sometimes misused to solve bullying problems. These strategies can send the message that both children are “partly right and partly wrong,” or that, “We need to work out the conflict between you two.” These messages are not appropriate in cases of bullying (or in any situation where someone is being victimized). The appropriate message to the child who is being bullied should be, “Bullying is wrong and no one deserves to be bullied. We are going to do everything we can to stop it.”

Impact of Bullying

Do you remember hearing “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Research has shown that this old saying simply isn’t true. Words can hurt, and bullying can leave lasting emotional and physical scars. Parents and other adults need to understand the impact of bullying so they will know how important it is to prevent it.

Three Areas of Concern to Parents and Others:

1. Education - Bullying can negatively impact a child’s access to education and lead to:

  • School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
  • Decrease in grades
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest in academic achievement
  • Increase in dropout rates

2. Health - Bullying can also lead to physical and mental health problems, including:

  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Sleeping problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased fear or anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress

For more information, read responses to the Question Answered: How does bullying impact students’ health?

3. Safety – Bullying also impacts students’ sense of well-being, and can lead to:

  • Self-isolation
  • Increased aggression
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation
  • Feeling of alienation at school
  • Fear of other students
  • Retaliation

Bullying and Its Impact | PACERTalks About Bullying: Season 2, Episode 11

Do you remember hearing “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Research has shown that this old saying simply isn’t true. Words can hurt, and bullying can leave a lasting impact. These middle school students share their insights about bullying and its impact.

Bullying and Mental Health | PACERTalks About Bullying: Season 2, Episode 10

Bullying impacts more than just a student’s education, it can also affect their emotional health and well-being. In this video, Dr. Barry Garfinkel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, talks about the impact of bullying, signs children may demonstrate, and tips for parents on supporting their child.

Mental and Physical Effects of Bullying

Bullying Roles

There are three basic roles in a bullying situation:

  1. The person targeted by the behavior
  2. The person(s) initiating the behavior
  3. Those witnessing the behavior

The role that any student plays in a bullying situation often shifts and changes from day to day. Somebody who was bullied on the bus in the morning might be the one who makes fun of a younger kid that afternoon. The kid who laughed with other kids at a fight yesterday might ask the new kid with no friends to sit with him at lunch today.

Who is Targeted by Bullying?

It’s important to realize that anyone can be bullied. Thousands of children and teens with multiple backgrounds and characteristics from throughout the world have written to PACER about being bullied, and each story is unique. There is no typical profile of someone who might be subjected to bullying, but there are some common characteristics among children who may be targeted by this behavior. One or more of these characteristics in a child may attract someone who bullies, but it does not mean that every child with any of these characteristics will be the target of bullying. Children who are bullied might:

  • Struggle with the ability to defend themselves.
  • Provide an emotional reaction to being bullied such as getting mad, becoming angry or scared, or crying. This type of reaction perpetuates the bullying, as it provides the bully with the desired outcome of feeling in control.
  • Have few or no close friends (peers). They might also be socially isolated. Children with even one friend are less likely to become a target of bullying, because peers are more likely to help one another in times of need. Children who bully recognize the vulnerability of an isolated child.
  • Avoid being noticed. It is easier to target someone who may seem unassertive and easily dominated.
  • Have less-developed social skills.
  • Have difficulty communicating and reading social cues, especially nonverbal cues.
  • Have characteristics, objects, or resources that evoke jealousy on behalf of the person who bullies.

The Student Who Bullies

Despite common portrayals of someone who bullies as big, tough boys or mean, popular girls, anyone can bully – because bullying is about behavior, not labels. When schools, teachers, parents, and other adults label a child as a “bully,” that sends the message that they can’t change their bullying behavior, that everyone expects them to always be a “bully.” Expectations are powerful forces on children’s behavior. Often, they’ll choose how to act according to what the adults in their life expect them to do. Therefore, it’s important for adults seeking to resolve a bullying situation to avoid labeling the child engaging in bullying behavior as a “bully.” They must, of course, be held accountable for their actions, but it’s equally important to find out why they are engaging in that behavior. By addressing the root causes of behavior, adults can help children make lasting, positive changes in their behavior.

The Role of the Bystander

The roles of target and initiator are relatively easy to understand. But the children who witness bullying have an incredibly powerful role in the situation. They can make it worse (by joining in the bullying, encouraging the behavior, or escalating the situation), or they can make it much, much better for the target. Some bystanders directly intervene by discouraging the person bullying, defending the target, or redirecting the situation away from bullying. Other bystanders get help by rallying support from peers to stand up against bullying or by reporting the bullying to adults.

Students are powerful in these situations because:

  1. They often know about bullying long before the adults.
  2. They know the culture of their school and who is vulnerable to bullying.
  3. They usually don’t like the bullying, but aren’t sure how to help.
  4. They often see this bullying as an issue they can make their own.
  5. If they can act with support, they are a powerful group to engage.

By showing support for the target, or even by just not joining in on the bullying, bystanders can change the course of the situation. Nearly 60% of bullying situations will end when a peer intervenes. When your child sees bullying happen, they can make a difference!

What can your child do to support a target of bullying? 

  1. Spend time with the students who are bullied.
  2. Try to get students who are bullied away from the situation.
  3. Listen to the students who are bullied and let them talk about it.
  4. Tell the student that no one deserves to be bullied.
  5. If the child feels comfortable, tell a trusted adult.
  6. Never encourage or contribute to the bullying.

Common Views and Misperceptions about Bullying

In spite of the significant impact that bullying can have on a target, our society often views it as acceptable behavior. There are many misperceptions that characterize bullying, all of which can lead to minimizing the behavior. Here are a few of these common misperceptions, followed by up-to-date information backed by research and experts in the field of psychology.

“Bullying is a natural part of childhood.”
FACT: Bullying is often considered a natural part of childhood because it is such a common experience. Yet the fact that something is common does not mean it should remain common. Physical or emotional aggression toward others should not be considered as a normal part of childhood.

“Words will never hurt you.”
FACT: Even though words don’t leave bruises or broken bones, they may leave deep emotional scars that can have lifelong implications. Children learn at a very early age that words can hurt other children.

“Some people deserve to be bullied.”
FACT: No child’s behavior justifies being hurt or harmed in any manner. All children deserve to be treated with respect and consideration.

“Bullying will make kids tougher.”
FACT: Bullying does not make someone tougher. Being subjected to bullying often has the opposite effect and lowers a child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Bullying often creates fear and increases anxiety for a child. For example, children who are passive and socially withdrawn are at a heightened risk of getting bullied and these children become even more withdrawn after incidents of harassment.[1]

“Telling a teacher about bullying is ‘tattling.’”
FACT: Children need to know the difference between ‘tattling’ and ‘telling.’ Tattling is done to get someone in trouble; telling is done to protect someone. The secrecy of bullying only serves to protect the bully and perpetuate the behavior.

“It’s only teasing.”
FACT: Most children are occasionally teased. When teasing does not hurt a child, it isn’t considered bullying. Teasing becomes bullying when a child does not understand that he or she is being teased, and the intent of the action is to hurt or harm.

“Boys will be boys.”
FACT: The implication is that bullying is acceptable, and that it is normal for boys to be physically or verbally aggressive. However, aggression is a learned behavior, not a natural response.

“Girls don’t bully.”
FACT: Girls can and do bully. While they do not physically bully targets as often as boys, they will often use verbal and emotional bullying. Bullying for girls escalates during the middle school years.

“Children and youth who are bullied will almost always tell an adult.”
FACT: Adults are often unaware of bullying, in part because many children and youth don't report it. Boys are less likely than girls, and older children are less likely than younger children, to tell adults about bullying. Children may be reluctant to report bullying because they fear retaliation by the children doing the bullying. They also may fear that adults won't take their concerns seriously, or will deal inappropriately with the situation.

“Bullying is easy to recognize.”
FACT: Physical bullying, such as hitting, kicking, and fighting, is easy to recognize since this type of behavior is overt. It is the covert bullying – such as shunning, alienating, and leaving children out on purpose – that is much harder to detect.

“Ignoring bullying will make it go away.”
FACT: This solution sounds easy, but ignoring the problem will not make bullying go away. In fact, it often makes the situation worse, because it sends a message that the target is unable to do anything about the behavior and gives emotional satisfaction to the person doing the bullying.

“Children and youth who bully are mostly loners with few social skills.”
FACT: Children who bully usually do not lack friends. In fact, often these children have larger friendship networks than other children. Importantly, they usually have at least a small group of friends who support and encourage their bullying behavior. Children who bully generally have more leadership skills than targets of bullying or children not involved in bullying.

“Bullied kids need to learn how to deal with bullying on their own.”
FACT: Some children have the confidence and skills to stop bullying when it happens, but many do not. Moreover, children shouldn’t be expected to deal with bullying on their own. Bullying is a form of victimization and peer abuse. Just as society does not expect victims of other types of abuse (e.g., child maltreatment or domestic abuse) to deal with the situation on their own, it should not expect this from targets of bullying. Adults have critical roles to play in helping to stop bullying, as do other children who witness or observe bullying.

“Most children and youth who observe bullying don’t want to get involved.”
FACT: The good news is that most children and youth think that bullying is “not cool” and feel that they should do something if they see it happen. In a recent study of tweens (children ages 9 to 12), 56 percent said that they usually say or do something to try to stop bullying or tell someone who can help.[2] These children and youth play a critical role in helping to stop bullying.

“If my child is being bullied, it’s okay for them to fight back.”
FACT: If your child is being bullied, you should discourage them from fighting back. Trying to get even with someone who bullies is never a good idea. If your child fights back, the bullying will likely become much worse. And the school may see your child as part of the problem.

“Bullying is the same as arguing.”
FACT: People argue about lots of things. Let’s say your child and their classmate get into an argument about who’s the best hip-hop performer. That isn’t bullying, it‘s conflict. Conflict is a disagreement, or argument, in which both sides express their views. It would be bullying, though, if your classmate told everyone to not hang with you because of the disagreement and got them to gossip about you. This would be considered bullying, as the intention is to hurt someone else. A power imbalance (like being outnumbered) is also a trademark of bullying.

“Cyberbullying starts in middle school.”
FACT: Cyberbullying can begin as soon as kids have access to a cell phone, tablet device, or computer through texting or gaming. Cyberbullying can start for many kids long before they are able to use social networking sites, such as Facebook or Instagram, which require users to be at least 13 years of age. There is potential for cyberbullying whenever kids are using technology to interact, especially when they do so unsupervised.

“Cyberbullying is less harmful because it doesn’t happen face-to-face.”
FACT: Imagine posting a photo of yourself online. Someone else makes a mean, mocking comment about it. Soon, that photo has been shared, liked, reposted – even made into a meme. Thousands of people have seen it, even people you don’t know. Cyberbullying can be hurtful because it’s public, it spreads quickly, and it’s 24/7.

Download the handout, Common Views and Myths About Bullying.

Check Your Knowledge

  1. True or False: The definition of bullying can vary by state, district, and school.

    Check Answer  

    True. The definition of bullying will vary as your state will have a bullying prevention law that includes a legal definition of bullying. Schools often also have their own unique bullying policy and definition. You can find your state’s bullying prevention law or policy at

  2. True or False: Physical bullying is more harmful than verbal bullying.

    Check Answer  

    False. Words can hurt. Verbal bullying is the most common type of bullying and the easiest to inflict on other children. Bullying can impact children mentally, emotionally, and physically, regardless of what type.

  3. True or False: Conflict is the same as bullying.

    Check Answer  

    False. Bullying differs from conflict in that it is more than a disagreement or argument and those involved are not evenly matched opponents. Bullying is about power and control. Students who bully perceive their target as vulnerable in some way, and usually find satisfaction in harming their targets.

  4. How can bullying affect a student’s mental and physical health?

    1. Increased risk for depression
    2. Increased risk for substance abuse
    3. Increased risk for suicide ideation
    4. All of the above.

    Check Answer  

    D. All of the above. Bullying has three areas of concern to parents and others: education, health and safety. Students who experience bullying are at increased risk for depression and substance abuse. These students are also 2.4 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than youth who reported not being bullied.

  5. How can a student best support another student who is being bullied?

    1. Show support for the target of bullying.
    2. Confront the student bullying.
    3. Laugh at the bullying.

    Check Answer  

    A. Show support. By showing support or the target, bystanders can change the course of the situation! Your child can support a target of bullying by spending time with the student and telling them that no one deserves to be bullied.

Next Section

Section - Home