How to Spot the Signs of Bullying—And What to Do

It’s hard to think about your precious child being bullied or bullying someone else. But as the mental health crisis in teens and adolescents continues, it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of bullying and be ready to take action.

Bullying can be physical, verbal or take place online, via social media networks or direct messaging.

For a parent, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. UNC Health clinical psychologist Danielle Roubinov, PhD, shares some tips.

Signs That Your Child Is Being Bullied

Some children will confide in their parents about social problems such as bullying. Many will not, and parents must stay attentive to changes in behavior or mental health. A child who is being bullied may show warning signs that include:

  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Declining school performance
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Change in eating habits
  • Sudden disinterest in extracurricular activities, such as sports or clubs
  • Changes in friends or not hanging out with friends they used to enjoy
  • Physical injuries or destruction of property, including ripped clothing or damaged books or backpack
  • Frequent complaints of illness, such as upset stomach or headaches (these symptoms can stem from stress but are also common excuses to avoid school)

“It can be hard for kids to talk about being bullied. Bullying also places stress on children’s bodies. Unexplained physical symptoms can be a warning sign for bullying,” Dr. Roubinov says.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is Being Bullied

If you notice any of the above signs, Dr. Roubinov recommends talking to your child about it. You can do this directly by saying something like, “I am worried about you. Are there people at school who are being mean to you or leaving you out?” You can also choose a more indirect approach by saying, “I’ve heard that bullying is on the rise. Have you seen it happening at your school?”

Try to determine whether your child has good friends at school. You could ask, “Who normally sits with you at lunch?” or “Who do you sit with on the bus when you travel to games?”

Most importantly, if you suspect your child is being bullied, make sure they know they did nothing wrong to deserve that behavior.

“When talking to your child about being bullied, it’s important to reduce shame or guilt,” Dr. Roubinov says. “They need to know it’s not their fault.”

If talking with your child confirms they are being bullied, there are resources to help. Consider reaching out to trusted members of the school, such as teachers, the principal or a counselor, to brainstorm strategies around helping your child feel safe.

If you’ve taken these steps and your child is still having a hard time, connect them with a therapist or other mental health provider (talk to your pediatrician if you need help doing this). If you are worried your child might hurt themselves or others, get help as soon as possible.

Signs That Your Child Is Being a Bully

No parent wants to consider that their child is being a bully, but it’s important to know the signs so you can intervene quickly if you see them. These are signs that your child might be bullying others:

  • Verbal and physical aggression in interactions with other kids, siblings or family members
  • Difficulty following rules at school or during extracurricular activities
  • Talking negatively about classmates
  • Changes in friends
  • Obsession with fitting in

It’s important to note that children who have been exposed to bullying at home or in another setting are more likely to bully others, Dr. Roubinov says.

What to Do if You Think Your Child Is Bullying

If you suspect your child is behaving like a bully, the first step is to understand that this does not make you a bad parent or your child a bad person.

“Kids make mistakes all the time,” Dr. Roubinov says. “Bullying doesn’t define them or you. It is an element of kids figuring out their social roles and relationships together.”

She recommends you talk with your child about bullying and try to understand why they are acting that way.

“Sometimes kids bully because they are insecure and want to be popular,” Dr. Roubinov says. “Other times it’s because they are showing behavior they’ve seen modeled in their friends, and you need to help them find a new friend group.”

It’s important to remain calm when you talk to them, so you don’t model the behavior you are trying to correct.

“It’s hard for parents to learn their child is bullying and it’s tempting to respond in an aggressive way to get the behavior to stop,” Dr. Roubinov says. “But you will be most effective in communicating with your child if you stay calm and respectful.”

How Parents Can Help Prevent Bullying

If you can, start talking to your child about bullying before you suspect a problem. Talk about how to treat friends with respect, how a friend should treat you respectfully and how to stand up for others. Encourage kids to tell you or an adult they trust, such as a teacher or coach, if they experience bullying or see it happen to someone else. Teach them to be kind to others they see being bullied by sitting with them or inviting them to do something outside of school.

Warn them about the dangers of communicating with strangers on the internet and about saying things online or via text message that they wouldn’t say in person. Dr. Roubinov recommends researching and using parental controls on social apps, phones and computers, and to report cyberbullying if you see it.

Need a mental health professional? Find one near you.