5 Actions Parents Must Take if Their Child is Being Bullied (Pedcast)



I must say, that for the first half of my pediatric career, I was oblivious to the knowledge of how frequently and seriously bullying harms children. I just wasn’t aware that bullying was at the root of a lot of the illness in school age children that I was seeing…until I began to ask. When I ask a child with a recurring stomachaches or headaches if anyone is bullying them and I see that tense facial expression form or possibly a little moistening of their eyes, then I know. I have learned in recent years to routinely ask about this important issue!  It is not surprising to me that I recently saw bullying on a list of the most frequent concerns of parents. In fact it was the number one worry among parents with school-aged children. Sounds pretty important and a topic that deserves an entire pedcast so in today’s installment of Portable Practical Pediatrics, I’m going to bring you up to speed on some of the newest information about the important topic of childhood bullying.  Stay informed, stay engaged, and most importantly, stay tuned to hear this important edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics.

Musical introduction

Defining bullying

Let’s begin this discussion by defining what constitutes bullying behavior. Of course, there is a line between bullying, teasing, or practical jokes.   More on that in a few minutes. First let’s talk hard-core bullying. Behavior that everyone agrees crosses the line into bully land.  These behaviors have to have the following features, what I will call the core features of bullying.

Core Features:

-To qualify as bullying behavior it needs to be repetitive  and delivered over an extended period of time.

-Bullying behavior intends to inflict some type of harm to a victim. 

-And finally, the target of the bullying behavior pits the stronger against the weaker.

As it turns out that bullying is very very common among children, happening to 35% of children sometime between their school age years and their high school graduation. That means that one out of three children will be bullied during their primary school years. Given that as a backdrop, it is not surprising that 75% of school shootings are linked to bullying or harassment of the shooter and 15% of absenteeism from school on any given day is thought to be due to the bullied victims avoiding school. Mix together a bullied victim with some mental illness, and you may just get a school shooter.

As for the methods that bullies use, there are four primary methods that they deliver their control over their victims:

Method 1: Physical – This consists of hitting, slapping, pushing, pinching etc.

Method 2: Verbal – Demeaning talk, manipulating relationships, threats, and verbal abuse.

Method 3: Cyberbullying– Obviously a growing category of bullying behavior and one that parents need to be particularly aware of; things like using social media, a very public forum, to send cruel or threatening messages, posting lies about the victim or even embarrassing pictures.  Repeatedly sending threatening texts to a victim would also be an example of cyber bullying.

Method 4: Ostracism– Purposefully targeting a child victim to be excluded socially from their peers by spreading lies and rumors or encouraging others to ignore the victim would fall into this category, something that children seem particularly good at.


What is the difference between just being mean to someone and bullying?

Is teasing bullying?  Well, it depends. Most teasing is not bullying but yes if it rises to the level to meet the three essential ingredients of bullying (repetitive, intended to harm, and delivered by a stronger child to a weaker one).

Is saying something negative about someone behind their back bulling?- Well again, it depends. Most negative gossip is not bullying unless it meets the essential ingredients criteria of repetitive over an extended period of time, intended to harm, and delivered by a stronger child to a weaker one.

Is socially excluding another child bullying? Again usually not unless it is done chronically, intended to harm another child, and perpetrated toward a weaker child. Note that experts think that ostracism is particularly damaging to the child victim and they claim it can be more harmful than physical bullying since the child victim is dehumanized by the event.


What are characteristics of the bully and their victims? 

So now, let’s talk about what we know about the actual bully and the victims of bullying. First the bully.  As you would expect, physical bullying is twice as common in boys as girls but girls are more likely to engage in ostracism. No surprises there.  Children who become bullies tend to use violence quicker than other children and have more aggressive personalities than non-bullies.  Some experts think this is because of issues in the bully’s home, tending to be more unstable and using violence as a communication tool more often than non-bully families. Intelligence of bullies is actually normal counter to the usual perception. Not surprisingly, ADHD and oppositional defiant behaviors are far more common in a bullying child than the general childhood population.  As for the long term prospects for the bully, as expected, many struggle with violence into adult life with the bully committing crimes at four times the rate of the general population. Bullies also have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior than the general adult population when they grow up.

Now for the bullying victims.   Child bullying victims may not be chosen randomly, with certain characteristics being more prominent in these children; children with gender identity issues especially if they are moving toward the LGBTQ community, children with ADHD, children with physical or emotional disabilities, and children with autism including Asperger Syndrome. These children are all more likely to be targets of bullying.  In other words, children who are different and more vulnerable than other children.



 When should a parent be suspicious that their child is being bullied?

Now for the important part of this topic, when should parents begin to worry that their child is being bullied? Well, here is a list of situations where a parent should open a conversation with their child about bullying and explore this issue with their child:

  • If your child starts to refuse to attend or is avoiding going to school
  • If your child has a lot of bodily complaints like stomach and headaches.
  • If your child seems withdrawn, depressed or is overly anxious.
  • If your child has sleep problems.
  • If your child has physical injuries that they have difficulty explaining.
  • If your child shows a sudden change in their personality.


What are the consequences of bullying for the victim?

What are the consequences of bullying for the victim you may be wondering? As I said earlier, there is a growing realization that the victims of suffer from a range of harms that include psychological, physical, and social. Victims can become anxious or overtly depressed and can even consider suicide as a way out of bullying. It is common for them to start to have a range of anxiety related physical complaints such as headaches, sleep problems, and stomachaches. It is estimated that 15% of school absenteeism on any given day is related to bullying. And as far as social consequences for the victims, social isolation or even dropping out of school is often directly related to bullying.

Once identified, how should a parent handle bullying?

Once a parent identifies that their child is being bullied, what should they do? Here are my suggestions:

  • Take immediate action and do what is necessary to stop the bullying as soon as possible.
  • Make sure your child understands that you will protect them and that what has been going on is wrong and that they are not to blame.
  • Make sure that your child understands what behaviors you consider bullying.
  • Name them and work to stop them. Do not however, encourage your child to fight back against the bully. This has been shown to increase bullying behavior that is being directed toward your child.
  • Empathize with your child. Make sure they understand how upsetting this situation is and that you feel their hurt. Let them express their feelings whenever possible. I know your instinct is to intervene and become aggressive with the bully but I think this is the wrong tact. Since bullying only occurs when the bully has unsupervised access to your child, a better approach is to make sure that that access is limited as much as possible. If that means cutting off your child’s access to social media, so be it.
  • Recruit the help of school administrators. Believe me, this will not be the first time they have dealt with this issue. But remember, if true bullying is going on, you must do whatever is necessary to protect your child since, as we have seen, there are both short term and long-term adverse consequences from the bullying situation.


As always, thanks for joining me today. If you enjoy learning about pediatrics with pedcasts, go ahead and subscribe at www.docsmo.com to get notice of my latest content. Join the Doc Smo family. I promise, I’ll help make you one of the best-informed parents in the neighborhood. This is your host, Dr. Paul Smolen, giving parents some things that they need to insist on, should their children be being picked on. Until next time.

Resources for parents:



Many thanks to Dr. Monica Miller, Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze for their editorial help in the production of this pedcast and 10 year old Ella from Charlotte N.C, for her wonderful voice of introduction.