You’re now the parent of a child in middle school. It’s the transition from childhood to adolescence—when children become more independent and want to make choices for themselves. They are also in a developmental period when friends and social circles are increasingly important. And it’s the time when children can experience bullying most.
Bullying is most frequently reported in grades six through eight. In 2019, about 28% of 6th-, 7th-, and 8th- graders reported being bullied at school during the school year. In high school, the percentage of students that reported being bullied was lower at about 19% on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
To prevent bullying, you need to know the warning signs to look for, what your school does to address it, and how to handle it if your child experiences or contributes to bullying.
Students can be bullied in different ways, for instance:
Physical bullying like being pushed, shoved, punched, tripped, spit on; or being made to do things they did not want to do.
Verbal bullying like being the subject of rumors, taunting; being called names; being threatened; receiving offensive notes or gestures.
Relational bullying like being excluded from activities on purpose; isolating someone from their peers; purposely ignoring someone; intentionally harming someone’s reputation; posting derogatory comments or embarrassing images in a public space or online.
Damaging property on purpose, like clothing, books, electronics, and jewelry.
Students report being bullied at school (hallways, stairwells, classrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms or cafeteria), outside (school grounds), or on the school bus. 1 They can also be bullied on the way to/from school, and at school-related events.
Students may also be cyberbullied, which is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. It can occur through SMS, text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else.
During middle school, your child will encounter new social dynamics with their peers. They might lose old friends and make new ones, change their social circles, or feel adrift in the rapidly changing groups and alliances being formed. Social hierarchies are often established in middle school. Peer opinions of each other take on a lot of importance. Unfortunately, bullying is one way that adolescents exclude peers from their groups or activities. Since you are the most consistent relationship in your child’s life, it’s important to know the different roles that adolescents play in bullying situations so that you can prevent or address it.
Any child can witness bullying, bully others, or be bullied. Those who witness bullying – also referred to as bystanders – could choose to become defenders of the person being bullied, or they can be reinforcers or assistants to the one who bullies. When children are involved in bullying, they often play more than one role. Sometimes they are both the one who is bullied and one who bullies others. They could also be bystanders who witness it happening to other students and who have it happen to them.
As a parent, you are your child’s number one protector. It’s up to you to recognize the warning signs of bullying. Not all children show warning signs, but if you notice any of the following, it might be that they’re being bullied:
- Your child has unexplainable injuries
- If they “lose” or have destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
- If they have frequent headaches or stomach aches, or often feel sick or fake illness
- If you notice changes in their eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating
- If they have difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
- If they have declining grades
- If they have loss of interest in schoolwork or don’t want to go to school
- If they have sudden loss of friends or avoid of social situations
- If they have feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
- If they have self-destructive behaviors, such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
Though no parent wants their child to be a perpetrator of bullying, it does happen. Your child may be bullying others if your child:
- Gets into physical or verbal fights
- Has friends who bully others
- Is increasingly aggressive
- Gets sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently
- Has unexplained extra money or new belongings
- Blames others for their problems or doesn’t accept responsibility for their actions
- Worries about their reputation or popularity
Many of the warning signs that your child is experiencing cyberbullying can be seen in how they use their device. Their behavior may change. For instance, you may notice increases or decreases in their device use, including texting. Your child may have visible emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device. Your child may hide their screen or device when others are near and avoid discussion about what they are doing. Other signs of cyberbullying are that their social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear. Your child may start to avoid social situations, even those they enjoyed in the past. They may become withdrawn or depressed or lose interest in people and activities.
Help your child understand bullying. Talk about what bullying is and how to stand up to it safely. Ask questions about bullying they may have witnessed, experienced, or heard about. Keep the lines of communication open. Check in with your child often. Listen to them. Know their friends, ask about school, and understand their concerns. Prepare them for what to do if bullying happens to them. Know who to contact at school when bullying happens.
The digital world is constantly evolving with new social media platforms, apps, and devices, and children and teens are often the first to use them. Common types of cyberbullying are posting hateful, mean, or derogatory messages or content and participating in negative group conversations. There are other types of cyberbullying tactics, and it can also happen during gaming. While you may not be able to monitor all your child’s activities, there are things you can do to prevent cyberbullying and protect your child from harmful digital behavior:
- Monitor a teen’s social media sites, apps, and browsing history.
- Review or re-set your child’s phone location and privacy settings.
- Follow or friend your teen on social media sites or have another trusted adult do so.
- Stay up-to-date on the latest apps, social media platforms, and digital slang used by children and teens.
- Know your child’s user names and passwords for email and social media.
- Establish rules about appropriate digital behavior, content, and apps.
- Teach your child good digital citizenship skills.
- Use a parental monitoring software to restrict content, block domains, or view your child’s online activities without looking at their device every day.
An important part of protecting children from bullying and cyberbullying are state laws, policies, and regulations. Each jurisdiction, including all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, address bullying differently. Some have established laws, policies, and regulations. Others have developed model policies that schools and local educational agencies (districts) can use to develop their own local laws, policies, and regulations. You can learn about your state bullying prevention laws, policies, or regulations on StopBullying.gov.
You should also ask the school what their bullying and cyberbullying policies and rules are. Knowing how the school handles bullying will help you take the right action if your child is involved in it.
Find out what happened. Get the facts. Get the story from several sources if possible, both teachers and other adults who may have witnessed it. Listen without blaming. It may be difficult to get the whole story, especially if multiple students are involved or the bullying involves social bullying or cyberbullying. Collect all available information.
To determine if this is bullying or something else, consider the following questions:
- What is the history between the kids involved? Have there been past conflicts?
- Is there a power imbalance? A power imbalance is not limited to physical strength. Sometimes it not easily recognized. If the targeted child feels like there is a power imbalance, there probably is.
- Has this happened before? Is your child worried it will happen again?
- Have the children dated? There are special responses for teen dating violence.
- Are any of the kids involved with a gang? Gang violence has different interventions.
- Listen and focus on them. Learn what’s been going on and show you want to help.
- Assure them that bullying is not their fault.
- Consider referring them to a school counselor, psychologist, or other mental health service as children who are bullied may struggle with talking about it.
- Give advice about what to do. This may involve role-playing and thinking through how your child might react if the bullying occurs again.
- Work together to resolve the situation and protect them. Your child, other parents, and the school or organization may all have valuable input. It may help to:
- Ask your child what can be done to make them feel safe. Remember that changes to routine should be minimized. Your child is not at fault and should not be singled out in school settings.
- Develop a game plan. Work with the school. Discuss the steps that are taken and the limitations around what can be done based on policies and laws. Remember, the law does not allow school personnel to discuss discipline, consequences, or services given to other children.
- Keep in mind the following:
- Never tell the child to ignore the bullying.
- Do not blame your child for being bullied. Even if they provoked the bullying, no one deserves to be bullied.
- Do not tell your child to physically fight back against the one who is bullying. It could get your child hurt, suspended, or expelled.
- Don’t contact the other parents involved. It may make matters worse. School or other officials can act as mediators between parents.
- Talk about it. Make sure your child knows what their problem behavior is, and why and how their behavior is wrong and harms others.
- Show them that bullying is taken seriously. Calmly tell your child that bullying will not be tolerated. Model respectful behavior when addressing the problem.
- Work with your child to understand some of the reasons they bullied. For example:
- Sometimes children bully to fit in. They could benefit from participating in positive activities. Involvement in sports and clubs can enable them to take leadership roles and make friends without feeling the need to bully.
- Other times, children act out because of something else going on their lives like issues at home, school, abuse, or stress. They also may have been bullied. Ask a professional, like a pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or school social worker to help determine if your child needs additional support to help them cope, such as mental health services.
- Work with the school to develop appropriate consequences that help your child learn empathy and repair the situation.
If you notice warning signs that your child may be involved in cyberbullying, take steps to investigate their digital behavior. Because cyberbullying happens online, responding to it requires different approaches.
- Notice – Recognize if there has been a change in mood or behavior and explore what the cause might be. Try to determine if these changes happen around a child’s use of their digital devices.
- Talk – Ask questions to learn what is happening, how it started, and who is involved.
- Document – Keep a record of what is happening and where. Take screenshots of harmful posts or content if possible. Most laws and policies note that bullying is a repeated behavior, so records help to document it.
- Block – Consider blocking the person who is cyberbullying from social media, phone, and apps.
- Report – Most social media platforms and schools have clear policies and reporting processes. If a classmate is cyberbullying, report it the school. You can also contact app or social media platforms to report offensive content and have it removed. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police.
- Support – Peers, mentors, and trusted adults can sometimes intervene publicly to positively influence a situation where negative or hurtful content has been posted about your child. Public intervention can include posting positive comments about the person targeted with bullying to try to shift the conversation in a better direction. Try to determine if more professional support is needed, such as speaking with a guidance counselor or mental health professional.
- Seek assistance from an adult, friend, or classmate when a potentially threatening situation occurs.
- Be assertive with the person doing the bullying (not aggressive, fighting, or teasing back) when possible.
- Use humor to deflect a potential threatening situation.
- Avoid unsafe places or walk away before a potential bullying encounter occurs.
- Agree with or “own” a belittling comment to defuse it.
- Walk with friends or a small group of friendly peers.
- Use positive self-statements to maintain positive self-esteem during an incident.
- Practice remaining as outwardly calm as possible when bullying occurs. Showing emotional upset may embolden the person bullying.
Give your child strategies for what to do if the witness bullying. They can:
- Defend the target of the bullying.
- Intervene as a group of students.
- Change the subject.
- Question the bullying behavior.
- Use humor to lighten up a serious situation.
- Openly state an objection to bullying.
- State approval of the victim and validate his or her social status.
If they don’t feel comfortable intervening, they can do something after it happens:
- Reach out privately to the target of the bullying to express support or concern.
- Report the bullying to a trusted adult, teacher, or school administrator.
- Reach out privately to the person doing the bullying to express concern—if they feel safe to do so.
- Model how to treat others with kindness and respect.