A bully is anyone who seeks to intimidate or harm another person. Usually, the target of bullies is considered weaker or vulnerable people in some fashion. Bullies come in all genders, ages and home backgrounds. Dealing with bullies is a tough scenario for parents who have to balance normal childhood chiding and serious acts that change the behavior of their child.

Bullying Behavior: Recognizing People Who Intimidate

Four volunteers in t-shirts looking down to camera

Volunteers in local communities help kids learn skills to stop bullies.

Types of Bullying

There are various types of bullying a person can experience. It often starts with teasing and escalates to embarrassing someone in bigger ways, harassment and sometimes physical violence. Remember that bullying tends to be done by a person or group that is stronger and more powerful seeking to prey on weaker individuals.

Not every negative action that happens on a playground is bullying. In fact, there are positive aspects to teasing that psychologists feel help build strong relationships. Learning the difference and how to deal with both is important for the mental health of children.

Kids embraced in circle.

Teasing doesn’t always mean bullying.

When Teasing Becomes Bullying

Just about every adult I’ve ever spoken with remembers being teased as a child. Even those who bullied others had their own tormentors at different times in their lives. It would seem that teasing is part of growing up. While it isn’t always enjoyable, and certainly not easy for to watch our children get teased, it is important that there will always be someone out there saying something we don’t like and judging us for something.

According to PrevNet, 96% of elementary school kids report being teased or teasing another student.

With that said, when does teasing become bullying?

My son was 8-years old. A very smart kid with a gifted interest in aviation and World War II history. When I say gifted, the kid went from reading the Cat in the Hat and having me wonder if we needed an intervention to finishing General James Doolittle’s autobiography about the air raid over Japan after Pearl Harbor. This was in the second grade.

As with most kids who have different interests, life often comes with a lot of questioning and ridicule. My son wore a bomber jacket regardless of the weather and a vintage WWII garrisons’ hat. It was his thing. He’d come home and talk about the teasing. He was a war junkie who wanted to kill everyone. I knew it wasn’t easy for him and I explained that he could end it by dumping the jacket and hat.

“It’s just teasing, Mom,” he said and carried on.

I was proud that he remained steadfast in being his own little man with his own interests. His aviation interest grew. He learned more about WWII and world history by the time he left elementary school that he was able to pass an AP History test without studying jokingly administered to him by a tutor.

He wore that hat, without question every day for years. In fact, he took school pictures with it. He knew to remove it in class and never ever lost or misplaced it. Once day he came home and put it in the closet. Someone had taken the hat from him several times at recess; someone who was once a good friend. Not only did he play Keep Away with it, but he finished the game with the hat in the trash can.

My son never wore that hat to school again. For me, that was the moment teasing became bullying.

My son’s behavior changed because of the words and actions of another person.

Toy airplanes hang on mobile.

Teasing Should Strengthen Relationships

In the truest sense, teasing strengthens relationships. It comes from those who care about us teaching us that life can be silly or awkward. We don’t have to be perfect and it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and each other sometimes in loving ways. When this type of teasing happens, the person getting teased isn’t feeling hurt by the actions.

A friend of mine had a silly fart rhyme she called her daughter. Her reasoning was that kids will come up with it eventually so she should hear the tease from her mom, who loves her beyond belief before she heard it from anyone else. That made a lot of sense to me.

Teasing moves into bullying when it:

  • Becomes hostile
  • Defines an imbalance of power
  • Is repetitive
  • Hurts or upsets the other
  • Alienates or embarrasses someone

It makes sense is to encourage your child to let others know when teasing isn’t fun for them. Pointing out someone’s bad behavior is important. This could be at school, home or at the park. Sometimes telling the other person that you are upset by their comments and actions is enough to stop the behavior. If not, students might need extra help.

Teenage boy in blue jeans on park bench alone.

Bullying only gets worse over time.

Long-Term Effects of Bullying

If bullying doesn’t stop and things get worse, there are usually short-term and long-term effects to deal with. Recognizing the signs of bullying is important to help your child overcome the anxiety and trauma before it becomes a bigger problem.

Young victims of bullies often exhibit symptoms including:

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Feeling ashamed
  • Problems sleeping and bedwetting
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Depression, self-harm
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Chronically sick
  • Declining school performance
  • Psychosomatic symptoms – physical issues without an explanation like headaches or stomachaches

If bullying continues and the conflict increasing, the problem becomes bigger and harder to overcome. Post-traumatic stress is often associated with extreme bullying and harassment cases. These signs of bullying can develop into symptoms of more serious issues.

Isolation of Being Bullied

Children might become chronically depressed and may even attempt suicide. They become very anxious and the things they once loved to do are no longer of interest. Bad behavior often results including acting out with violence, physical harm to themselves or others and increased social issues. It’s a life most people don’t intend to create for another person when they tease them.

When a student can’t trust his peers, he feels lost and alone. This leads to mental health issues and requires significant work to develop trust in others with the ability to form positive reciprocal friendships and long-term relationships. People recovering from various bullying behavior need time to overcome a life of distrust. Victims often hold on to distrust for years.

Boy in dress vest, shirt and tie alone and sad.

Being different can hurt.

Teach Your Children Bullying Prevention

Teaching your children about bullying prevention starts with talking about any situation that could make them uncomfortable. As kids get older, playground teasing might turn into sexual harassment or violence at school. Aggressive behavior should never be tolerated. Your children should feel empowered to speak up to the person bullying them, a teacher or school counselors.

I worried the day my son started wearing that vintage hat and was saddened the day he felt forced to stop. At the same time, I felt I had to make a decision on his long-term self-esteem. I encouraged him to talk about the situation and consider other options. But, I also knew that life sometimes isn’t filled with nice people. If he just stopped wearing a hat, what would the long-term effects be?

Making Hard Parenting Decisions

In the case of my son and his hat, people noticed. Teachers asked. I made a few comments and asked a few questions. But, at the end of the day, Momma-Bear backed down and didn’t pursue anything with school officials. Why?

Because he still loved aviation and WWII history. He still spent weekends working with pilots in the hangar restoring old warbirds, holidays collecting cards for vets who didn’t have family and maintained his passion and personality. He was the same kid, just without the hat. I think that is an important lesson to teach your children.

Sometimes blending in in some areas makes it easier to express yourself where you really want to.

I know that is a fine line and many parents might not agree. All I can go with is what has seemingly worked for me. It’s true; they don’t give us manuals for parenting.

What Do You Teach Kids to Prevent Bullying?

Spending the time to communicate with your children and encourage them to communicate with you is first and foremost. You can’t help them if they won’t talk or listen to you. Unfortunately, all bullying can’t be stopped. But kids can develop skills to deal with the problem and support their own mental health.

Here are a few things to teach kids about bully prevention:

  1. Learn to treat everyone with respect: understanding we are all different and that is a positive thing is the first step to preventing bullying
  2. Know who you can talk to: school officials, counselors, law enforcement and of course parents
  3. Be safe on social media: cyberbullying is a serious problem. Kids should always think before they post and keep parents in the loop about odd social media comments or messages.
  4. Volunteer to help others: empathy is best developed by rolling your sleeves up to work at helping others less fortunate.

While walking away from a person displaying aggressive behavior is a smart move for your health and safety, forgetting about the conflict isn’t. Mental health problems result from one traumatic event or a series of smaller problems. Kids should know that they control their life and any problem can be addressed with you or those they trust.

Teacher at chalkboard with class watching

A teacher is a great place to start asking for help.

Getting Help for Bullying

School officials take bullying behavior seriously because school should be a safe place free from serious conflict and anxiety. Students are encouraged to work talk to counselors where information is kept confidential. Most schools have bullying prevention programs, many started by students who see a problem and want to create a solution that will work.

Supportive peers are creating nationally recognized anti-bullying programs. One of the most popular is the Bench Buddy where a student who doesn’t have anyone to hang out with during lunch or recess can sit on the bench and someone will come and hang out with them. It’s a simple way for a person feeling isolated to reach out and get help from peers.

Keep in mind that everything starts at home.

When my son had his little incident with his friend and his hat, the question became whether my son would develop the victim’s mentality or would he become a stronger kid. I didn’t hesitate to talk about bullying with him and that I felt that teasing had crossed a line for him. But he also had a choice in how he dealt with it.

I explained to him that life would always have adversity and challenges. People weren’t always going to be nice. He would have to recognize the forms of bullying and choose how to deal with it. He made the choice to no longer hang out with that kid. He recognized some other behaviors and habits that he didn’t like. While it had an impact on the time he spent with some mutual friends, it didn’t greatly impact his life.

Yes! Sometimes you have a choice to walk away.

Other times, kids are left with few avenues or outs. If bullying gets aggressive, you need to think long-term over the problem.

When Bullying Gets Aggressive

Sadly, bullying can turn into aggressive acts. This could be by the bully or by the person bullied who is pushed to the breaking point. When kids feel ashamed, it might not take a lot to translate negative feelings into violence and physical harm. This is where parents and school officials need not let anything be assumed.

Law enforcement and mental health professionals are prepared to help. The reality is many a violent school shooting or mass violent act was the result of bullying. It may have started with teasing that grew into verbal abuse unchecked and transitioned into aggressive behavior. Often, if bullying has gotten to this point, the bully victim is already isolated and unlikely to ask for help.

Parents and Students Standing for What’s Right

It is up to peers, parent and teachers to recognize changes in behavior or social media posts and open up communication lines. The time taken to help a child on the brink of breaking can change more than one life forever.

My son’s experience helped him develop empathy. A few years later, I’d hear many stories of how he intervened. One was about how he helped a kid in gym class who was getting bullied. Kids were throwing his shoes away. My son was the kid who went and got them for the kid. He never relayed his desire to help as coming from his being bullied. He just felt it was the right thing to do.

Happy teens at cafeteria table talking.

Peer groups do the most to fight bullying.

Health and Safety of Everyone

Everyone should feel their life is worth living. Bullying prevention is a major factor in schools and youth groups. Young people are at more risk for bullying than ever before thanks to social media. Remember that mean people are part of life and while we don’t want our kids to experience anything that makes them feel bad, they grow with adversity.

I hate to use a cliché metaphor, but remember that the butterfly can’t fly if he doesn’t fight his way out of the cocoon. If we don’t let our kids experience some of the ick and learn to find their own path to self-worth, we can be doing them more harm than good. No one wants an adult child showing up so mom can deal with a bully at work.

Maybe You Were Teased – I Was

Please. I am not saying to not monitor and address the situation. But being called the Wicked Witch in elementary school because of my long, thick dark hair wasn’t the end of the world for me. I got teased a lot and I think I probably fell into the norm.

It wasn’t fun and it felt like it was only at me. In fact, I recently caught up with one of my best friends from childhood. We laughed so hard because neither of us remembered our childhood in the same way. Both of us felt teased and picked on and don’t remember the other ever having a problem.

At the same time, I recognize that bullying is a significant problem. It can’t remain unchecked. Talk to your children about right and wrong. Build them up based on their unique gifts and prepare them for the world ahead. There is a lot of good for them if they develop the confidence and self-worth to deal with the bad moments.

If a bullying situation gets out of hand and it is clear that your child can’t walk away or stand up for himself, get help. Start with school counselors and coordinate with law enforcement if seriously aggressive behavior, sexual harassment or violence are evident.