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How to Talk to your Child about Bullying

Posted on Oct 21, 2019

Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., is director of psychology and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, she talks about bullying and how parents can help their kids overcome the fear of being bullied.

What is bullying?

Bullying is when a person or group repeatedly tries to harm someone who is weaker or who they think is weaker, and there is some type of power differential in place. Sometimes it involves direct attacks such as hitting, name calling, teasing or taunting. Sometimes it is indirect, such as spreading rumors or trying to make others reject someone. 280,000 students are physically attacked in secondary school each month, and 160,000 students miss school each day for fear of being bullied.

What is the impact of bullying?

Often people dismiss bullying among kids as a normal part of growing up. But bullying is harmful. It can lead children and teenagers to feel tense and afraid. It may lead them to avoid school. In severe cases, teens who are bullied may feel they need to take drastic measures or react violently. Others even consider suicide. For some, the effects of bullying last a lifetime, and can lead to anxiety, fear, withdrawal, low self-esteem, and poor concentration, as well as lower school grades and social isolation.

What is cyberbullying, and how is it different?

Cyberbullying includes sending hurtful or threatening emails or instant messages, or spreading rumors or posting embarrassing photos of others on social media. Children and adolescents who are victims of cyberbullying are more likely to report social problems and interpersonal victimization.

How can I talk to my child about bullying?

Maintaining open communication at home, with times each day where children are being heard by parents, and where parents can recognize a change in a child’s behavior, interests or emotional/psychological functioning.

As parents, we need to talk to both our schools and our children. When talking to our children, discuss that the first line of defense is to ignore the bully. Having a companion or peer for the bullied child is also key, as a bully is less likely to address two or more children. Our next steps are to assess our child’s wellbeing, and talk to the school.

How do I know if my child is being bullied?

Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs.

Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are: 

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide

When should I talk to the school? How do I talk to the school?

When you have concerns about any bullying or teasing, it is time to talk to the school, specifically the teacher, counselor and/or principal. Positive behavioral interventions and supports and social-emotional learning programs are key interventions that should be in place. All states have enacted anti-bullying laws.
In schools that have an anti-bullying program, bullying is reduced by 50%.

How do I get help for my child?

When you are concerned about bullying, first report this to the child’s teacher and school, so that a meeting can be set up. If the bullying is impacting the child’s mood, anxiety, self-esteem, or emotional/behavioral functioning, checking in with a doctor or psychologist is important to get the treatment that is needed to manage these psychological concerns.

Visit for more information. On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital medical experts. Visit each Monday for the latest report.

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