Deal with a Bully and Overcome Bullying
Being bullied can leave you feeling helpless, humiliated, depressed, or even suicidal. But there are ways to protect yourself or your child—at school and elsewhere—and deal with a bully.
What is bullying?
Bullying is repeated aggressive behavior that can be physical, verbal, or relational, take place in-person or online, at school, work, in the neighborhood, or even at home. Bullies are often relentless, bullying over and over again for long periods of time. You may live in constant fear of where and when the bully will strike next, what they'll do, and how far they'll go.
Unless you’ve directly experienced bullying, you may not realize just how devastating it can be, especially to a child or teenager.
- As well as being deeply hurtful, bullying can leave you feeling angry, afraid, helpless, isolated, ashamed, and even guilty that the bullying is somehow your fault. You may even feel suicidal.
- Your physical health is likely to suffer, and you are at a greater risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- You’re more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school to avoid being bullied.
Bullying should never be tolerated. Whether you’re the one being bullied, or you’re a teacher or parent who thinks a child is being bullied or engaging in bullying behavior, there are steps you can take to deal with the problem and put a stop to the damaging effects of bullying.
Bullying and Suicide
Types of bullying
Physical bullying isn't limited to hitting, kicking, or pushing you (or even just threatening to do so). It can also include stealing, hiding, or ruining your things and hazing, harassment, humiliation, or making you do things you don't want to do.
Verbal bullying includes name-calling, teasing, taunting, insulting, or otherwise verbally abusing you.
Relationship bullying includes refusing to talk to you, excluding you from groups or activities, spreading lies or rumors about you, or forcing you into uncomfortable or humiliating situations.
Cyberbullying, unlike traditional bullying, doesn’t require face-to-face contact and isn’t limited to just a handful of witnesses at a time. Cyberbullying can occur anywhere, at any time and the methods used to cyberbully can range from sending threatening or taunting messages via email, text, social media, or IM to sexting, posting revenge porn, or stealing your online identity to hurt and humiliate you.
Bullying at work is far more widespread than you may imagine. Far from being limited to kids and teens, bullying can frequently occur in the workplace, whether you're in an office, on a factory floor, or even working remotely. Bullying at work can add stress to any job and leave you feeling angry, embarrassed, and vulnerable.
|Myths and facts about bullying|
|Myth: It's only bullying if someone is physically hurt. Words can't hurt.|
Fact: Children and teens have killed each other and committed suicide after being involved in verbal, relationship, or cyberbullying. Words do hurt and they can have a devastating effect on the emotional wellbeing of anyone, but especially young people.
|Myth: Good kids never bully.|
Fact: All kids make mistakes; it’s part of growing up. Parents who deny the possibility that their child is capable of being hurtful make it harder for bullies to get the help they need.
|Myth: Bullies are simply bad people and should be expelled from school.|
Fact: There are a lot of reasons why kids bully. Some are bullied themselves, at home or elsewhere; others bully only when they feel stressed or overwhelmed.
|Myth: Kids can be either bullies or victims, not both.|
Fact: Kids can often change roles, going from victim to bully and back again. For example, a bully in fifth grade may be a victim when he moves to middle school, or a victim in the playground can take revenge and become the bully online.
Why am I being bullied?
While there are many reasons why bullies may be targeting you, bullies tend to pick on people who are “different” or don't fit in with the mainstream. While your individualism is something that you will celebrate later in life, it can seem like a curse when you're young and trying to fit in. Perhaps you dress or act differently, or maybe your race, religion, or sexual orientation sets you apart. It may simply be that you're new to the school or neighborhood and haven't made friends yet.
Other reasons why kids bully:
- To make themselves popular or to gain attention.
- Because they’re jealous of you.
- To look tough or feel powerful.
- Because they’re being bullied themselves.
- To escape their own problems.
Whatever the reasons for you being targeted, it's important to remember that you're not alone. Many of us have been bullied at some point in our lives. In fact, about 25 percent of kids experience bullying, as many as 59 percent of teenagers are bullied online, and about one third of adults suffer bullying in the workplace. But you don't have to put up with it. There are plenty of people who can help you overcome the problem, retain your dignity, and preserve your sense of self.
For LGBTQ+ youths being bullied
LGBTQ+ youths are particularly at risk of bullying. If you need help:
How to deal with a bully
There is no simple solution to bullying and no foolproof way to handle a bully. But since bullying is rarely limited to one or two incidents—it's far more likely to be a sustained attack over a period of time—like the bully, you may have to be relentless in how you react to and how you report each and every bullying incident until it stops. Remember: there is no reason for you to ever put up with any kind of bullying.
Don't blame yourself. It is not your fault. No matter what a bully says or does, you should not be ashamed of who you are or what you feel. The bully is the person with the problem, not you.
Don't beat yourself up. Don't make a bullying incident worse by dwelling on it or replaying it over and over in your head. Instead, focus on the positive experiences in your life.
Be proud of who you are. Despite what a bully says, there are many wonderful things about you. Remind yourself of all the special, unique qualities that make you you.
Learn to manage stress. Finding healthy ways to relieve the stress generated by bullying can make you more resilient so you won't feel overwhelmed by negative experiences. Exercise, meditation, positive self-talk, muscle relaxation, and breathing exercises are all good ways to cope with the stress of bullying.
Spend time doing things you enjoy. The more time you spend with activities that bring you pleasure—sports, hobbies, hanging out with friends who don't participate in bullying, for example—the less significance bullying will have on your life.
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Dealing with a bully tip 1: Find the best way to react
Bullies want to know they have control over your emotions, so how you react to their taunts or provocation is important. Don’t react with anger or retaliate with physical force. If you walk away, ignore the bully, or calmly and assertively tell them you’re not interested in what they have to say, you’re demonstrating that they don’t have control over you.
However, if you can’t walk away and are being physically hurt, protect yourself so you can get away. Your safety is the first priority.
You can also:
- Try laughing it off. Depending on the circumstances of the bullying and how comfortable you are with making jokes, this is a great way to show a bully that you’re not going to let them control your emotions.
- Report the bullying to a trusted adult. If you don’t report threats and assaults, a bully will often become more and more aggressive. In many cases adults can find ways to help with the problem without letting the bully know it was you who reported them.
- Repeat as necessary. Like the bully, you may have to be relentless. Report each and every bullying incident until it stops. There is no reason for you to ever put up with bullying.
Tip 2: Reframe the problem of bullying
By changing your attitude towards bullying you can help regain a sense of control.
Try to view bullying from a different perspective. The bully is an unhappy, frustrated person who wants to have control over your feelings so that you feel as badly as they do. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Look at the big picture. Bullying can be extremely painful, but try asking yourself how important it will seem to you in the long run. Will it matter in a year? Is it worth getting so upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
Focus on the positive. Reflect on all the things you appreciate and are grateful for in your life, including your own positive qualities. Finding gratitude in even the small joys of daily life—a lick from your dog, the feeling of the sun on your face, a kind word from a friend—can help you break the downward spiral of negativity and boost your mood and self-esteem. Try keeping a gratitude diary and the end of each day write down the things you’re grateful for, no matter how small.
Look for the humor. As mentioned above, there’s power in humor. If you’re relaxed enough to recognize the absurdity of a bullying situation, and to comment on it with humor, you’ll likely no longer be an interesting target for the bully.
Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control—including the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to bullies and how well you treat other people.
Tip 3: Find support from those who don't bully
When you're being bullied, having trusted people you can turn to for encouragement and support will ease your stress and boost your self-esteem and resilience. Talk to a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult—it doesn't mean that you're weak or there's something wrong with you. And reach out to connect with real friends (those who don't participate in any kind of bullying).
If you're new to a school or neighborhood, or don't feel that you have anyone to turn to, there are lots of ways to make new friends. It may not always seem like it, but there are plenty of people who will love and appreciate you for who you are.
Unplug from technology. Taking a break from your smartphone, computer, tablet, and video games can open you up to meeting new people.
Find others who share your same values and interests. You may be able to make friends at a youth group, book club, or religious organization. Learn a new sport, join a team, or take up a new hobby such as chess, art, or music. Or volunteer your time—helping others is a great way to feel better about yourself and expand your social network.
Share your feelings about bullying. Talk to a parent, counselor, coach, religious leader, or trusted friend. Expressing what you're going through can make a huge difference in the way you feel, even if it doesn't change the situation.
Boost your confidence. Exercise is a great way to boost your self-esteem and reduce stress. Go for a run or take a kickboxing class to work off your anger in a healthy way.
Always treat others with respect. Remember that while we’re all different, we all deserve to be treated with respect. Don’t condone the bullying of others and always take a moment to think before saying or doing something that may hurt someone else. And if you make a mistake, apologize. No matter how much you've been bullied, that's never an excuse to bully others.
Tips for parents and teachers to identify and stop bullying
No matter how much pain it causes, kids are often reluctant to tell parents or teachers about bullying because they feel a sense of shame from being victimized. Bullies also tend to be adept at hiding their behavior from adults, so if a child is being bullied it may not be obvious to a parent or teacher. Therefore, it's important to recognize the warning signs of bullying.
Warning signs of bullying
Your child may be the victim of bullying if they:
- Withdraw from family, friends, and activities they previously enjoyed.
- Suffer an unexplained drop in grades.
- Refuse to go to school or to specific classes, or avoid group activities.
- Show changes in mood, behavior, sleep, appetite, or show signs of depression or anxiety.
- Avoid discussions or are secretive about their cell phone or computer activities.
- Become sad, angry, or distressed during or after being online.
- Appear anxious when viewing a text, email, or social media post.
How to stop bullying
When it comes to trying to stop bullying behavior in kids and teens, there are steps that parents and teachers can take.
Talk to kids about bullying. Just talking about the problem can be a huge stress reliever for someone who’s being bullied. Be supportive and listen to a child’s feelings without judgment, criticism, or blame.
Remove the bait. If your child is targeted by a bully for his or her lunch money, phone, or iPod, for example, suggest your child packs a lunch for school and leaves the gadgets at home.
Find help for a child who’s afraid of a bully. Make sure other teachers, coaches, and counselors know the child is being bullied. No child should have to handle bullying alone.
Help the bullied child avoid isolation. Kids with friends are better equipped to handle bullying. Find ways to increase their social circle, via youth or religious groups or clubs, for example.
If your child is a bully
It can be difficult for any parent to learn that their child is bullying others but it's important to take steps to end the negative behavior before it has serious and long-term consequences for your child. Kids who bully others:
- Have a higher risk of abusing alcohol and drugs.
- Are more likely to get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school.
- Are twice as likely as their peers to have criminal convictions as adults and four times more likely to be multiple offenders.
- Are more likely as adults to be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children.
If your child has trouble managing strong emotions such as anger, hurt, or frustration, talk to a therapist about helping your child learn to cope with these feelings in a healthy way.
Warning signs your child may be a bully
- Is often violent with other kids.
- Frequently engages in physical or verbal fights with others.
- Spends a lot of time in detention or receiving other punishments at school.
- Has extra money, new possessions, or other items that cannot be explained.
- Refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, preferring instead to blame others.
- Hangs around with friends who bully others.
Bullying is often a learned behavior
Some bullies learn aggressive behavior from their experiences at home. As a parent, you may be setting a bad example for your kids by spanking or otherwise striking them, verbally or physically abusing your spouse, or by displaying bullying behavior such as:
- Abusing your child's sports coach, umpires and referees, or members of the opposing team.
- Swearing at other drivers on the road.
- Humiliating a waitress, shop assistant, or cab driver who makes a mistake.
- Talking negatively about other students, parents, or teachers so that your child thinks it's acceptable to use verbal abuse to intimidate others.
- Sending or forwarding abusive online messages that target coworkers or acquaintances.
Tips for parents dealing with a bullying child
Learn about your child's life. If your behavior at home isn't negatively influencing your child, it's possible their friends or peers are encouraging the bullying behavior. Your child may be struggling to fit in or develop relationships with other kids. Talk to your child. The more you understand about their life, the easier you'll be able to identify the source of the problem.
Educate your child about bullying. Your child may not understand how hurtful and damaging their behavior can be. Foster empathy and awareness by encouraging your child to look at their actions from the victim's perspective. Remind your child that bullying can have serious legal consequences.
Manage stress. Teach your child positive ways to manage stress. Your child's bullying may be an attempt at relieving stress. Or your own stress, anxiety, or worry may be creating an unstable home environment. Exercising, spending time in nature, or playing with a pet are great ways for both kids and adults to let off steam and relieve tension.
Monitor your child's technology use. Let your child know that you'll be monitoring their phone and online behavior. If necessary, limit your child's access to technology until their behavior improves.
Establish consistent rules of behavior. Make sure your child understands your rules and the punishment for breaking them. Children may not think they need discipline, but a lack of boundaries sends a signal that the child is unworthy of the parents' time, care, and attention.
Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
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Last updated: January 9, 2023