What is Bullying? How Parents Can Spot It & Stop It

What is Bullying? How Parents Can Spot It & Stop It

What is Bullying? How Parents Can Spot It & Stop It

By Emme Raus, Boys & Girls Clubs of America


A school hallway. Two kids. One pinned against a locker. Another poised to punch. Other kids nearby, watching, laughing, taunting. These are some of the images that appear in our minds when thinking about child or teen bullying – some inspired by film and TV, others from memories. But bullying does not always fit inside this scene, and youth on the receiving end are not the only ones who get hurt.

October’s National Bullying Prevention Month provides us with the opportunity to broaden our understanding of bullying and build resilience in kids and teens. At Boys & Girls Clubs, youth learn how to avoid bullying as an emotional release and practice skills like introspection, self-control and empathy to navigate bullying in schools, among friends and in cyberspace.

From exclusion to electronics, learn more about what, why and how bullying can impact kids and teens and ways to be proactive against it.

Breaking it Down: What is Bullying?

Perhaps the first question about bullying is how to define it. Bullying is intentional harm that is repeated and tries to create a power imbalance. Let’s unpack this:

    •  Bullying is intentional – it is not accidental! A young person hurting, scaring or humiliating someone else means to do so specifically to that person, and the two likely know each other.
    •  Bullying is repeated. Bullying involves a cycle of harm between bullies and their targets. If someone is bullied once, there is a strong chance that it may happen again.
  •  Bullying tries to create a power imbalance. To build themselves up, bullies try to make others feel small because of their differences. This could be related to social status, age, cultural identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and differences in ability, such as having a disability.

Bullying also involves three essential parties: the perpetrator, the target and the witness. Many youth will play a combination of these roles in their social interactions. For example, a middle schooler upset by a rumor that damages their reputation may also be spreading lies about their classmates to help take attention off of them.

Bullies also take pleasure in having an audience. Whether onlookers are enjoying the spectacle, watching on disengaged or trying to intervene, their presence allows bullies to show off their dominance and be remembered for it by their peers. Even if the bullying incident does not have an audience, a bully will often brag about their actions to friends and peers.

Understanding Motive: Why Do Kids Bully?

Bullies are often typecast as big brutes beating up skinny bespectacled kids. But the truth is, anyone can be a bully.

When asked why they bully others, youth told Boys & Girls Clubs of America:

  • “I feel stronger, smarter or better than the person I’m bullying.”
  • “I’m bullied at home.”
  • “It’s what you do if you want to hang out with the right crowd.”
  • “I see others doing it.”
  • “I’m jealous of the other person.”
  • “It’s one of the best ways to keep others from bullying me.”

These responses show that bullies don’t necessarily need to be bigger or stronger than their targets – their “power” can come from trying to be perceived as popular, influential, smart or athletic. However, oftentimes when a kid or teen instigates bullying it’s related to something else going on like:

  • Expressing anger at friends, parents, siblings, teachers, etc. by picking on someone else more vulnerable
  • Hurting others in response to being bullied themselves
  • Acting out when not getting enough attention at home
  • Acting out when they don’t know how to be social or friendly
  • Having low self-esteem or a bad opinion of others
  • Having a problem following the rules
  • Having friends who bully others

READ: Dealing with Bullies: Advice from WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil & Club Teen

Bullying in Action: How Do Youth Face Bullying Today?

Recognizing all forms of bullying is important because they all cause harm – not just to the bullied kid, but to the witnesses and bullies too.

Here are three ways youth commonly experience bullying from peers or adults in their life:

  •  Direct bullying targets a young person with physical or verbal attacks.
    • What does this look like? Scenarios can include, but are not limited to:
      • A kid having their hat swiped and hot-potato’d by their peers on the school bus.
      • A teen enduring racist name-calling or hurtful generalizations based on their clothing or appearance, like wearing a hijab or their hair in cornrows.
      • A coach publicly shaming the same player repeatedly to improve their performance on the team.
  •  Indirect bullying isolates a young person by hurting their relationships with others.
    • What does this look like? Scenarios can include, but are not limited to:
      • A teen girl claiming her boyfriend was “stolen” by another girl and turning their whole friend group against her.
      • A student feeling humiliated by false rumors spread about their sexuality or sexual behavior at school.
      • A kid being consistently left out of activities hosted by their classmates, sports team or student club outside of school.
  •  Cyberbullying threatens a young person using digital platforms, like texting, social media, emailing, gaming sites and other online communications.
    • What does this look like? Scenarios can include, but are not limited to:
      • A kid taking photos of their friend and posting them online without their permission.
      • Students mocking a teacher for being overweight in a video shared around the school.
      • Teens encouraging self-harm or suicide in comments made on a classmate’s social profile.

READ: How to Identify – and Combat – Bullying

At the heart of bullying are emotions – and just like math, science or reading – kids and teens can be taught to understand and practice emotional intelligence. Anti-bullying programs like WWE’s Be A STAR provide Club youth like Dejae with an education in emotional intelligence through hands-on activities, caring mentors and safe, inclusive spaces. At the Club, Dejae not only learned how to handle a bully as someone targeted, but as a teen ambassador of the program, she also supports younger kids in learning how to respond to bullying.

Youth today have a heartwarming desire to do good with 92% reporting to Boys & Girls Clubs of America wanting to help when they see someone having a problem. By taking the time to listen and learn from the young people we care about, we can empower them to act on their compassion and be safe and smart in putting a stop to bullying when they see it.