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updated September 08, 2010

Teen bullying: What parents need to know

  • SUMMARY
  • Teen bullying is often in the news. It isn't inevitable, however. Consider features of teen bullying — and practical strategies for preventing and responding to teen bullying.
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MayoClinic Logo
Filed under: Children's Health

(MayoClinic.com) Perhaps you remember being bullied while you were a teenager, or watching bullies rule the school halls. Now that you're a parent, you want to make sure that your child isn't a target of teen bullying. Give your efforts greater impact by understanding the nature of teen bullying — and how you can respond.

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Core features of teen bullying

Teen bullying describes a wide range of aggressive behavior, including direct and indirect aggression. Direct contact can be either verbal or physical, including teasing, name-calling, pushing and hitting. Direct bullying is more common among boys than girls. Indirect bullying — which is more common among girls — happens when adolescents spread rumors about each other, often in an attempt to exclude a peer from social gatherings or other activities.

When teen bullying meets technology, cyber bullying emerges. This so-called "electronic aggression" includes any type of harassment or intimidation that occurs through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, text messaging, websites, blogs or other electronic formats. Through digital technology, aggressive messages can be instantly broadcast to a wide audience. Senders can remain anonymous or fake a user name, and they can attach demeaning or explicit images.

Despite the fact that teen bullying happens in so many ways, researchers commonly distinguish several core features:

  • The aggression is intentional.
  • The aggression is repeated.
  • The aggression thrives on an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the target.
Consequences of teen bullying

Bullying can worsen the mental health of teenagers who are already dealing with stress — and adolescents who experience teen bullying are more likely to report thoughts of suicide and suicidal behavior. All too often, media reports about bullying-related suicides give a face to this extreme consequence of teen bullying. In addition, targets of cyber bullying are more likely than those who haven't been harassed to use alcohol and other drugs, receive school detention or suspension, skip school, or be bullied in person.

Teen bullying is also associated with higher rates of weapon carrying and fighting that leads to injury. Investigations of several school-based shootings — including those in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon; and Littleton, Colorado — pointed to bullying as a factor that contributed to the outbreak of violence.

What's unique about teen bullying

Many aspects of teen bullying resemble bullying among younger kids. Still, unique features emerge. For example, teens might be reluctant to report bullying to either parents or school officials. In one study, teens reported a reluctance to talk about cyber bullying with teachers or other adults at school because cyber bullying often happens on cell phones, and it's against school policy to use cell phones during school hours. In addition, teens may be reluctant to report cyber bullying to parents for fear of losing their cell phone or Internet privileges.

Prevention starts at home

If you believe that peers influence your child more than you do, think again. Research indicates that your actions can make a big difference. Studies indicate that parents' behavior can prevent teens from becoming either perpetrators or victims of bullying. This effect holds for all forms of bullying.

Consider these specific strategies:

  • Get involved. Provide a safe, loving and intellectually stimulating home for your child. Simple activities such as helping with homework and sharing regular family meals have been linked to reduced rates of bullying.
  • Monitor screen time. Some research links bullying to unsupervised television watching. Also keep an eye on your child's online activities and text messages.
  • Develop emotional intelligence. Teach your child to manage negative emotions by setting an example with your own behavior. Reflect on how you respond to strong feelings of anger, fear or sadness — being careful to identify and accept your emotions, express them without blaming other people, and respond without aggression.
  • Meet your child's friends. Welcome any chance to get acquainted with your child's friends.
Discussing teen bullying

Traditional teen bullying tends to decline with age, peaking during middle school and decreasing during high school. Cyber bullying might be an exception, however. More research is needed to determine whether this form of teen bullying becomes less common as children mature.

In the meantime, talk to your child about teen bullying. Even if your child doesn't confess to being bullied, offer specific suggestions to keep bullying at bay:

  • Avoid isolation. If you're in a situation where you think bullying might happen, don't go it alone. Stick with trusted classmates during the school day. If you're walking home from school, find someone to go with you.
  • Communicate self-confidence. Walk tall, make eye contact and speak assertively to the bully. Just saying "stop" or walking away from the bully — or deleting offending emails or text messages — may be enough.
  • Nurture positive friendships. Spend time with trusted friends, or reach out to friendly peers. Make new friends through after-school activities, such as music, theater and athletics.
  • Avoid violence. Getting involved in a fight may only lead to more aggression.
  • Report dangerous situations. If you're being stalked or you've been physically attacked by a bully, don't be afraid to tell a trusted adult.
Responding to teen bullying

If your child admits being bullied, take action. Start by reassuring your child. Tell your child that you'll do everything in your power to help — and you won't revoke cell phone or Internet privileges as a consequence of being bullied. Never imply that getting bullied is your child's fault. Then:

  • Record the details. Write down the details — the date, who was involved and what specifically happened. Record the facts as objectively as possible.
  • Meet with school authorities. Start with a teacher who knows your child well. Ask whether your child's classroom behavior has changed or if there are any other warning signs. You might also consult a school dean, counselor or other school contact.
  • Explain your concerns in a matter-of-fact way. Instead of finding blame, ask for help to solve the bullying problem. Keep notes on these meetings. Remember that it can take time for teachers and administrators to investigate bullying in a fair and factual way.
  • Ask for a copy of the school's policy on bullying. Find out how bullying is addressed in the school's curriculum, as well as how staff members are obligated to respond to known or suspected bullying.

If these steps don't seem to help or your child has been injured or traumatized by continued bullying, consult a mental health provider. You might also consider talking to an attorney. Taking legal action to disrupt a culture of bullying can make your community safer for all teens.

©1998-2013 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.
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