O4 Dynamic Alert
Medically Approved

The most common types of bullying — and the best ways to help your child

Parent comforting their child

It can be distressing when someone picks on your kid in school. Luckily, there are ways to help protect and empower them.

It’s easy to find the school bully in classic teen movies. They’re often the kid who’s pinning other kids against a locker and stealing their lunch money.

Physical bullying does still happen in schools. But other forms of bullying may not be as easy to notice. And the problem is very real.

Around 1 in 5 students between the ages of 12 and 18 have reported being bullied in school.1 Bullying is most common in middle school, followed by high school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2 

Kids who are picked on may feel anxious or depressed, have trouble sleeping and more.2 But they are often afraid to talk about it with their families.

That’s why it’s important for parents to understand what bullying is and know how to talk to their children about it.

What’s the difference between bullying and conflict?

One of the first things to understand about bullying: It’s not the same as healthy conflict, says Tori Cordiano, PhD. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Beachwood, Ohio, and the director of research at Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.

“Lots of things get called bullying that are actually just conflict,” she says. Conflict is difficult and hard for kids to manage. But it’s also a normal part of growing up.

Cordiano explains that conflict can happen when kids:

  • Feel left out. Maybe your child was picked last for a team game. Or they weren’t chosen as the lead in the school play. This isn’t bullying, she says. But it’s still tough for kids.
     
  • Disagree. This is when kids don’t have the same viewpoint. Everyone disagrees sometimes.
     
  • Argue. Arguing can be a good way for kids to express their opinions. It can be healthy, if there is no name-calling, voice raising or physical violence, and everyone’s opinion can be heard, she says.

Bullying behavior is different.2 It is defined by:

  • Unwanted, aggressive behavior. Either by another child or a group of children, who aren’t siblings or current dating partners.
     
  • A power imbalance. For example, your kid might be physically smaller than the child who bullies them. Or they may be less popular.
     
  • Repetition. Bullying typically consists of more than a single incident.

Illustration of of a person's profile that highlights the brain area
Find mental health resources that fit with your life

Work 1-on-1 with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo.

Common types of bullying

There are a few different types of bullying. Some happen more often than others. But each kind can be difficult for children.

Verbal harassment: Teasing. Mean comments. Being made fun of. These are all forms of verbal bullying in schools. One of the most common is name-calling, says Nekeshia Hammond, PsyD. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist in Brandon, Florida. Other forms of verbal bullying include:

  • Homophobic comments. LGBTQ+ youth (and those perceived as being LGBTQ+) are at an increased risk of bullying, according to stopbullying.gov.3
  • Insults
  • Teasing
  • Name calling
  • Hate speech and racist comments4
  • Intimidation5

Social harassment: Social bullying is more common among girls.6 But it can affect both boys and girls. It can include:

  • Encouraging kids to exclude another kid from activities
  • Playing mean jokes on other students
  • Spreading rumors to damage someone’s reputation

Physical bullying: This type of bullying causes physical pain. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it can involve:6

  • Kicking
  • Hitting
  • Punching
  • Pushing
  • Choking

Cyberbullying: Your teen probably spends plenty of time on their phone. Cyberbullying happens when people post or share negative, harmful, false or mean content or photos using a digital device.7 That might include sharing personal or private information. Or with the intent to cause them embarrassment or humiliation. And cyberbullying can happen anywhere digital: via text messages, social media posts, apps, direct messaging, gaming forums and more. And it can happen at any time of the day or night, not just at school.

How to help your child if they’re being bullied

Maybe your child has told you that they’re being bullied in school. Or maybe you just suspect that something might be going on. Some red flags to look out for include:6

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Frequent stomachaches and/or headaches
  • School avoidance
  • Nightmares
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Loss of friends

According to stopbullying.org, red flags specific to cyberbullying include:8

  • A noticeable increase or decrease in your teen’s device usage
  • Avoidance of discussions about what they’re doing on their device
  • Having emotional responses, like laughter or anger, to what’s on their device
  • Hiding their device from others when they’re nearby
  • Shutting down their social media accounts or launching new ones
  • Starting to avoid social situations, even ones they enjoyed in the past

“This is the kind of challenge that we want to make sure kids know we don’t expect them to handle all on their own,” says Hammond. “That’s sort of above their pay grade as just children to be able to solve that.”

  • First, ask if something is going on at school. Then listen to what your child has to say. Let them know that they’re not in trouble and that they can tell you anything.
     
  • Help them role-play how to respond to bullying behavior. For example, they can walk away (or ignore a mean text). They can say, “I don’t like that” or “Please don’t say that to me.” And they can ask a trusted adult, such as a teacher, for help.5
     
  • Alert your child’s school about the problem. And work on solutions together.

It’s also worth reminding your child: because someone says something negative about you, it doesn’t make it true, says Hammond.

What if your child notices another kid being bullied?

Kids may just watch when they see bullying happening at school, if they are not sure what to do. Teach kids about being an “upstander” instead of a “bystander,” suggests Cordiano.

But it can be hard for children and teens to act in the moment, she says. That’s why it’s important to teach kids what to do ahead of time. They can:

  • Tell a safe adult. Teach your children to find and inform an adult they trust about the bullying they have witnessed.
     
  • Address the bully (safely). If it’s safe to do so, a child or teen can say something to the person who is doing the bullying, Cordiano says. “That can be something like, ‘Cut it out’ or ‘That’s not nice.’”
     
  • Support the person being bullied. A child or teen can physically stand next to the person being bullied, if it’s safe to do so. Or they can help remove them from the situation by addressing the child being bullied directly. A simple “Come on, let’s get out of here” might do the trick, says Cordiano.

So go ahead. Start the conversation about bullying with your child today. And bring it up often. It’s important for kids to realize that they can take action, and that you’ll be there for them every step of the way.

Sources

  1. National Center for Education Statistics. How many students are bullied at school? Accessed September 11, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast Fact: Preventing Bullying. Last reviewed September 2, 2021. Accessed September 11, 2023. 
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stopbullying.gov. LGBTQI Youth. Last reviewed September 10, 2021. Accessed September 11, 2023.
  4. National Center for Education Statistics. Bullying at School and Electronic Bullying. Last updated May 2021. Accessed September 11, 2023.
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bullying: It’s Not OK. Last updated 2021. Accessed September 11, 2023.
  6. National Library of Medicine, StatPearls. Bullying. Last updated May 3, 2023. Accessed September 11, 2023.
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stopbullying.gov. What Is Cyberbullying. Last reviewed November 5, 2021. Accessed September 11, 2023.
  8. Stopbullying.gov. Tips for teachers. Last reviewed May 21, 2021. Accessed October 4, 2023.

© 2023 Optum, Inc. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce, transmit or modify any information or content on this website in any form or by any means without the express written permission of Optum.

The information featured in this site is general in nature. The site provides health information designed to complement your personal health management. It does not provide medical advice or health services and is not meant to replace professional advice or imply coverage of specific clinical services or products. The inclusion of links to other web sites does not imply any endorsement of the material on such websites.

Optum does not recommend or endorse any treatment or medications, specific or otherwise. The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide medical advice or otherwise replace professional advice. Consult with your clinician, physician or mental health care provider for specific health care needs, treatment or medications. Certain treatments may not be included in your insurance benefits. Check your health plan regarding your coverage of services.

If you or someone you know is in crisis— seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support.

Stock photo. Posed by model.