Parents, here’s what you need to know if your child is being bullied

Three sets of students feet walking to class in a hallway.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Students walk to their next class at Centaurus High School in Lafayette in March, 2024.

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Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat

Your son got shoved against the lockers at school for the third time this week. Your daughter’s former friend group won’t stop spreading nasty rumors about her — in the hallways and online.

Being bullied is scary and traumatic for youth. It can also leave parents flailing for the right response: Who should I call? How can I help? What should I say to my child?

To get answers to these questions, Chalkbeat gathered advice from experts at the Colorado Department of Education, the Denver-based Bullying Recovery Resource Center, and the Jefferson Center, a nonprofit mental health provider.

While there’s no silver bullet, experts say frequent and open conversations with children — and the school — can help identify and put a stop to bullying.

“If bullying happens, it’s important to keep reporting it and let the child know that you’re on their side no matter what,” said Dru Ahlborg, executive director of the Bullying Recovery Resource Center.

What is bullying — and what isn’t?

Bullying occurs when one person shows unwanted aggression — physically, verbally, or in another way — toward another person AND the person doing the bullying has more power than the one being bullied. Power imbalances can take various forms, for example, when the child doing the bullying is bigger, stronger, or more popular than the child being bullied.

Experts note that bullying is different from conflict, which could be a school yard scuffle or dispute involving children with similar levels of power. Conflicts can be resolved through negotiation but bullying can’t.

“It can’t be like, ‘Just shake hands and go your separate ways,” said Ahlborg. “If it’s truly bullying, that’s not going to work. That’s going to create more harm for the child who’s being targeted.”

Bullying resources

In general, one-time incidents — like a child getting pushed or called a name — aren’t considered bullying. But if an unwanted aggression has the potential to be repeated, it might be, said Ahlborg.

“You put a kid’s head in the toilet once, that’s bullying,” she said. “There’s a good chance it will be repeated if there’s not an intervention where it gets stopped.”

Are harassment and bullying the same thing?

They are similar, but not the same. Harassment is bullying targeted at someone in a protected class — in other words, because of their disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, national origin, religion, ancestry, or need for special education services. Harassment is considered a form of discrimination and there are more legal protections for students experiencing harassment than for those experiencing bullying.

What are signs a student is being bullied?

Large and rapid shifts in a child’s behavior can be a sign of bullying, Ahlborg said.

For example, “They no longer want to go hang out with friends after school, or maybe they want to quit the football team, or maybe the grades are dropping pretty quickly, or they’re more moody and sad,” she said.

How can I get my child to tell me if they’re being bullied?

Experts say parents should have regular, open communication with their children.

Erin Twiehaus, a social worker with the Jefferson Center who regularly works in public schools, said she encourages parents to talk with their children daily. For example, parents can ask, “What was your favorite part of the day?” and then, “What was the hardest part of your day?”

These daily check-ins create space for children to bring up bullying or other upsetting situations, she said. “I think that’s how parents can catch these things a little bit earlier, rather than the child waiting until it gets really bad before they say something.”

Ahlborg said kids often share “micro-doses” of information because of the shame they feel over being bullied. It’s important for parents to be calm and non-judgmental when talking with children about bullying because kids sometimes fear parents’ reactions.

“Let the child know they’ve done nothing to deserve what happened, that together you’ll find a solution,” she said.

Twiehaus suggested parents say things like, “Wow, that does sound hard” or “Sounds like you used your problem-solving skills,” rather than making dismissive comments like, “That’s not that hard” or “See, it was fine.”

What should I do if I think my child is being bullied?

If it’s occurring in school, or being perpetrated by classmates outside of school, report it to the school. If it’s occurring elsewhere — in a church youth group or a club sport team — report it to leaders in those groups.

Ahlborg said even when parents report bullying verbally, it’s a good idea to create a paper trail. That means sending a follow-up email or text, repeating key points from the conversation and any action steps the teacher or other adult said they would take. She also said parents should report every bullying incident to the school after the initial communication.

Should I confront the child who is doing the bullying?

No. In general, it’s not effective, and parents can get in trouble for reprimanding or trying to discipline someone else’s child.

Should I talk to the parents of the child doing the bullying?

Not usually, unless you have an existing friendship or relationship with that child’s parents.

What should I expect from my child’s school after I report bullying?

There’s no one-size-fits-all response, but the most important thing is that the bullying needs to stop, said Ahlborg.

Adam Collins, the statewide bullying prevention manager at the Colorado Department of Education, said every school in Colorado is required to have a bullying prevention policy, and should follow the steps outlined there.

In terms of helping a bullied student, solutions might include connecting the child to a trusted adult at school who will look out for them. It could also mean a safety plan that calls for a student to be accompanied through the hallway by a staff member, let out of class five minutes early, or switched to a different lunch period, classroom, or seat on the bus. In some cases, the student doing the bullying may be subject to a “no-contact contract” that bars them from interacting with the child being bullied. In others, the student doing the bullying, may be suspended or expelled.

Experts don’t recommend restorative practices, such as peer mediation, in cases of bullying, said Collins. That’s because the imbalance of power that characterized the bullying can play out again during restorative conversations and retraumatize the victim — even when adults are present.

I’ve reported it, but the bullying hasn’t stopped. What should I do?

State officials recommend parents start by reporting bullying to the lowest-level employee — say, the classroom teacher. If there’s no resolution, continue reporting it up the chain. That might mean telling the assistant principal or principal, then the principal’s supervisor, then the district superintendent or board of education.

My child is being bullied on social media. How should I respond?

Experts say cyberbullying is common and particularly tricky because so many students have 24/7 access to electronics. Even if it’s technically occurring off-campus or after school hours, it’s worth reporting to the child’s school if it involves peers from the school.

To stop online bullying, parents can have their child take a break from social media, change their phone number, start a new account that only close friends have access to, or switch to a platform that makes it easier to block unwanted users.

Will my child’s school tell me whether the student doing the bullying was punished?

No. Privacy laws prevent schools from sharing how an individual student was disciplined — even with the victim’s family. Experts say that often leaves parents frustrated, but that it’s better to focus on helping the student who was bullied.

“I encourage parents to focus their energy on tasks that are going to be worth their time,” said Twiehaus. “Trying to combat privacy laws … It’s probably not going to be the best use of your energy.”

The bullying has stopped, but my child is still struggling. What should I do?

Twiehaus said it’s normal for bullying to have long-term effects because it often produces negative internal messages in children who experience it. Therapy or even switching schools can help students move forward after bullying.

She also encourages parents to get kids involved in activities that build self-confidence or help them master a skill — playing a new sport, taking up a musical instrument, or learning to sew.

Many families report that martial arts helped their children, Ahlborg said.

“They probably will never use it against another person … but it’s just that internal feeling of growth and power,” she said.

I suspect my child may be bullying others. What signs should I look for?

Children who have friends who bully others are susceptible to bullying behavior themselves, said Collins. Other signs include frequent verbal or physical fights and unexplained belongings or money, he said.

I’ve confirmed my child is bullying others. What should I do?

Experts say it’s natural for parents to be upset when they learn their child is involved in bullying. Twiehaus said parents may want to let loose: “How could you do this? Why were you doing this? I can’t even believe this. I didn’t teach you this” — but it’s important to keep emotions in check so there can be a real conversation.

Twiehaus also cautioned that although many parents want to know why their child would bully someone, many young people, even up to 16 or 17 years old, don’t have the self-awareness to explain their actions.

Experts say parents can work with their children to understand the harm they caused, and develop empathy and kindness.

“Children who engage in bullying acts, usually there’s something going on in their life that’s uncomfortable and it’s a way to lash out and have power over somebody else,” said Ahlborg.

Addressing the root cause can help, she said. “Is there a mental health struggle? Are they struggling in school or struggling making friends? … it’s very, very common for somebody that’s been bullied to become a bully.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at [email protected].