Bullying – What can parents do?

Bullying behavior has probably existed since the beginning of human interaction and has often been accepted as an unfortunate but normal part of childhood. However, in the early 1970s Swedish psychologist, Dan Olweus worked to define bullying behavior and to also raise awareness that bullying was not a normal, acceptable part of growing up. He created a renowned school bullying prevention program that is still serving countless schools and students today.

What is bullying?

According to Olweus, bullying consists of three components.  It involves:

1) Unwanted, intentional physical or verbal aggression on the part of one or more persons toward another

  • Physically overpowering, restraining or hurting someone
  • Repeatedly making threatening, vicious or humiliating remarks

2)  Repeated over time

  • A consistent pattern of behavior vs. a single or occasional incident

3)  Where there is an imbalance of power or strength

  • Older vs. younger or stronger vs. weaker
  • High status teen over lower status individual
  • Teen in a position of power (such as the captain of a team or leader of a clique)


What is Bullying?

Aggressive behaviors that are repeated and done with the intention of gaining power.

Physical Attack such as:

• Bumping into someone

• Pushing, Shoving, Tripping

• Hitting (directly or with something)

• Punching, Kicking

• Fighting

Verbal Attack—for any kind of difference, such as:

• Racial

• Gender

• Sexual Orientation

• Physical (height, weight, glasses)

• Skills Ability/Disability (too smart, stupid, spaz)

• Physical Appearances

• Economic Status

• Marital Status

• Religion

• Association with a Group

• Threats and Intimidation

• Taking Possessions or Stealing

• Exclusion from groups/activity

Non-Verbal Attack such as:

• Staring or glaring

• ‘Pretending to whisper’ while looking at someone

• Shunning

What is not bullying?

Aggressive behaviors that occur once with no intention of gaining power.

Physical behaviors such as:

Accidently bumping into someone

• Making others play things a certain way (natural behavior—everyone likes things done their way)

• Any of the behaviors listed to the left which occurs ONCE (i.e. is not a pattern of behavior)

Verbal behaviors such as:

• A statement of dislike toward or about someone

• A single act of telling a joke about someone

• Arguments or heated disagreements between two

or more people/groups (the pattern of which is not repeated to gain power)

• Expressions of unpleasant thoughts or feelings regarding others







Non-verbal behaviors such as:

• Being excluded

• Not playing with someone

• Choosing different people or groups to play with from time to time



Is it bullying or is it drama?

Why is Olweus’ definition of bullying so important?  One reason is that it helps us to identify bullying. Another reason is that it also helps us to identify what is not bullying. Not all bad behavior between children and youth is bullying. Much of it is drama.Drama is a slang term coined by youth themselves to describe what is normal jockeying for status, a product of developing understanding of social relationships and lack of adeptness at social interaction. Both are unpleasant. However, there is a distinction between being abusive and being unkind.

How can I prevent drama and bullying?

Every person has done unkind things.

You can’t prevent unkind things from ever happening to your child, but you can attempt to help before things get out of hand.

Set a Good Example

  • Be tolerant and inclusive of a variety of people and personalities. Your child will take his or her cue from you.
  • Help your teen to be more inclusive and understanding. Encourage your teen to think of other’s perspectives, particularly when someone is acting inappropriately or annoyingly. Keep in mind, in terms of bullying, however, that even if a bully has reason for his or her behavior, those reasons do not excuse or justify the bullying behavior.
  • Don’t allow your child to call others “gay,” “retard,” or any other slurs, even when he or she tells you “it’s no big deal.”

Help to create an environment that addresses bullying before it happens

  • Teach your teen to be an ally, not a bystander. Teens need to be conscious of bullying, to avoid contributing by being caught unaware, or acting thoughtlessly, They need to learn how address bullying behavior assertively when possible and to advocate appropriately and safely for those who are vulnerable. ( Link video resource about teaching youth to combat bullying)
  • Encourage your child to socialize with a diverse variety of friends.
  • Be conscious that adults who interact with your teen and his or her peers are not always as aware as they should be of how their actions contribute to or prevent bullying.

Monitor technology in an effort to be aware if your child is heading for trouble

Often teens continue to engage and view media, even when they are experiencing cyberbullying and would be better off disengaging with the technological source. By the same token, parents whose teen is harassing someone online are equally likely to be in the dark about their child’s bad behavior.

  • Check text and computer history periodically
  • For younger teens keep computer where it is visible to you much of the time
  • Don’t allow your child 24-hour unlimited access to smart phones, texting, computers, or other forms of digital media

Don’t overreact or underreact

  • Listen
  • Stay calm
  • Be alert for non-verbal signs that your child is struggling such as an onset of physical ailments like headaches or stomachaches, abrupt withdrawal from activities your teen previously enjoyed, unexplained injuries or bruises, avoidance of school, rapid drop in grades, markedly increased desire for isolation or, even, suicidal thoughts or actions. In the case of any potential for suicide, take immediate action. Call your teen’s physician and ask for a referral for assessment by a mental health professional.
  • Provide appropriate support. If it is drama, your child is probably best equipped to handle it on his or her own with loving support and a listening ear from you, another friend, and/or a trusted teacher. Most likely your child has the best read on the social context, even if he or she is not quite certain how to negotiate the situation. If it is bullying, your child needs you and/or someone else in power to intercede and make a significant change in the power dynamics. It is not something that he or she can handle by themselves without significant risk of immediate or lasting physical and/or emotional damage.
  • Strategize and role play with your child how to deal with the situation

If you determine that your child is truly being bullied, you will need to intercede more directly.

Do establish a record of the bullying behavior and whatever actions you take to prevent the behavior from continuing

  • Encourage your teen to keep a journal documenting incidents, dates, and location
  • Keep a record of contacts that you have with authorities
  • Save a record of cyber interactions

If the bullying is occurring in school,

Do contact the school

  • Familiarize yourself with your school or districts anti-bullying policy
  • Make an appointment to meet with the principal, relevant teacher(s) and possibly a guidance counselor face to face
  • Remain calm and matter of fact as you relay your child’s story
  • Request that you work together to establish a plan to stop the bullying and ensure your teen’s safety
  • Write down everything discussed in the meeting and follow up with a thank you note recapping what was said
  • If the harassment does not stop, be prepared to go to the next level of authority-the superintendent and, eventually, the school board

If the bullying is occurring outside of school,

Do call the law enforcement authorities

  • Let the police intercede
  • Obtain a restraining order if necessary

Do get help and support for teen and yourself

  • Find a mental health professional who can assist your teen
  • If you are able to connect your teen with someone who has experienced similar issues, even a single friendship can serve as a refuge and source of support
  • Organizations such as Gay-Straight Alliances can provide sanctuary and support
  • Seek out other parents who have teens who have been bullied. They can be excellent resources for how to deal with the situation and sources of empathy for your struggles.

Don’t contact the bully’s parents

  • Parents often get offended and defensive when their child is accused
  • If you are on their property, there is potential that you could be arrested for trespassing
  • Physical violence may be a learned behavior and you may find yourself in an unsafe situation

Bullying is a serious threat to the well being of youth. Drama, while perhaps less threatening, is still one of the most unpleasant aspects of growing up. It is incredibly difficult as parent to watch your child get hurt. Just remember there are others out there who are experiencing similar issues. There are resources available. And, as difficult as this challenge can be for your child, your love and support makes a tremendous difference.


Additional Resources:

What to Do When Your Child Is Being Bullied

Parent Action Toolkit

Ten Actions ALL Parents Can Take to Help Eliminate Bullying

Bullying(3): What is NOT Bullying

Playful Banter or Bullying: Whose Perception Matters?

Eight Keys to End Bullying


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is the Prevention Education Coordinator with the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board where she oversees statewide efforts to offer professional development and training to family serving professionals to promote healthy family functioning and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. She and her husband are the parents of two adult children and a teenage son who challenges them to keep honing their parenting skills and strategies. Becky previously served as a parenting outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension and was one of the co-founders of Parenthetical.