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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.