What should you do when your child is the one the other kids fear?

Approximately 2.1 million children engage in teasing or threatening behavior every year. Parents can be blind to their child’s behavior because the child doesn’t fit the description of a “typical” bully.

“The classic schoolyard bully who’s large, angry and unlikable is not what we see most of the time,” says Jeffrey Rothweiler, PhD, clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Bullies today are often well connected, popular and enjoy a good deal of social influence.” 

Old Game, New Rules
Trina Blythe, MD, FAAP, a Washington University pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and with Way to Grow Pediatrics, agrees. She says many parents have an outdated view of bullying.

“Bullies can be any gender and come from any background,” Dr. Blythe says. “They can also be the victims of bullying themselves.” Because of the nuances of bullying, Dr. Blythe says it may not be easy to recognize at first. For instance, a bully may be part of a social group that is marked by subtle, mutual inappropriate behavior. The Internet has also changed the face of bullying, making it easier for children who might not physically harass to still engage in bullying behavior.

“Physical aggression is only one type of bullying,” Dr. Rothweiler says. “Bullying is increasingly happening online, and a lot of it is more verbal, relational or emotional. These types of bullying don’t always leave visible marks.” 

Mean Girls (and Boys)
Dr. Rothweiler says relational and emotional aggression is more common in girls.

“This could include ignoring girls they don’t like, spreading rumors and lies, and manipulating emotions to gain more social influence,” Dr. Rothweiler says. “But boys are capable of doing this, as well.”

A desire for popularity is a common motivation for bullying behavior. Children who are isolated may lack the social skills needed to make friends. In this case, bullying may be an expression of their frustration at not being able to fit in. Bullies who are socially well connected may use relational or emotional aggression to become more popular.

Red flags that your child is bullying can vary. Children who bully may be extremely competitive and obsess over their social reputation. They might not take responsibility for their actions and easily become defensive or moody. Spending more time on their phones or computers—and acting secretive about their social media activity—can also be a warning sign.

Drawing the Line
Parents can address bullying tendencies in a child by clearly communicating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Begin by:

  • helping him develop better social skills through role-playing
  • modeling polite behavior and being aware of any aggressive tendencies in yourself (such as gossiping, speaking ill of other parents, talking down to salespeople or restaurant servers, etc.)
  • monitoring texts, emails and social media activity
  • outlining the consequences if the child is caught bullying again
  • providing a stable home environment with clearly set limits

“Sit down with your child and have an honest conversation,” Dr. Blythe says. “Find out why your child is bullying and look for any signs of depression or anxiety. If your child is older and continues to bully, it may be time to seek help from a psychologist.”

Need help talking with your child about bullying? Call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Teen Helpline at 314.454.TEEN (8336) for free professional advice.


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