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How to Identify and Address Bullying Behavior

Teen boy outside school

What is bullying?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

Bullying may inflict physical, psychological, social or educational harm on the targeted youth.

Bullying behaviors include:

  • Teasing, name-calling and taunting
  • Spreading rumors about someone or intentionally embarrassing someone in a public setting
  • Hitting, kicking, tripping, punching or spitting
  • Taking or damaging someone else’s belongings

The real or perceived imbalance of power can result from:

  • Being physically able to hurt others
  • Participating in a group that outnumbers the targeted individual or group
  • Being more assertive and confident to initiate the behavior or engage in sophisticated, subtle ways to make fun of someone in a way that goes unnoticed by adults
  • Possessing higher social status and the ability to turn others against the target of the bullying
  • Having access to embarrassing or private information

Why children and teens engage in bullying behaviors

Children engage in bullying behavior for a number of reasons, including:

  • They may be struggling to manage emotions such as anger, frustration or insecurity. Unloading these emotions on another child can make the child or teen feel more important, more popular or more powerful.
  • Youth may not understand that their behavior is not OK. They target those who are not like them — in looks, race, religion, social or economic standing and numerous other ways children differ from each other — because they have not learned how to understand and accept differences or work out conflicts or disagreements.
  • Children are copying aggressive or unkind behavior they see at home. Youth who are taunted at home — by siblings, parents or other family members and caregivers — learn they can control others through bullying behavior.

Bullying is a behavior, not an identity. Anyone can be bullied, and anyone — male or female, popular or unpopular, those doing well in school and those who are not — can engage in bullying behaviors. But new behaviors can be learned, and bullying can be curtailed or stopped.

Signs your child could be bullying others

Children who are bullying others often exhibit one or more of these traits:

  • Are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions and behaviors, either at home or in school
  • Are quick to blame others for their problems or unwanted situations
  • Lack empathy, compassion or understanding of others’ feelings
  • Are being bullied themselves
  • Seem overly worried about their reputation or popularity or are trying to fit in with peers who engage in bullying behavior
  • Want to be in control or are highly competitive in sports, academics or recreational games, which by itself is not uncommon, but may be cause for concern if it accompanies other behaviors on this list
  • Are frequently sent to the principal’s office or to detention
  • Do not recognize that their behavior is aggressive or believe they are just teasing or joking
  • Have frequent physical or verbal fights fueled by frustration, anxiety, depression or the inability to control anger
  • Are increasingly aggressive with parents or guardians, siblings and friends
  • Hang around with individuals who bully others
  • Have unexplained extra money or unfamiliar belongings in their possession

How to help a child engaging in bullying behaviors

Bullying is common, and there are interventions that can help correct the behavior. The most important thing is to deal with the behavior immediately. There are numerous ways to help your family cope with and correct bullying behavior, as well as tools and resources to help restore stability to your child’s school, home and social environments.

  • Talk to your children about bullying. Begin by letting them know it is not OK.
  • Be specific about what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable. Review the list of behaviors that constitute bullying, and discuss how you would like to help them expand their skills to respond differently in future situations.
  • Ask your children to describe the situations and how they feel in those circumstances that lead to the unwanted and repeated behavior. Listen to their feelings and consider their actions and reasons for engaging in such behavior. Develop an action plan to help them develop different coping skills.
  • Teach your children to treat everyone, even those who are not like them, with respect and kindness. Set an example at home, but also talk about how they might have reacted differently in the situations they have experienced.
  • Be open with your children when conflicts occur in your own life, and share how you’re trying to handle them with respect. Yelling, name-calling, put-downs and harsh criticism are behaviors the entire family should work to eliminate.
  • Equip your children with the skills necessary to cope with anger, frustration, conflict and difficult situations. Consult resources such as, which is aimed at helping children and adults deal with bullying behavior.
  • Explore children and youth counseling services available through Military OneSource. Licensed counselors can help children deal with changes at home, communication and relationships at home and school, and behavioral issues. You can also contact your installation’s Military and Family Support Center and ask to be connected to child and youth behavioral counselors near you.
  • Contact your local school liaison. They can connect parents and guardians to school and district personnel to facilitate conversations and resolutions and help you find the resources you need.
  • With assistance from child and youth counselors or trusted school administrators, create a plan for addressing the behavior specific to your child’s situation. A behavior modification plan should provide structure and boundaries for specific behavior expectations, frequent involvement and discussion with parents and guardians, exploration of feelings in difficult situations and consistency of discipline and rules.
  • Encourage good behavior. Positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior is more effective than discipline.
  • Should discipline be necessary, be consistent. Attach meaningful, time-limited consequences to slip-ups in behavior. Logical, situation-specific consequences are best. If damage was done as a result of the bullying behavior, have your child provide restitution by paying for damages. If the behavior is taking place during sports or other recreational activities, have your child take a short break from participation. If logical consequences aren’t practical or even feasible in a particular situation, behavioral slip-ups can be handled with a loss of privileges — from TV or video games to social outing with friends.
  • Consult age-appropriate child and parenting resources to better understand how you can support your child. Information and resources are available through:
  • Monitor the bullying behavior to figure out what is triggering it. Was your child aggressive or angry? Sulky or withdrawn? Spiteful or secretive? What day and time did the behavior take place? What activities did your child engage in before the behavior worsened? How long did it take for your child to calm down and what helped? Being aware of the situations that trigger these reactions can help shape conversations with your child, other parents, professionals, teachers and administrators.

Take the time to get to know your child and to understand what may be behind the behaviors. Resources such as those available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can help you teach your child better coping and social skills so they can handle difficult situations. Talk openly with your children about bullying to help prevent reoccurrences. Share age-appropriate information with them and teach them to be aware of their behaviors.

Military OneSource can connect you with the resources and information you need to help your children heal, including child and youth counseling. Call 800-342-9646, find OCONUS dialing options or start a live chat.

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