How early should you talk to your kids about bullying?

October is World Bullying Prevention Month, during which students, schools, and communities #blueup all over the world by wearing the color blue to show solidarity against bullying.

Every parent wants to protect their children from the pain of bullying. Being bullied as a child can have long-lasting negative effects. Whether your child is the victim, the witness, or the culprit of bullying, it’s important to have an open dialogue about harmful and destructive behaviors to prevent them.

While conversations about bullying are necessary, it can be challenging to know how early you should introduce the subject to your child as a parent. After all, you don’t want your kids to feel frightened about going to school or other public places where they might run into a bully. 

At the same time, in order to teach children how to navigate bullying, they need to know what it means, and the more you understand as a parent, the easier it will be to have that conversation.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about when and how to talk to your child about bullying, here’s what you need to know about the basics. 

What is bullying?

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Parents need to understand exactly what bullying is and how it comes into play during their child’s development. 

According to the Education Development Center’s Prevent Bullying initiative, bullying is a form of emotional or physical abuse that has three defining characteristics.

1. Intentional: a bully intends to hurt someone. 

2. Repeated: a bully often targets the same victim consistently. 

3. Power Imbalance: a bully will select victims based on who they perceive as vulnerable. This can be based on social or physical characteristics. 

At what age does bullying start? 

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According to experts at the EDC, bullying can first appear in early childhood, with children as young as 3 engaging in hurtful behavior. In early childhood settings, such as daycare, preschool, home care groups, playgroups, and kindergarten classrooms, aggression and bullying develop in age-specific ways

Young children (ages 2–4) may begin using aggressive or early bullying behaviors to defend their possessions, territory, and friendships, while older children (ages 4–6) begin to use malicious and bullying-related behaviors to threaten or intimidate other children. 

According to the experts at Together Against Bullying, bullying can be a severe issue in elementary school. Children are still learning to develop their social skills, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills during this time. 

Additionally in elementary school, the roles of bully and victim can often reverse. The same child who was a victim of bullying one day can exhibit similar harmful behaviors the next. 

Middle school is generally when bullying peaks. This period between elementary and high school can already be a very challenging time for children for a number of reasons. The transition from a smaller school to a larger one can be overwhelming for kids on top of new academic and learning expectations. 

These environmental changes combined with the bodily changes accompanied by puberty can be very difficult for children since they don’t yet possess the skills to cope with all the rapid transitions. 

In high school, bullying starts to decrease. However, while the number or reported incidents lowers, the students who are being bullied have likely been continuously bullied throughout their lives. 

According to Together Against Bullying, high school bullying usually happens in the locker room, school hallways, or on the internet. 

Experts at the EDC warn that if bullying amongst young children is overlooked and not stopped, children who bully will continue to do so as they get older, and children who are victimized will continue to suffer throughout their lives. The experts at Together Against Bullying also note that prevention and intervention is critical during middle school since that’s when bullying is most prevalent. 

Talking to your kids about bullying is extremely important because children who know what bullying is and its different behavioral patterns can more easily identify it when they see something or become involved in a situation. Furthermore, children who understand that bullying hurts others and shouldn’t be tolerated are more likely to respond appropriately and ask for help in cases involving a bully. 

While bullying can be a challenging subject to tackle with your children, there are ways to make it easier to approach the subject.

How to talk to your kids about bullying

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Start by explaining to your child that bullying can come in many different forms. For example, when someone repeatedly teases, insults, or threatens another person to make them feel small or embarrassed, they’re a bully. In addition, make sure your child knows that bullying also includes purposefully physically hurting another person in any way.  

Experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend that parents keep communication open by asking children about what they consider to be bullying in addition to questions like, “What’s happening at school?” “What are things like at lunch, recess, on the school bus?” etc. 

Parents can also help by discussing healthy strategies for responding to bullying such as removing themselves from the situation and talking to a trusted adult about what happened. 

One of the most important ways parents can prevent bullying is to encourage their children to actively defend someone who’s being bullied. When children witness bullying and do nothing, it sends the message that harmful and destructive behavior towards another person will be tolerated. 

The bottom line? The first step to keeping your child safe, whether in-person or online, is making sure they know the issue. 

If your child is experiencing bullying, here are some additional resources

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