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Bullying Behavior Across Childhood

Bullying behavior is a serious and common problem that is a public health issue. Bullying can drastically affect the ability of children – bullies and victims alike – to progress emotionally, socially and academically. This publication explains what bullying is, discusses the interactions of bullies and their victims, and suggests how to respond to and reduce bullying.

Last Updated: 06/17
by Sandra J. Bailey, Ph.D., CFLE, Family & Human Development Specialist; and Katelyn Andersen, Ravalli County Extension Faculty


time away from their parents in child care, school, clubs, and sporting activities. One worry that parents have during these absences from their children is bullying. The concern is real since the US has higher rates of school bullying than other countries. The Centers for Disease Control considers bullying a public health problem. The effects of bullying can last a lifetime.

Bullying behavior is any kind of aggressive, ongoing physical or verbal harm where there is unequal power between the bully and a victim. Bullying actions include spreading rumors, making threats, physical or verbal attacks or purposely excluding an individual. Bullying occurs when an individual purposely and repeatedly holds power over another with the intent of hurting him or her. Bullying behavior is often carried out when bystanders fail to come to the aid of the victim. Failing to step in can encourage bullying to continue.

Relational, or indirect bullying, is another type of bullying that is common among girls. In this situation, friends are excluded and mean or harmful words are said about another child. Cyberbullying is a form of relational bullying and has become more common. This type of bullying is relational as it doesn’t involve physical contact with another child. (See box, page 2).

Bullying behavior is a common childhood occurrence that typically begins in preschool and peaks in middle school. Some reports state that nearly one-third of school-age children experience bullying. Children often do not report bullying. One study found that up to 64% of victims do not report bullying, making it difficult for parents, school staff and administrators to address the problem. Although a common experience, bullying should not be a normal part of childhood!


Which Children are Most Prone to Bullying Behavior?

Boys are more likely to engage in bullying behavior than girls. Boys tend to use direct physical threats to their victims while girls often use indirect strategies such as spreading rumors or excluding a child. Both are harmful to the child who is bullied.

Youth who engage in bullying behavior are usually disruptive and tend to direct their emotions and energy outward, such as acting out at school. These youth often have problems with depression, substance abuse and academic problems in school. They are more popular with peers than victims, yet they may also have problems socially. They are also more likely to be negatively influenced by their peers.

As adults, youth who expressed bullying behavior have violent tendencies. They also have greater difficulty with social and psychological adjustment as adults.


Who are the Victims?

Victims are often quiet, have fewer friends and low self-esteem. They may not feel comfortable in social situations with peers. Victims often internalize behaviors such as negative thoughts about themselves. They may isolate themselves and be rejected by peers. Common targets of bullying are children who are perceived as different – such as different race, body weight, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ or who have special needs. Youth who dress differently or aren’t wearing brand-name clothes can also be targets of bullying.

Bullying can hurt children physically as well as emotionally. A bullying study of children who were of a different race and/or were overweight, found they had higher blood pressure. The children also had a lower overall health rating.




What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a type of indirect bullying. Cyberbullying occurs online using electronic technology, such as cell phones, computers or tablets. It could occur on social media sites, via text messages, or websites and chat rooms. Cyberbullying could come in the form of an embarrassing picture posted to a social media site or a rumor sent to a group of people via electronic messaging.

The effects of cyberbullying are similar to face-to-face bullying. Youth may have lower self-esteem, be unwilling to attend school or skip school, use drugs and alcohol, have poor grades, or have health problems. Cyberbullying may be more intense than bullying because it is harder to get away from the behavior. Cyberbullying can occur at any point. The youth does not have to be near the bully. Additionally, electronic messages can make it difficult to trace the source because they can be deleted or spread via a social media account.

What can you do to prevent cyberbullying?

Parents and guardians need to create boundaries for their child’s technology use and social media engagement. There should be conversations about the sites your child visits and discussions about who their “friends” and “followers” are on the sites. It is appropriate to set up parental control on their devices to help them stay safe. Ask for passwords to their devices and sites they visit.

Communicate with your child and learn about what they do online and at school. Ask specific questions, such as, “What did you research today on the internet for school?”

How to report cyberbullying.

If your child experiences cyberbullying, there are a few options depending on the severity of the situation. Immediately block the person via social media or by contacting the cell phone company, depending on where it occurred. Keep evidence of the cyberbullying by recording the date, time and description of the occurrence. Save and print screenshots, emails or text messages. Report the cyberbullying to the social media site.

Cyberbullying should be reported to law enforcement if the following activities include threats of violence, child pornography or sending sexually explicit messages and/or photos, stalking and hate crimes. Contact your child’s school to help inform them of the situation.

NOTE: Information adapted from


Who are Bully-Victims?

There is also a group called bully-victims who are bullies as well as victims of other children’s bullying. These children, while fewer in numbers, generally have fewer friends than youth with bullying behavior or victims. They experience more bullying than other victims. Bully-victims are very emotional, nervous, and restless. These children are more likely to be bullied because they have few friends to support them. They are also more likely to be bullied in three ways – physically, verbally and socially. Bully-victims are less likely to help others who are being bullied. They are more likely to act out impulsively and aggressively towards others. They also are likely to have social and emotional difficulties. This newer bullying category shows that there is a range from bully to victim. A child may start as a bully and then become the victim of bullying behavior.

Children with poor social skills and impulsive, aggressive behavior, like bullies and bully-victims, are at a higher risk of becoming poorly adjusted adults with violent tendencies.


Bully Bystanders

More is being written about children who are by-standers in bullying situations. Some feel guilty but still stand by while others do not seem concerned that the bullying is their problem. The reluctance to help the bully is a problem for both groups of children but particularly those who are not concerned. Parents and schools need to work with those children to help them learn to take personal responsibility when they see others needing assistance.


Parents’ Roles in Preventing Bullying Behavior

Parenting can be a tough job. The influences parents have on their children are lifelong, therefore it is important for parents to teach their children well about how to treat others. Bullies do not simply appear – there are reasons for children’s bullying actions. Some children may feel they have no power or control over their lives and therefore resort to bullying. Others may see bullying behaviors regularly at home. Some are exposed to bullying in the media.

Studies have noted some trends in the backgrounds of those who bully others. Parents of bullies more often than other parents, report that their child did things that bothered them, believed their child was difficult to care for, or frequently felt angry with their child. The parents of bullies use harsh parenting methods, such as spanking, and are more accepting of violence.

The result is that many bullies are children who have difficult childhoods in terms of family relationships and support. Their parents are more likely to be uninvolved or hostile, and demonstrate an uninvolved, permissive or restrictive parenting style. Although there is no guarantee, parents who use a democratic style of parenting, have children who are less likely to bully. These parents foster warm loving relationships with their children. They provide structure and limits while allowing the children to have a voice in decision making. Being “democratic” does not mean that the child has an equal vote, only that his/her voice has been heard. Parents still make the final decision in guiding children’s behavior.

Bullying in childhood can lead to bullying behaviors as an adult. By addressing bullying in childhood we can help reduce violence in the general population. It is important to discuss bullying behavior in the family and set clear expectations for your household. Parents can take control of potentially mean-spirited conversations by expressing that this type of behavior isn’t acceptable in our family. (For ideas on how parents can prevent bullying see box below.)


Bullying Prevention Programs

Experts report that establishing a culture of nonviolence in schools is important in reducing bullying. Students also need to feel that it is okay to back down from a fight. Youth, as a group, also need to adapt the norm that bullying is not acceptable. One study found that on average, school-based anti-bullying programs decreased bullying behavior by 20-23% and victimization by bullies by 17-20%.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is a promising program that focuses on warmth and positive role modeling from adults, firm limits for behavior and non-hostile appropriate consequences for rule breaking. The program’s goals are to reduce bullying behaviors, prevent bullying problems from occurring and strengthenpeer relationships at school.

The intensity and duration of a program, as well as the number of program features, such as parenting meetings, classroom rules and playground supervision, are linked to effectiveness. These studies indicate that a one-time assembly or speaker on bullying and violence will not make a long-term impact on reducing bullying.

Teachers play a vital role in developing a culture of nonviolence. The Youth Voice Project surveyed children who had been moderately to highly traumatized by bullying. Results found that there were some helpful strategies and some that were not helpful. Helpful results included:

  • Adults checking in with the child afterwards
  • Adults giving children helpful advice on how to respond to bullying
  • Teachers calling the child at home to check on him or her
  • Bringing the bully in to talk with the victim with the teacher present

Actions that were not helpful included:

  • Adults telling the child to solve the problem him or herself
  • Adults telling children to quit tattling
  • Adults ignoring the child
  • Adults telling a child that if he or she acted differently the bullying would not happen

Unfortunately, youth of color, boys and special needs students were told more often to quit tattling than were girls, youth not in special needs classrooms, and white children.

Peers were found to be helpful. Peer support appeared to be more helpful than adult assistance, reinforcing that peers help shape a nonviolent school culture.

Helpful peer strategies reported by students included:

  • Listening to and spending time with the victim
  • Giving the victim advice
  • Telling the bully to stop and helping the victim to get away
  • Helping the victim tell an adult

Youth reported that when friends blamed the victim, made fun of the victim, or simply distracted the victim, it was not helpful.



What can parents do to help their child if he/she bullies others?

Although we don’t like to think that our child could be a bully, we must face reality if it happens. Here are some suggestions for parents and caregivers responsible for a child who is bullying others.

  • Model warm, respectful behaviors when relating with others.
  • Involve your child’s teachers and school administrators. Make a plan to prevent future bullying.
  • Talk with your child. Children who bully try to deny or minimize their wrongdoings.
  • Tell your child you will not allow such bullying behavior, and state the consequences.
  • Discuss with your child how it feels to be bullied.
  • Increase your supervision of your child’s activities and whereabouts.
  • Spend time with your child and set reasonable rules for and limits on activities.
  • Know who your child’s friends are and ask about his/her activities each day.
  • Praise the efforts your child makes toward becoming nonviolent and responsible.

If your child is bullying others, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional, and legal problems for the bully as well as for the victim. Talk to your child’s principal and teachers, school counselor, and pediatrician or family physician. If the bullying continues, have your child evaluated by a children’s psychiatrist or other mental health professional. Such an evaluation can help you and your child understand what’s behind the bullying and develop a plan to stop it.



Legislation to Address Bullying

Currently, there are no direct federal laws on bullying, however, since Montana House Bill 0284 the Bully-Free Montana Act was approved by the 2015 Montana Legislature, all 50 states have passed anti-bullying legislation. The Montana Office of Public Instruction requires local school districts to have anti-bullying policies. A toolkit was developed to guide the schools’ efforts:

Bullying is unlikely to go away entirely. However, parents, teachers, other adults and children can all make a difference in reducing bullying behavior. Democratic parenting styles can help children learn to be caring and responsible. Schools can develop a culture of acceptance and inclusion. Children can be taught to not accept bullying behavior and to help when they see a child being bullied.


For more information on bullying

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention

Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Megan Meier Foundation

SAMSA Bullying Prevention in Indian Country

Stop Bullying Now Bullying and LGBT Youth http://

National Center for Education Statistics



We would like to thank the following individuals who reviewed an earlier draft of this MontGuide:

  • Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist, University of Minnesota
  • Kelly Moore, Missoula County Extension Agent
  • Jackie Rumph, Yellowstone County Extension Agent

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