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Bullying: Warning Signs, How to Respond, & Ways to Empower Your Child

By: Shelly Hillman on October 22nd, 2021

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Bullying: Warning Signs, How to Respond, & Ways to Empower Your Child

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In recent years, our country has seen a significant rise in concerns about bullying, with a particular emphasis on cyberbullying. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and we're here to examine some signs that your child might be experiencing bullying, as well as offer some tools and trips to resolve and even prevent it. Special thanks to our school counselors for providing insights for this blog post!

For many parents, schoolyard days included shouts of laughter, running around, and a well-earned break amidst a day of learning.  

But for some, we also remember unfortunate incidents of harassment by physically stronger classmates, taunts and name-calling, and black eyes and bruises.

With the advent of the digital age, bullying is no longer limited to those who are bigger and more powerful. We find bullies across a variety of gender, socioeconomic, ethnic, familial, identity, geographic, and health-related dimensions — made easier through a misuse of technology. Bullying is a form of discrimination that can be based upon any of these dimensions.


Types of Bullying

Bullying is often found in three main forms:

  • Verbal, which is saying or writing hurtful things. Teasing, name-calling, taunting, threats, and inappropriate comments fall into this category.
  • Physical, which involves hurting a person’s body or possessions, and includes hitting, kicking, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking/breaking possessions, or rude hand gestures.
  • Social, or damaging someone’s reputation or relationships. This type of bullying includes intentional exclusion, telling others not to be friends with the victim, spreading rumors, and public embarrassment.

Victims of bullying often experience significant physical, social, emotional, academic, and mental health concerns, and may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

While we still encounter in-person bullying, both verbal and social bullying in particular are found in cyberbullying. Hiding behind a screen does not make this form of bullying any less dangerous, and cyber bullies do not need physical access in order to inflict harm.

Some cyberbullying actually crosses into unlawful or criminal behavior, and is found on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, TikTok, WhatsApp, YouTube, and more), in online gaming forums, in chat rooms, via email, through instant messaging, and on Internet forums and articles. In fact, Pennsylvania’s HB229, which was passed in July 2015, is a measure that makes it illegal to bully a child in the state through electronic communications — and adults and juveniles alike can now face criminal charges if caught in the act of cyberbullying.


Issues kids feel from cyberbullying chart

Image courtesy of Teen Esteem

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey’s School Crime Supplement, in the 2018-2019 school year, about 22 percent of students nationwide, ages 12-18, experienced bullying. That same year, nearly 16 percent of students in high school reported being electronically bullied in the year prior to the survey. More females reported being harassed than men, while students of other races not Hispanic or Latino (including Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and those of two or more races) reported a higher overall bullying rate, as opposed to percentages for White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian students.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice's Incidence of Victimization at School and Away from School publication from May 2022 reveals that, while the total victimization rate dropped from 2019-2020, students aged 12-18 still experienced 285,400 at-school victimizations, and 380,900 away from school. 

One thing is clear: we have a long way to go in addressing this damaging activity.

Why People Bully

Reasons for bullying are numerous, but often fall into four main categories, according to stopbullying.gov:

  • Peer factors, such as wanting to gain social status or power, show allegiance to a group, or control behavior of peers;
  • Family factors, such as coming from a home where there is aggression or violence, a lack of emotional support, parents or caregivers who are authoritarian, or overly lenient adults with low involvement in children’s lives;
  • Emotional factors, such as low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of emotional awareness or control, previous incidents of bullying, or lack of healthy social skills;
  • School factors, such as being in schools where bullying is not properly addressed, or the student experiencing exclusion, lack of acceptance, or stigmatization at school.

Bullying is Not...

It’s important to note that bullying/cyberbullying and disagreeing on a topic are not the same thing. According to Very Well Family, a key difference is that bullying is intended to hurt, insult, or threaten another person, and usually includes an imbalance of power. Bullies often exert control through intimidation, harassment, threats, or humiliation.

Additionally, bullying is a purposeful and repeated activity that makes no attempt to resolve a conflict. While conflict is an inevitable part of life — and teaches listening skills, how to compromise, and how to resolve differences in a healthy manner — bullying is a deliberate act intended to injure another.

> Read More: Is Online School the Best Choice for You and Your Student?

How to Spot Bullying

Cyberbullying in particular can be difficult to recognize, as digital devices allow for immediate and persistent communication, use electronic information that is permanent and often publicly accessible, and bullying is often unseen by teachers and parents simply because of the mediums used.

Students often assume that teachers or parents know about bullying and are allowing it (an unfortunate misunderstanding, as many teachers simply don’t witness it), so they may not speak up directly. Additionally, students feel pressure not to allow adult intervention, for fear that it will be ineffective or might bring more harassment from bullies.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides some warning signs that may point to a bullying problem. While some signs, such as unexplainable physical injuries and the loss or destruction of personal belongings, are more direct signs of bullying, there are several that may indicate a problem.

  • Change in eating and sleeping habits and health: Victims of bullying may lose their appetite, skip meals, or even binge eat. They also often have difficulty sleeping, sleep too much, or have frequent headaches, stomach aches, or fake illness in order to avoid potential bullying situations.
  • Academic performance changes: If your school-loving child suddenly fears walking through those doors, bullying may be to blame. Declining grades and a lack of interest in schoolwork may point to bullying.
  • Shift in technology usage: While we all often respond emotionally to what we see or hear, if your child has any new or intense responses to technology, it may be due to bullying. Hiding screens, avoiding discussion of what they are doing, and frequently changing social media accounts are often red flags of bullying.
  • Change in social interest, attitude, and behavior: Children who are bullied may suddenly lose their friends or avoid social situations. Some may withdraw, while others become more rambunctious as they mimic bully-like behaviors. Mentally and emotionally, victims often develop feelings of helplessness, lose self-esteem, or even become self destructive.


How PA Virtual Addresses Bullying

Many of our students chose cyber education in order to escape bullying, so we take measures to eradicate bullying in the PA Virtual community.

  • Teachers go to great lengths to monitor classroom communication and ensure all students are respecting one another.
  • Parents and Learning Coaches have ready access to our school counseling department, in order to report any bullying concerns.
  • Families are required to sign our anti-bullying policy each year, and pledge to uphold the school’s core principles so that all students can achieve their full academic and social potential.
  • The School Counseling program offers a full range of services, just like a brick-and-mortar school program.
    Students have ready access to counselors and their assistant principals or principals, who immediately begin investigating the situation.
  • Students have ready access to counselors and their assistant principals or principals, who immediately begin investigating the situation.

What You Can Do

It can be challenging as a parent, guardian, or teacher to know how to help a student who is being bullied. Not all students readily open up about it, and many fear backlash, appearing weak, rejection by peers, and humiliation. As counselor Crystal Widmann notes, “Bullying is a learned behavior — and behaviors can be unlearned.”

  • Monitor your child’s usual habits, and note any significant changes. Help your child avoid screen addiction by setting time limits for technology usage.
  • Help children develop emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-regulation skills.
  • Develop ground rules for the classroom and home, as appropriate. These guidelines can address respectful disagreement and dialogue, how to have a healthy discussion, supporting ideas, personal responsibility for behavior, and more.
  • Role model, reinforce, and reward healthy, positive behaviors. Children are watching us for their cues. If we as adults bully one another in person or online, students interpret that as acceptable behavior. 
  • Empower your children to stand up, either for themselves or for others. Encourage your child to support others. Widmann suggests having them use the “SAVE” Technique to Speak Up, seek Adult Help, Volunteer Solutions, and End the Cycle.

    A helpful way for bullying victims to assert themselves is to employ the Baseball Rule.
    • In this method, Strike 1 involves telling the person to stop, being as firm as possible while making verbal statements that match nonverbals (don’t laugh it off if it isn’t funny). Doing so is a warning to the bully and clearly states that the victim wants the action to end.
    • Strike 2 means being specific in what one says, and what they tell the bully to stop doing. This refutes any claims of “I didn’t know they didn’t like that” by naming the offense clearly.
    • In Strike 3, the bullied individual reports the behavior, which allows them to take control of the situation in a healthy manner.

For anyone witnessing cyberbullying, Lauren Lombardo suggests that they refuse to pass along bullying messages, talk to their friends to get them to stop bullying, block communication with bullies, and report it to a trusted adult. “It can stop with you," she tells high schoolers. "You can be the one to stop the chain if there are messages going around, or rumors, or if people are ganging up online.”

For those being bullied, it’s important not to escalate the situation. Lombardo echoes the sentiments of empowerment website Teen Esteem, and advises students to save any evidence, tell a trusted adult what is happening, report/block/mute the bully, and remember that the problem lies with the bully, not the victim.

It’s easy to assume that bullying — an activity that seems to have existed as long as human existence — is a natural part of life. While conflict is inevitable, due to us all having different experiences and ideas, bullying is an unnecessary misuse of conflict that uses power and intimidation to control others. As our country continues to engage in anti-bullying education, and parents work with their children to support these efforts, we hope to see those percentages continue to drop.

NOTE: This blog post was originally published in October 2021, and has been updated for accuracy of content.

Is your child experiencing bullying, with no resolution? Many students attend PA Virtual due to bullying issues at their previous schools. Find out more about if online school is the best choice for you and your child.


Photo credits to Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash, and Teen Esteem.