We’ve all heard of bullying, but do we truly know what it means? Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance. While it is most often seen among school-aged children, it is also pervasive in the workplace, social situations, and politics. With bullying, there is usually an imbalance of power. The bully is either physically stronger or more popular, and the behavior is repetitive.

There are three types of bullying:

  • physical bullying
  • social bullying
  • verbal bullying

Physical bullying includes aggression such as pushing, hitting, spitting, or taking someone’s personal items. Social bullying is defined as hurting one’s reputation. Although subtle, this accounts for a substantial amount of bullying and includes public embarrassment, spreading rumors about someone, excluding someone, and influencing others to not be friends with someone. Verbal bullying is oral or written expression of harsh things, such as name-calling, teasing, taunting, threats, or inappropriate sexual, racial, or ethnic comments. When bullying is done via social media, it is typically called cyber-bullying.

Who bullies? Commonly, bullies are overly concerned with their popularity or isolated from their peers. Personal traits include low frustration tolerance, conflict/neglect at home, difficulty following rules, influence from friends who bully, general feelings of thinking badly of others, and those viewing aggression as a good thing.

Who gets bullied? Common characteristics of children who get bullied are those who are perceived as different in some way, depressed or anxious, less popular, and those who don’t get along well with others.

Bullying takes place in all school settings, including private and public, poorer areas and richer areas, urban and rural areas. Even when schools define themselves as “No-Bullying Zones” or having zero tolerance for bullying, it still exists, often in the form of social bullying where there is exclusion, influencing other children to not be friends with someone, and eroding an individual’s self-esteem. (For example, saying, “You can’t sit at this lunch table because there’s no room for you here”).

Society has focused more on physical bullying because it is easily recognized, but social bullying is equally as destructive to a child. Of children in grades six through 12, 28% have reported being bullied. Moreover, subtle bullying is not witnessed by school personnel and is rarely addressed. Estimates show that teachers witness only 4% of bullying. Furthermore, since there is shame involved, children bullied report it to their parents only half the time.

Given those low percentages, how would you know if your child is being bullied? Here are some common things to watch for:

  • Marks or injuries that cannot be explained
  • Loss of friends
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Lost clothing, books, or money
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Nightmares
  • School avoidance
  • Decreased interest in school
  • Declining grades
  • Feelings of helplessness or loss of self-esteem
  • Frequent health complaints (such as headaches or stomachaches)

Many of these signs are very non-specific and should be taken as broad possibilities that your child is being bullied. Look at the number and frequency of the signs before taking action.

What can you do if you think your child is being bullied? Here are some steps to take:

  • Be proactive and ask your child questions if you have the slightest thought that your child is being bullied
  • Be calm and supportive
  • Listen carefully and attentively; let your child guide the conversation
  • Teach your child assertiveness techniques; problem solve with them, going through different scenarios and different solutions
  • Involve school personnel and follow the chain of command if satisfactory action is not taken
  • Periodically reassess the situation with your child
  • Do not contact a bully’s parents, as this has been found to be unproductive and may make the situation worse

The long-lasting effects of bullying include an erosion of self-worth, fostering unhealthy expressions of anger, and perception of the world as a dangerous place, and are powerful. Bullying must end. Awareness is the first step.

Kevin Caputo is chair of the department of psychiatry, as well as president and chief behavioral officer at Crozer-Keystone Health System.