More than half of all teenagers in America today see bullying as a major problem among their peers, according to a new survey by Pew Research. Teens were more likely to rank bullying as a problem than poverty, drug addition, or drinking alcohol. Only anxiety and depression—problems that bullying contributes to—ranked higher in the survey.

About 28 percent of U.S. students in grades six to 12 report experiencing bullying. About 30 percent admit to bullying others, and 70.6 percent say they have seen bullying in their schools. Most bullying occurs during the middle school years, but a survey of youth risk behaviors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about a fifth of high-school students (19 percent in 2017) reported being bullied on school property in the past 12 months, and 14.9 percent said they’d experienced cyberbullying in the previous year.

For generations, many Americans—including far too many Christians—considered bullying a normal, albeit unfortunate, part of childhood. But over the past few decades, society has begun to realize that bullying can have long-term effects on everyone involved.

Kids who are bullied can experience depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and reduced academic achievement. Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. They are more likely to engage in early sexual activity, abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults, and be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.

And kids who merely witness bullying are more likely to increase their use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, experience mental-health problems—including depression and anxiety—and miss or skip school.

Because of these harmful effects, understanding bullying and knowing how to address it are important parts of developing in children a biblical, neighbor-loving worldview.

Types and Modes of Bullying

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. To be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive, repeated, and include an imbalance of power between the children. Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.

Bullying can be classified into four types: verbal, social, physical, and damage to property. Verbal bullying is saying or writing something that is cruel or intended to harm, and includes such acts as making inappropriate sexual comments or threatening to cause pain. Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships, and includes spreading rumors or causing intentional public embarrassment. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body and includes such actions as hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, sexually abusing, or taking one’s possessions. The fourth type of bullying involves any type of intentional damage to a child’s property.

The two modes of bullying include direct (bullying that occurs in the presence of a child) and indirect (bullying not directly communicated to a targeted child, such as spreading rumors).

Because of the prevalence of media technology, children now must deal with electronic bullying, or cyberbullying—bullying that occurs using technology (including but not limited to phones, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and online posts). Cyberbullying is not a different type of bullying; it just involves an electronic context. Cyberbullying involves some form of verbal bullying (such as threatening or harassing text messages), social bullying (such as spreading rumors online), or damage to property (such as destroying homework files).

Most bullying takes place in school areas, including school playgrounds and buses. One large study revealed the percentage of middle-school students who had experienced bullying in these places at school: classrooms (29.3 percent); hallways or lockers (29 percent); cafeterias (23.4 percent); gyms or PE classes (19.5 percent); bathrooms (12.2 percent); and playgrounds or recess (6.2 percent).

Tips for Training Children

Ask your child about bullying — Has your child been bullied? Before you say no, you might want to ask them. Only about 20 percent to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying. If the child admits to being bullied, let them know you are on their side. “Realize that your child is not to blame for being bullied, and refuse to believe any lies being told about him or her,” Dr. Walt Larimore says. “The bully is the disturbed one. Remind your children of their value in your and God’s sight, and help them understand that no one can make them feel inferior without their permission.”

Labels that stigmatize children — Bullying involves both behavior and also power imbalance. When we label a child a bully, we imply their behavior can’t change (“That’s just what they are”). Similarly, when we label a child a victim, we may be giving the impression the child is weak or inferior. In both cases the labels fail to acknowledge the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations. A child who bullies may also be the victim of bullying by other children.

Instead of labeling the children involved, focus on the behavior. For instance, rather than calling a child a bully, refer to them as a child who bullied. Instead labeling a child as a victim, refer to them as a child who was bullied. And instead of calling a child a bully/victim, refer to them as a child who was both bullied and also bullied others.

The Circle of Bullying — Even if your child is not bullying or being bullied, they may be in the broader group known as the circle of bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program identifies several roles kids play regarding bullying:

  • Students who bully
  • Students who are bullied
  • Followers or henchmen—those who participate but do not start the bullying
  • Supporters or passive bullies—those who support the bullying but do not take an active part
  • Passive supporters or possible bullies—those who like the bullying but do not display open support
  • Disengaged onlookers—spectators who don’t take a stand
  • Possible defenders—those who dislike the bullying and think they ought to help but don’t act
  • Defenders—opponents of bullying who try to help the bullied student

Encourage intervention — We should teach our children to be defenders and not to be afraid to protect other people (Matt. 7:12; 1 Thess. 5:14; Heb. 13:6). Their willingness to intervene can make a significant difference. Research has shown that more than half the time (57 percent), when children intervene and play the role of “defender,” bullying stops within 10 seconds.

Rules to remember and live by — Rather than waiting until an incident occurs, teach your child beforehand how they are expected to behave as a defender. At a minimum, children should be told to always follow these rules:

  • I will not bully others.
  • I will try to help other children who are bullied.
  • I will try to include other children who are left out.
  • If I know somebody is being bullied, I will tell an adult at school and my parents.
  • I will pray both for those who are being bullied and those who are bullying others.
Editors’ note: 

Parts of this article are excerpted from Joe Carter’s new book, The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents: Help Your Kids Learn Practical Life Skills, Develop Essential Faith Habits, and Embrace a Biblical Worldview, now available at Amazon (Kindle | Paperback).