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10 Signs of Teenage Bullying and What Parents Can Do

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When a teenager falls off a bicycle or has a sports injury, parents can easily identify the medical help needed and take action. In addition, they can offer the appropriate emotional support. However, with teenage bullying, the wounds are often invisible, and are inflicted when parents aren’t around. And they can have long-lasting psychological effects.

Adolescent bullying can cause serious emotional harm, even when there is no visible physical harm. It can be hard to help teens get the support they need, because they stay silent. Due to the shame and fear involved with bullying, teenagers may not want to talk about it. Therefore, parents need to educate themselves about the signs of bullying and take action to prevent mental health issues.


Key Takeaways

  • Bullying takes many forms, including verbal, physical, sexual, emotional, and relational.
  • 20% of teens report being bullied by peers, with as many as one-third of middle school students experiencing bullying.
  • Being bullied can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a higher risk of suicidal behavior.
  • A strong parent-child connection helps protect teens from the negative mental health consequences of teenage bullying.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is defined as using intimidation, aggression, or perceived power to create a physical or emotional sense of domination by one or more people over their victim. Bullying can occur in many forms, including:

  • Verbal—name-calling, insults
  • Emotional—mocking and humiliating someone
  • Physical—shoving, hitting, etc.
  • Sexual—harassing others through sexually explicit comments, spreading rumors about someone’s sexual activity, etc.
  • Exclusion—purposefully isolating or ignoring someone
  • Relational aggression—”frenemy” behaviors such as talking negatively behind others’ backs
  • Cyberbullying—online bullying via social media or texts

How Many Teens Are Bullied?

Unfortunately, teenage bullying is very common. Surveys from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that one out of every five teens (ages 12–18) reports being bullied at school. Bullying is most common during middle school, when as many as one-third of students experience some form of bullying. Moreover, statistics from stopbullying.gov, 30 percent of students admit to bullying others, and more than 70 percent of students and school staff have witnessed bullying at their school.

According to the NCES, the primary reason teens are bullied are physical appearance, race or ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, and sexual orientation. Hence, LGBTQ, Asian, Black, and multiracial students experience the highest levels of bullying and poor treatment in school. More than one third of all US high school students felt they had been treated badly or unfairly at school because of their race or ethnicity, according to the CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey.

What Makes Teens Bully Others?

Typically, bullying is done in front of or with the help of a group of peers. Perpetrators bully victims with the goal of establishing domination at the expense of someone else. There is no stereotypical bully—bullies come from every background, culture, and level of education. Here are some of the reasons why kids bully their peers:

  • Jealousy and envy of other’s talents or friendships
  • A desire to feel in control, during a stage of life when teenagers often feel out of control of what’s happening in their bodies and their lives
  • Lack of self-esteem, causing teens to belittle others in an attempt to feel better about themselves
  • Anger management issues and problems with impulse control
  • Narcissistic tendencies, which can manifest as aggression when the person’s ego is threatened
  • Trying to get attention when they’re feeling isolated, lonely, or that no one cares about them

Adolescent Bullying and Relational Aggression

Teenage bullying in both middle school and high school typically takes the form of exclusion, backstabbing, and manipulation—forms of bullying known as as relational aggression. Relational aggression is used to gain social status and includes the following bullying behaviors:

  • Intentionally excluding peers from a friend group or clique
  • Spreading rumors and gossip
  • Sharing with one friend something negative that a mutual friend said about them
  • Making negative comments that can be passed off as “trying to help”
  • Sharing someone’s secrets in order to embarrass or expose them
  • Getting others to turn against a victim

Because relational aggression is more subtle than physical bullying, it can be difficult for adults to identify or observe the situation. Often, parents are unaware of what is happening, and most kids don’t volunteer the information, especially as they get older. Victims of bullying are sometimes too scared, ashamed, or intimidated to talk about it. Hence, bullying can continue for a long time without adults realizing what’s going on.

The Mental Health Consequences of Teenage Bullying

Regardless of the type of bullying or the method used, kids who are bullied usually feel shame, loneliness, anxiety, and sadness. Bullying is a traumatic experience that can lead to depression in high school. One study found that mental health problems were four times higher among boys who had been bullied and 2.4 times higher among girls who had been bullied. And the more frequently a teen is bullied, the more severe the emotional impact becomes.

As a result, ongoing bullying can catalyze suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. One recent study found that bullying was a major factor in the increase in teen suicides when students returned to in-person school after online learning during the pandemic. Furthermore, adolescent victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide and self-harm.

Because early adolescence and middle adolescence are such formative stages of life, adolescent bullying can leave long-term scars on a teenager’s psyche. Being bullied undermines a teen’s sense of self-worth and may negatively impact their ability to form trusting peer relationships in the future.

Moreover, it’s not just bullying victims who experience long-term mental health consequences. Research shows that when people bully others, they are at higher risk for aggressive and anti-social behaviorssubstance abuse, dropping out of school, early sexual activity, and criminal convictions.

10 Signs of Bullying

To answer the question, “Is my teenager bullied?” parents need to watch for changes in their teen’s behavior. Teens may have one or more symptoms of bullying, or may have marked changes in other behaviors. While the signs of bullying listed below are not a guarantee that a teen is being bullied, knowing what to look for can help parents find out what is happening.

Signs that your teen is being bullied include:

  1. Unexplained cuts, scratches, or bruises
  2. Missing, damaged, or torn belongings
  3. Loss of appetite or changes in appetite
  4. Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints
  5. Trying to get out of going to school or after-school activities
  6. Reduced interest in school, or poor grades
  7. Seeming sad, moody, or depressed, especially after school
  8. Exhibiting anxious behaviors
  9. Decreased self-esteem
  10. Withdrawing from friends and social activities

If you notice any of these signs, it’s critical to have a conversation with your teen about whether they are experiencing physical bullying, verbal bullying, or other types of bullying behavior, such as mean girl behavior or gaslighting.

The Parent-Child Connection as a Protective Factor Against Teenage Bullying Effects

Parents can play a crucial role in protecting teens against the negative effects of adolescent bullying. A 2022 study looked at data from the Global School-Based Student Health Survey, involving adolescents ages 12–17 years in 65 countries. The researchers found that the parent-child relationship and the level of parent involvement with the child’s life had a direct impact on the mental health of bullying victims.

When parents were more involved and engaged, and offered support and caring, the children experiencing adolescent bullying had better mental health overall. The more parents were aware of their teens’ daily activities and understood their distress about bullying at school, the higher the level of mental health of the adolescents.

Parental supervision, parental connectedness, and parental bonding played positive roles in the relationship between bullying and adolescent mental health. Positive relationships, especially positive family relationships that provide intimacy, support, trust, emotional comfort, and a sense of belonging, are one of the key elements of resiliency.”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2022

What Parents Can Do to Prevent Teenage Bullying

Here are some ways parents can help teens cope with adolescent bullying.

Check in Daily with Your Teen

Remember that victims of bullying often hide their pain, so talking about bullying will be most successful if the conversations are indirect. Talk about all aspects of school—for example, who they hang out with, what they do between classes, and why they enjoy some parts of school more than others. Checking in daily with your teen not only supports your connection, it will also give you important information about what your teen is experiencing.

Educate Them About Why People Bully

If a teen is being bullied, it’s important for them to understand that the harm caused to them by other students is not their fault. Explain to them why teens bully their peers and that bullies try to control and diminish others because of their own emotional struggles. That doesn’t mean teens should put up with bullying. But understanding the reasons kids bully may help a young person to take the behavior less personally and to see the bully as less intimidating.

Empower Teens to Cope with Bullying Behavior

To help empower young people, work with them to develop strategies for handling bullying, such as:

  • Having a few neutral phrases to use when facing a bully, such as “Not funny” or “Cut it out”
  • Walking away; not reacting or engaging with the bully
  • Keeping a straight face without showing anger or fear
  • Making sure to have supportive friends with them in situations where they may encounter bullying
  • Letting teachers or other adults know what’s going on. This may be hard for teens, but parents can let them know that doing so is not “tattling,” it’s a way to protect themselves and other potential victims.

Show Them Unconditional Love

Bullying can have terrible negative effects on a young person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. If your child is being bullied, they may start to believe they are unlikable and somehow deserve this treatment. It’s essential for parents to make sure your child knows they are loved and valued. Encourage them to spend time with friends and family members they trust who make them feel good about themselves.

Be an Anti-Bullying Activist in Your School Community

Parents can contact administrators and teachers at their child’s school to notify them of what’s going on and request more supervision or other interventions to reduce bullying. They can also work with school boards and community organizations to put bullying prevention strategies in place. Or a parent-teacher organization could sponsor speakers and trainings on bullying.

Consult a Mental Health Professional

A school guidance counselor, therapist, social worker, psychologist, or other mental health professional can offer strategies to help parents protect teens, and to help teens cope with the mental health effects of adolescent bullying.

Teen Bullying Treatment

In summary, if parents remain vigilant and maintain communication, teens will have a better chance of avoiding the negative psychological impact of teenage bullying. However, both parents and teens may benefit from additional support from a mental health professional or a teen treatment program. If a teen is experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, or suicidal behavior, teen bullying treatment is a necessity.

At Newport Academy, we support teens to heal mental health and self-esteem issues through individual therapy to process past trauma, including bullying. In addition, our teen clients gain healthy coping strategies for dealing with difficult emotions like loneliness and feeling excluded. Furthermore, group therapy and experiential activities support teens to create strong, trusting bonds with peers who understand what they’re going through. And family therapy strengthens parent-child relationship so teens feel safe turning to their parents for support when they are struggling.

Contact us today to schedule a full mental health assessment and receive treatment recommendations, at no charge. We’ll help you find the program that’s right for your teen—whether that’s a Newport program or another program that we have personally vetted. We look forward to hearing from you and helping your family get started on the path to healing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teenage Bullying

At what age does the greatest amount of bullying occur among students?

Bullying peaks in middle school, when kids are generally between 12 and 14. One third of middle school students report being bullied. Overall, including high school students, 1 in 5 students experiences bullying.

Are schools effective in stopping bullying?

The high rates of teenage bullying show that most schools have not been successful in preventing bullying. Zero-tolerance policies and other anti-bullying strategies may help, depending on the vigilance of school administrators and teachers.

What should I do if my teen is bullied in school?

Help your teen develop strategies for avoiding bullying (see our tips above). Make sure they know the bullying isn’t their fault. Parents can also be activists in their communities. In addition, consulting a mental health professional can help teens avoid the serious mental health repercussions of adolescent bullying.

Sources

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Feb; 19(4): 2374.

Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health2021; 15(74): 10.1186.

J Child Family Studies. 2019; 28: 2415–2428.

J Med Internet Res. 2018; 20(4): e129.

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2016 Apr; 50(4): 371-9.

National Center for Education Statistics