What You Need to Know About Victims of Bullying

Girl being bullied by text message

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When it comes to bullying, most people want to believe that it won't happen to their child. But bullying happens more often than you might realize. In fact, some experts estimate that as many as one out of every five kids—or 20% of kids—are bullied.

And while there are some kids that seem to be targeted more than others, every child is at risk for bullying. Even confident kids with a large social circle can be targeted. Here is what you need to know about victims of bullying including how to help them stand up for themselves and cope.

Why Kids Are Bullied

There are a number of reasons why a child might be targeted for bullying—even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to bullying. In fact, no one is immune. It doesn't matter whether your child is athletic or musically inclined, shy or outgoing: Everyone is at risk of being targeted. After all, bullying is about a poor choice someone else makes and not about a perceived defect in your child.

"Anyone can be a victim of bullying but some kids may be at an increased risk of victimization than others," says Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in bullying, social anxiety, and mental health for teens and young adults. "For instance, it may be helpful to consider your child's unique characteristics and if they are particularly vulnerable or sensitive."

This doesn't mean, however, that your child should change to try to avoid bullying. Instead, it's about knowing what people who bully others look for and being prepared to respond in a healthy way. For instance, if your child tends to be more submissive or agreeable, they might be targeted by kids who bully others. One way you might prevent bullying in this child's life is to work with them on building assertiveness skills.

In fact, some researchers believe that a child's lack of assertiveness might serve as a cue that they are the ideal target. This doesn't mean that your child should no longer be easy to get along with. Instead, teach them how to set boundaries and stand up for themselves when someone goes too far.

"It is also important to not label them as 'weak," says Laub. "But rather give them skills to navigate interpersonal conflict." 

Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW

One of the most common reasons kids are bullied is because something about them makes them different from the majority.

— Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW

There's also evidence that kids who are bullied are often not accepted by other children. Long before the bullying begins, these kids might be rejected by their peers or left out of social situations. They also might struggle to make friends. As a parent, you can help by encouraging your child to interact with others, find like-minded kids, and be willing to host playdates from an early age.

Finally, kids who are viewed by their peers as different in some way might be subjected to bullying as well, says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a bilingual licensed clinical social worker who specializes in bullying, self-esteem, confidence, and mental health for teens. This is especially true for kids with special needs and learning disabilities. These children are often disproportionately affected by bullying.

"One of the most common reasons kids are bullied is because something about them makes them different from the majority," Suarez-Angelino says. "This could be something about their appearance like their skin color, hair, clothing style; their skill levels like their physical ability, intellectual level for reading, or math; or their social skills like their ability to maintain and hold conversations."

The key is that you understand what makes kids a target for bullying and prepare them for how to handle disrespectful people or behaviors. If they know how to stand up for themselves, have solid self-esteem, and know how to be assertive, they might be able to discourage bullying behaviors in others before they become a pattern.

Consequences of Being Bullied

There is nothing easy about being bullied. In fact, it is a traumatic experience with long-lasting consequences. Bullying victims are impacted physically, emotionally, socially, and academically. They also are left feeling like there is no end in sight and no way to escape.

Being bullied also can lead to low self-esteem and increased negative self-talk, says Suarez-Angelino. Other consequences include isolation from others—especially peers—a decrease in motivation to complete assignments, and decreased class participation.

"The [person being victimized] may also quit or lose interest in extracurricular activities such as a sport or band," Suarez-Angelino adds.

Victims of bullying also can begin to develop mental health issues if bullying is not addressed right away. For instance, some bullying victims experience anxiety and depression. Some even develop eating disorders, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They also may start to show signs of emotional distress, such as difficulty managing emotions, being more irritable, acting out, or all-around just behaving differently than normal," Laub says.

In severe cases, victims of bullying may contemplate suicide, especially when they feel hopeless, alone, and out of options. And many engage in self-blame and feel if they were different in some way, they would not be bullied.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Skills That Can Prevent Bullying

While there is no foolproof way to keep bullying from occurring in your child's life, there are certain skills and behaviors that develop a protective barrier from bullying. For instance, kids with strong self-esteem, assertiveness skills, and solid social skills are less likely to be bullied than those kids who are lacking these attributes.

Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW

It is important for kids to know they can walk away from toxic behavior and cut off contact, regardless of how difficult or embarrassing that may feel initially.

— Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW

"It is important for kids to know they can walk away from toxic behavior and cut off contact, regardless of how difficult or embarrassing that may feel initially," says Laub. "Children grow from learning how to navigate conflict, which includes learning the skill of controlling their response to the bully. This may look like laughing it off for some kids or walking away from inappropriate behavior. By not responding in the way that the bully wants, the bully has less control."

Other characteristics include learning to maintain eye contact, having good posture, and possessing strong problem-solving skills. Another way to avoid bullying at school is teaching kids to be aware of their surroundings as well as knowing where the bullying hot spots are and avoiding them.

Meanwhile, kids who develop resilience and perseverance tend to handle bullying experiences more effectively. And kids who are able to keep a positive attitude despite being bullied will fair much better than those who dwell on what is happening to them.

How to Heal From Bullying

The most important thing victims of bullying can do is to recognize what they have control over and what they cannot control. For instance, they may not be able to control what the person targeting them says or does, but they can control their reaction.

They also can make choices about how to handle the bullying, such as standing up to the bullying, defending themselves, and reporting bullying to the appropriate people. This step of taking back control is often the first one in healing from bullying because it empowers the person being bullied and keeps them from developing a victim mindset.

"Victims of bullying also can heal by going to therapy, journaling their thoughts and feelings, and reading books that help them feel empowered and inspired," says Suarez-Angelino. "Other forms of healing, such as drawing, painting, and dancing, are all great ways to heal from bullying."

Another way to cope with bullying is to focus on reframing the situation, or finding a new way to think about the bullying. For example, victims of bullying can look for what they learned from being bullied rather than focusing on the pain the bully inflicted.

Perhaps they discovered that they are mentally stronger than they originally thought. Or maybe they discovered that they really do have some great friends that always seem to have their back. Whatever direction they take with their line of thinking, the goal is that they deflect the words and actions of the person who bullied them. They should never own the words said about them or allow those words to define who they are.

"It is important that they acknowledge their own feelings about the bullying but also move forward and not allow someone else's view of them to not become their own truth," says Laub.

How Parents Can Help

If you discover that your child is being bullied it can be difficult to know how to respond. Sometimes the best course of action is to simply listen to what they have to say and empathize with what they are feeling and experiencing. Remember, it is not easy to talk about bullying.

"Start by believing your child when they report they are being bullied," says Suarez-Angelino. "Remain calm and supportive, being mindful of your reactions and desire for retaliation against the bully or the environment where it took place. Parents certainly have a right to feel alarmed and frustrated; however, it does not help manage the situation or have your child witness this."

While it is not uncommon for kids to hide the fact that they are being bullied, some will open up if given the chance. If your child does choose to share, tell them that you admire their courage. You also can brainstorm ways they can handle the bullying.

"Parents can also help their children by asking how they can be supportive, especially while developing a plan together to tell the necessary authorities such as the school, police, and other relevant people," says Suarez-Angelino.

But avoid trying to "fix" the situation for them. Doing so simply emphasizes that they are powerless. Instead, look for ways to encourage and empower your child.

You also should avoid making insensitive and inaccurate statements such as "get over it," "what did you do to cause it," and "toughen up." Also, refrain from minimizing the bullying. Regardless of your opinion about what they are experiencing, it is a big deal to them, so offer your support and encouragement. Say things like: "This is not your fault," and "You are not alone."

When to Get Professional Help

If your child is being bullied, it is always a good idea to speak with a mental health professional or a healthcare provider. They can evaluate your child's physical and emotional well-being and determine if therapy is needed.

Keep in mind that getting counseling is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a sign of strength because you and your child are taking steps to overcome the impact of bullying. A mental health professional can help your child develop essential skills as well as offer a safe place to talk about their fears and concerns without judgment. 

A Word From Verywell

Nothing is worse than learning that your child is being picked on at school. In fact, it may hurt you almost as much as it hurts them. But with patience and perseverance, you and your child can navigate this situation and come out stronger, especially if you know what to do.

Your primary goals should be empowering your child to stand up to those targeting them, rebuilding their confidence and self-esteem, and healing from the pain bullying can cause. With your help and encouragement, your child can emerge from a bullying situation more resilient than ever before.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Stopbullying.org. Who is at risk.

  3. Stopbullying.org. Understanding the roles of early education and child care providers in community-wide bullying prevention efforts.

  4. Navarro R, Yubero S, Larrañaga E. A friend is a treasure and may help you to face bullying. Front Young Minds. 2018;6:14. doi:10.3389/frym.2018.00014

  5. U.S. Department of Education. Student reports of bullying: Results from the 2017 school crime supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

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  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Effects of bullying.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. 

Originally written by Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.
Learn about our editorial process