Recognizing What Bullying Looks Like at Each Age

Girls gossipingPeer cruelty is a problem and appears to be starting earlier. Though survey results do vary, by some estimates, one in seven American schoolchildren is either a bully or a victim. And the cruel behavior increases with age. A recent study prepared for the American Psychological Association showed that 80 percent of middle school students admitted to bullying behavior in the prior 30 days. The more we know about bullying, the better we will be able to parent our children.

So tune in closer to your child. Please. Repeated bullying causes severe emotional harm and erodes your child’s fragile self-esteem. Boys and girls are also bullied differently: girls are more likely to be victims of emotional and verbal bullying while boys are usually bullied by physical harm or threat. But whether the bullying was verbal, physical or relational, the long-term effects are equally harmful. Both boys and girls reported high levels of emotional distress and loneliness as well as lower self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Not all aggressive acts are bullying. Make sure you understand the definition.

If your child is bullied it means that peers are intentionally causing her pain. Bullying is repeated, conscious act of aggression with negative intent. There is also a power imbalance – the bullied child is targeted because they cannot hold their own.

Make no mistake: those cruel, aggressive habits are learned and should never be tolerated. Bullying also varies by ages and genders. What follows are the most common types of bullying and what it looks like by different ages and stages.

The Five Most Common Types of Bullying

There are five distinctly different types of bullying. A bully can “attack” her victim:

  1. Verbally (spreading rumors, saying prejudicial comments, delivering cruel remarks)
  2. Sexually (making sexual comments or gestures)
  3. Physically (hitting, slamming)
  4. Emotionally (excluding, humiliating, threatening, extortion, hazing)
  5. Electronically (cell phone, text-messaging, email or website).

Bullying by Stages and Ages

Bullying also takes on different forms at different ages. Here is what bullying looks like during the preschoolers years, school age and preteen/teens years. Of course, nothing is set in stone so your child’s experiences may differ but here are typical expectations:

1. Bullying During Preschool

These are the ages bullying behaviors are first learned because kids learn it works to get their way. Beware, new studies are showing that bullying is starting much earlier (20 percent of kindergardeners engage in bullying; an Australian study found 3 and 4 year olds engaging in peer cruelty). Little ones are imitators — watch what they imitate and stop it, ASAP! In the young set:

  • Bullying is mostly physical (biting, pinching, kicking, or shoving) and usually not intentional(the true definition of bullying).
  • Aggression is mostly due to impulsivity and the inability to regulate emotions. Do not allow aggressive behaviors or cruelty in any form. They easily become habits.

2. Bullying During School Age

  • Verbal bullying (saying mean comments, put downs and taunts) is prevalent.
  • Physical bullying continues with younger school age students.
  • Around fourth grade social exclusion (leaving kids out and knowingly hurting their feelings) begins.

3. Bullying During Preteens and Teens

Bullying peaks during these years-especially during the tween years-and is also the most vicious. Average middle school student experiences at least one verbal harassment per day. Though adults big concerns generally regard cyberbullying, research shows that most bullying starts face to face. By nature, bullying is a problem with dysfunctional relationships. The most common types of bullying (though not limited to these) are:

  • Relational aggression, rumor spreading and emotional bullying are common amongst girls.
  • Electronic bullying (via text, IM, pagers, cell phones, websites, Facebook, and emails) also begins.
  • Bullying turns to sexual harassment. Forty percent of fifth through either graders say they’ve been sexually harassed by peers (mostly boys).

While you can’t always be there to step in and protect your child there are ways to help your son or daughter be less likely to be victimized in the first place. Your first step is to get educated! A search in my blog will reap dozens of other articles on bullying. I am currently writing a book, The Complete Educator Guide for Bullying Prevention that will be available from Free Spirit Publications in Spring 2016.

***************************************************************************************************************Borba - book cover -parentingsolutions140x180

Dr Borba’s book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions is available at

About the Author

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and a recognized expert in parenting, bullying, youth violence, and character development and author of 23 books including her new release, THRIVERS: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. She is a regular NBC contributor who appears regularly on TODAY and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show. She lives in Palm Springs, CA with her husband, and is the mother of three grown sons. Dr. Borba is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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