What Parents Need to Know – How to Recognize Bullying and Take the First Steps to Intervene

By Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Image of young girl sitting outside her house on by the front door looking sad.
Image of young girl sitting outside her house on by the front door looking sad.

Years ago, bullying was routinely dismissed as a normal part of childhood. Over the last decade, much attention and research has been devoted to this painful and destructive problem. This evolution has greatly improved awareness and helped kids all over the world.

Because bullying happens in the shadows, parents must learn how to identify the warning signs and understand the bigger process of bullying. A foundation of good knowledge can help a parent assess the situation and take appropriate action as soon as possible.

Bullying is a conscious deliberate pattern of aggression against someone who is weaker. It is a gross misuse of power over another person who isn’t able to defend themselves. All types of bullying include these three elements: an imbalance of power, the intent to harm, and the threat of further aggression.[1] The terror that results from this threat can live on in a child’s mind long after the bully has left the scene.

Bullies usually test out a potential target to see if they will fight back or not. If the targeted child allows the aggression to happen and seems to cower or appear weak, the bully will likely try again. When the bully has established the child as a suitable target, he or she will start pushing the envelope more. The bullying child will develop favorite tactics to intimidate and terrorize their target repeatedly.

The stronger the reaction from the targeted child, the more powerful the bully will feel. This pattern of abuse can go on for months or even years before someone intervenes. It’s not hard to see why bullying can be so damaging to a young person’s life.

Early identification can help interrupt and minimize the impact of bullying. However, many children do not tell their parents or another adult about their problem. They are often ashamed, thinking they are at fault for the bully’s behaviors. Children also strongly fear retaliation from a bully if they would tell an adult.

Parents can help by being observant of changes in their child’s behavior. Stan Davis, author and co-leader of Youth Voice Research Project, has worked with many children who have been mistreated and traumatized. “If a youth does not want to go to school, shows signs of not sleeping or eating, shows disruption of enjoyed activities, or has a depressed mood, it is likely that something is going on, and peer mistreatment is one of the options.” When parents identify these warning signs, they need to speak directly to teachers or other supervising adults about the problem.

Just one of these warning signs may not necessarily signal a bullying problem. Davis adds, “Not all peer mistreatment harms youth, though some certainly does.” Davis has compiled his recommendations for parents on the website Stop Bullying Now.[2] Davis tells parents to consider the seriousness of what has happened and how much impact it has had on the child by that point. He provides several techniques for handling mistreatment that has caused mild to moderate problems. He also strongly advocates for parents bringing serious problems to schools and police officers as necessary.

Davis keeps his focus on the mistreatment itself rather than the term “bully”. His recommendations are all based on how to observe, evaluate, and change the harmful acts of mistreatment done by one child to another. Regarding the word “bully”, Davis thinks using it “implies we know something about the character or motivation of the kid who has mistreated.”

Davis’s perspective sounds different from the mainstream conversation about bullying. However, his approach still has the same broad goals: protecting and strengthening youth, and placing full responsibility on young people who mistreat others.

“What youth need if they have been mistreated is listening, affirmation, protection, opportunities for joy and connection, and ways to strengthen their resiliency,” says Davis. He recommends many supportive techniques such as helping youth develop better coping skills, develop growth-minded thinking, learn self-calming techniques, and expand their support networks.[3] Davis states, “It is important to work to stop mistreatment and to strengthen young people who face it by building connections and resiliency.”


  1. Recognizing Bullying. (n.d.) In Violence Prevention Works! Retrieved March 8, 2013, from http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/recognizing_bullying.page.
  2. Davis, S. (2012). Advice for Parents and Guardians. In Stop Bullying Now. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.stopbullyingnow.com/parents.htm.
  3. Davis, S. (2012). In Consultation: The Truth About Bullying. In Psychotherapy Networker. Retrieved March 7, 2013 from http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/recentissues/2012-septemberoctober/item/1800-in-consultation/1800-in-consultation?start=1.

Erika Krull is a licensed mental health counselor from Nebraska. She has also been a freelance writer since 2006, writing primarily about mental health and parenting topics. She currently works part-time at a psychiatric hospital, and lives with her husband and three daughters.

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor on March 13, 2013 at 05:00 AM

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