How is bullying defined?

Bullying is an intentional behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates a student, either physically or emotionally, and can happen while at school, in the community, or online. Those bullying often have more social or physical “power,” while those targeted have difficulty stopping the behavior. The behavior is typically repeated, though it can be a one-time incident.

Students often describe bullying as when “someone makes you feel less about who you are as a person.”

Note: Definitions vary greatly. These are not legal definitions. Find your state’s law and definition at

Conflict vs. Bullying

Bullying is different from conflict.

  • Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views.
  • Bullying is negative behavior directed by someone exerting power and control over another person.

Bullying is done with a goal to hurt, harm, or humiliate. With bullying, there is often a power imbalance between those involved, with power defined as elevated social status, being physically larger, or as part of a group against an individual. Students who bully perceive their target as vulnerable in some way and often find satisfaction in harming them.

In normal conflict, children self-monitor their behavior. They read cues to know if lines are crossed, and then modify their behavior in response. Children guided by empathy usually realize they have hurt someone and will want to stop their negative behavior. On the other hand, children intending to cause harm and whose behavior goes beyond normal conflict will continue their behavior even when they know it’s hurting someone.

What is the difference between bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably when talking about hurtful or harmful behavior. They are very similar, but in terms of definition, there is an important difference.

Bullying and harassment are similar as they are both about:

  • power and control
  • actions that hurt or harm another person physically or emotionally
  • an imbalance of power between the target and the individual demonstrating the negative behavior
  • the target having difficulty stopping the action directed at them

The distinction between bullying and harassment is that when the bullying behavior directed at the target is also based on a protected class, that behavior is then defined as harassment. Protected classes include race, color, religion, sex, age, disability and national origin.

How does peer pressure impact bullying behavior?

Peer pressure occurs when a peer group or individual encourages others to change their attitudes, values, or behaviors to conform to those of the influencing group or individual.

Peer pressure can impact bullying behavior both in positive and negative ways. For example, the influence can have negative effects if a peer group’s bullying behavior encourages others to laugh at someone. It can also be negative when the group views other individuals as not worthy to be part of their group. The impact of negative peer pressure can create environments in which individuals are intimidated to speak out on behalf of someone being hurt or harmed.

Peer pressure can also be positive and healthy. For example, when the peer group encourages kind and inclusive behavior, such as inviting others to join them at the lunch table or letting someone know that they care what is happening to them. The action of peers encouraging each other to reach out to those who are struggling can have a positive impact on the group and other individuals who want to speak out against bullying.

Can a friend be bullying me?

Friends will sometimes have bad days. Friends will sometimes disagree. Friends will sometimes hurt each other’s feelings, have an argument, or simply need time away from one another. This is normal and can happen in any friendship, no matter how close. If you are experiencing treatment from a friend that hurts you and you have asked that friend to stop, but it still continues, then that is not friendship. That behavior could be bullying. Friendship behaviors do not include hurting someone on purpose or continually being mean even when asked to stop. A friend will change or be remorseful for her behavior if she finds out she’s hurting you. If you aren’t certain if what is happening is part of a normal friendship or if it is bullying, talk to an adult you trust and get help sorting out the relationship. And yes, it is okay (and the right thing to do) to ask for help.

Why use the term “bullying prevention” instead of “anti-bullying”?

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center uses the term “bullying prevention” instead of “anti-bullying” to place the emphasis on a proactive approach and philosophy, framing bullying as an issue to which there is a solution. While the use of “anti” does appropriately indicate the concept of being against bullying, the focus on “prevention” recognizes that change is ultimately about shifting behavior and attitudes, which can happen through the positive approach of education, awareness, and action.

What are some strategies to reinforce messages of kindness, acceptance, and inclusion at a young age?

Positive adult role modeling, mentoring, and age-appropriate approaches to kindness, acceptance, and inclusion can make a big impact on how children treat each other in the classroom, on the playground, at home, and in the community. Young children are just learning what it means to get along, how to share toys, discovering ways to work together, and understand how their feelings and behavior affect others. Practice role-playing activities, play games, create art, explore feelings, and establish a clear set of behavioral rules. These strategies reinforce positive relationships and behaviors, and is one of the keys to helping kids get along, which ultimately can help prevent bullying.

How does bullying impact students’ health?

Do you remember hearing “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

Research shows that this age-old saying simply isn’t true. Often, the physical impact of bullying (the “sticks and stones”) is easy to recognize, such as a child getting up after being pushed, damaged personal items, or having torn clothing.

However, bullying often impacts our children in ways that aren›t so obvious. While words don’t physically injure, they do still hurt, and can cause emotional harm. Verbal and emotional bullying, such as teasing and social exclusion, as well as physical bullying, have the potential to negatively impact a student’s overall health, along with their sense of well-being.

Strategies for adults to redirect bullying behavior

When a child is bullying others, it’s important that parents and educators take action. It is equally important for adults to recognize that bullying is about behavior, and they should choose responses that acknowledge behavior can be changed. Reframing the focus from labeling a child as a “bully” to referring to them as a “child with bullying behavior” recognizes that there is capacity for change. While children who are bullying others should be given appropriate consequences for their behavior, adults should be talking with their children to learn why they are bullying others. Children need to understand the impact their behavior has on others and realize the hurt they are causing. With adult guidance, redirecting bullying behavior toward an understanding of differences, as well as the practices of kindness and inclusion, are good strategies for reshaping a child’s behavior.

My child is being bullied at school. How can I communicate effectively with the school to make sure the bullying doesn’t continue?

When your child is the target of bullying, a parent’s first response is often an emotional one, followed by a sense of wanting to know the most effective, action-oriented response. Building positive relationships between the school, parents, and students will ensure that a plan and timeline of action can be quickly set in place to prevent further bullying.

For students: What if you told an adult and it wasn’t helpful?

Have you told someone about being bullied and nothing has changed? Don’t give up! Did you know that you have the legal right to be safe at school? If the bullying continues even after you told an adult, know that there are laws designed to protect you (find your state law or policy at It is very important for students to reach out to another trusted adult and ask for help again. This adult can be a parent, a teacher, a coach, or anyone from the community. Let them know that you need their help and that you wouldn’t be coming to them if you could fix the situation on your own.

Does bullying happen more often than adults think?

There are many different types of bullying a student may experience, such as physical, verbal, emotional, or cyber. While all forms are equally hurtful, many behaviors harm students emotionally rather than physically, or happen in online environments versus the physical world — making it harder for adults to identify.

Physical bullying is often easier for adults to detect because the behavior is overt or signs are left behind (bruises, broken bones, damaged belongings). However, the words, gossip, rumors, or shared secrets that constitute verbal and social bullying don’t leave a physical trail of the emotional pain.

Bullying in online environments usually happens outside of adults’ view as well. While it often leaves behind an electronic trail of hurtful words or images, adults don’t know it is happening unless the student tells someone or an adult is monitoring their online activity.

How do I start a conversation about cyberbullying with my child?

The internet is the newest place for children and teens to communicate and share moments with their peers. While it can be a positive place for students to interact, the rise of technology has also led to a new and serious form of bullying, known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to send or share mean, threatening, or embarrassing messages or images to or about someone. It might be in a text, email, message, on social media, or in a post online. Just as it’s important to talk with your child about bullying, it’s important to discuss cyberbullying as soon as your child starts to interact online. Discuss what information is and isn’t appropriate to share online, as well as establishing cyber rules together, such as what sites your child will be allowed to use and hours of usage. During this conversation, explain that if something hurtful is shared online (via words, images, videos, etc.), it counts as cyberbullying, and it’s important that you know about it. Together, you can strategize a plan to respond to the cyberbullying and keep kids safe online.

Why is it important for students to advocate for themselves and how can adults help them learn those skills?

Speaking up for oneself, expressing needs, and taking action are essential self-advocacy tools for youth of all ages. When children know that there are options for regaining control or influencing a difficult situation, they gain the resilience to move through the obstacles that life brings. Children who actively participate in learning self-advocacy skills are better prepared to resolve problems themselves and understand when a problem requires adult help. Whether it’s a disagreement with a friend or a serious situation like bullying, teaching self-advocacy can reinforce a child’s understanding of how they create change in their world.

Why do we use “target” vs. “victim” and “child who bullies” vs. “bully”

You’ve likely heard statements such as “My child is a victim of bullying” or “That student is a bully.” Though these phrases are commonly used, are they the best terms to describe a child’s behavior and actions?

When referring to those involved in bullying situations, avoid stereotyping them into categories. Focus on behavior, not on labels.

For example:

  • Instead of “bullying victim,” replace with the phrase “he’s a target of bullying.” This shows that the child is not powerless, and that with support and education they can change what’s happening to them.
  • Instead of “she’s a bully” use instead, “she’s someone who bullies.” This shows that bullying is a part of who she is, but with support and education she can make changes in her behavior.