Ask the expert: How to prevent and respond to bullying


October is National Bullying Prevention Month. It brings a flood of anti-bullying postings on social media, as well as anti-bullying banners and signs in schools and the community.

National Bullying Prevention Month reminds us bullying is common; one out of four students report they were bullied during the last school year. Bullying involves a difference in social or physical power between the child who is doing the bullying and the child being bullied; it can be verbal, physical or emotional bullying and is often a pattern of behavior.

The increased awareness that comes with Bullying Prevention Month can encourage schools and communities to develop programs to promote an anti-bullying culture. In today’s world, bullying is rightfully treated as serious business — there are increased efforts to encourage bullying to be reported and anti-bullying laws to prevent and address bullying when it occurs.

Bullying prevention efforts can have a number of different focuses, such as campaigns to turn children from “bystanders to upstanders” or encouraging children to “Shake it off” as in the Taylor Swift song. But what can parents do to prevent bullying, and what can they do if their child is being bullied?


Model empathetic behavior


The first thing parents can do is help to keep bullying from happening in the first place. One way to do this is to build empathy in children by talking about kindness as a value, by modeling empathy through one’s own behaviors and by treating others with respect even when they annoy you or you disagree with them.


Build problem-solving skills


It can also help to give children practice in social problem-solving, helping them to reflect on others’ perspectives and generate possible solutions to conflicts.




When parents talk to their children about bullying early, children will have ideas about how to handle these situations before they happen. It can be hard for kids to talk about bullying with adults, so laying groundwork can be helpful in opening up that conversation.


How to respond: Do’s and don’ts


Parents can also help kids learn ways to respond if they are bullied, such as calmly and clearly telling the other child to stop. Kids can also try to laugh it off — if possible — which works particularly well if making jokes comes naturally to the child. If a child can’t speak up or if speaking up isn’t effective, walking away from the bully and staying away can be the best solution, along with talking to a trusted adult.

Parents may be tempted to tell kids to ignore bullying or to fight back. However, the problem with the ignoring advice is it can make kids feel their hurt feelings don’t matter, and it doesn’t empower them to do anything in the situation. The problem with fighting back is it can result in the child who was the original victim of bullying being the one who gets into trouble for retaliating.

If bullying occurs, parents can also help by letting their children know that it is not their fault, they deserve to be treated with respect, and they are not alone, because adults can help them to make the bullying stop.


Breaking the pattern


If there is a pattern of bullying, adults can help by keeping a record of what is happening, which they can share with the school, so that parent and school can come up with an action plan together to address the situation. What that plan involves will depend on the situation, but the goal of all such plans is to help the child who is being bullied feel heard, safe and supported.


Learn about the Boston Children’s Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative.