What To Do When Friends Start Bullying Others

As your children get older, you may find yourself setting up fewer playdates and having less control over who she spends time with—but you can help give them the tools to make great friends on their own. And even if they already have friends, you can nurture their social skills to help them create healthy, long-lasting relationships.

Friend-making doesn’t come easy to all children. Maybe they are the new kid at school, and ‘shyness’ makes it hard to talk to people they do not know. Maybe their best friend just moved away, and your child is reluctant to forge new friendships. Maybe they face exclusion or bullying at school and have trouble trusting classmates. Whatever the obstacle, you can use these eight strategies to help your child form strong bonds with new friends. You can also read some letters from real kids to see how they overcame difficulties and formed great relationships.

Is your child at risk of bullying?

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While any child can face bullying, there are some factors to look out for that might put your girl at higher risk. According to stopbullying.gov, girls and boys experience bullying at similar rates, but girls are more likely to experience non-physical bullying, such as verbal bullying, rumor-spreading, exclusion, and cyber-bullying. Children in elementary school are at the highest risk, as middle schoolers and high schoolers tend to report fewer bullying incidents. (The exception is cyberbullying, which increases in high school.)

Besides age, your child is more likely to face bullying if your child:

  • Has a learning disability, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder.
  • Has special health care needs or a chronic disease. 
  • Is overweight or underweight.
  • Identifies as LGBTQ+ or does not conform to gender stereotypes.
  • Speaks a language other than English at home.

If your child has any of these risk factors, you’re likely already hypervigilant for signs of bullying.

Bullying in elementary and middle school can create invisible scars that affect girls for years afterward. According to stopbullying.gov, kids who experience bullying can face mental health issues like depression, anxiety, panic disorder, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as psychosomatic problems like headaches, stomach pain, sleeping problems, and poor appetite. The stress of bullying can also affect memory, which can lead to declining grades and class participation. Because of these risks, you can best set your child up for future success by identifying bullying quickly and working together to put a stop to it.

Is my child facing someone who is bullying them, or are they just having a conflict with their friend?

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Even best friends argue and tease each other sometimes. Friendships change during late elementary school and middle school, so if your child is coming home from school with hurt feelings, it’s possible they might just be working out their differences or growing apart. But the difference between strained friendship and outright bullying is a power imbalance between the two individuals.

If you suspect your child’s friend is bullying her, consider whether the friend:

  • Is older, taller, or stronger.
  • Is more popular or socially savvy.
  • Uses her race or socio-economic status to assert power.
  • Has more access to resources.
  • Has higher academic, physical, or artistic abilities.

If these power differences exist, your child’s friend might be taking advantage of their position to tear your child down. Of course, two children with different social statuses can still be great friends—but if one of them uses their power to take advantage of the other, that relationship is no longer a friendship.

If it’s not clear whether your child’s friend is asserting power in a harmful way, consider how your child feels about the friendship. For example, if the friend teases your child during a softball game for striking out at bat or running too slowly between bases, does she respond with a clever quip, or does she hang her head and beg you to take her home? If being around the friend makes your child sad, the relationship isn’t healthy.

Be on the lookout for these signs that the friend is bullying your child: 

  • When the friends are together, do they spend most of their time competing or arguing with each other?
  • Does your son or daughter act depressed after spending time with their friend? 
  • Does your child seem unenthusiastic to meet up with the friend, or make excuses to get out of planned activities with the friend?
  • Does the friend criticize your child or constantly point out things he could improve on?
  • Does your child come home with damaged or missing belongings after spending time with the friend?
  • Does the friend bail on plans they had with your child? Does he or she un-invite your child to group outings or birthday parties?
  • Does the friend make unkind remarks about your child’s appearance, abilities, or identity? These comments might be disguised as playful teasing, or even as compliments, but if they hurt your child, the behavior is bullying.

Signs of bullying—especially at the hands of a friend—can be subtle. But paying attention to your child’s feelings and moods can help you pinpoint what’s going on, even if she doesn’t come out and tell you.    

When should you step in?

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Seeing your child suffer can hurt but intervening in your child’s friendship can often make the problem worse. In fact, many children are afraid or embarrassed to ask their parents for help dealing with bullies, because they’re worried about the parents overstepping to “fix” the problem. Your child’s friend might lash out at them in retaliation if you, for example, talk to the friend’s mom.

The best thing you can do is listen to what your child is experiencing and validate their feelings. Don’t jump into action right away (unless the bullying is severe or your child is in danger)—just hear your child out. 

Here are some conversation starters to help your child open up:

  • I noticed you haven’t been acting like yourself. Is so-and-so making you feel bad?
  • I just want to check in on how you’re feeling and hear about what’s been going on with this friend. I won’t go to your friend or their parents—unless we decide that you want me to. 
  • When I was a kid, a friend of mine treated me in such-and-such way, and it made me feel awful. Has anything like that been happening to you?

If your child feels threatened enough that they want you to jump into action, do. But if your child thinks they can handle the problem on their own, supporting your child to do that is a great option. Resolving their own problems can give her the tools and confidence they need to solve other relationship issues in the future.

If your child wants to stand up to their friend but doesn’t know how, suggest these things to say during a conversation. You can even write them down on a notecard that they can keep in her pocket until they have some one-on-one time with their friend.

  • Remember the other day? Well, it’s been bothering me. I was really hurt by… (Being specific gives the two of them a problem to solve together.) 
  • Can we talk about the other day? How do you view what happened? (This question acknowledges that their friend has a point of view and they are willing to hear it.)  
  • Maybe we have to agree to disagree on that. (This says, “I respect your opinion and can compromise some—but I expect my opinions to be respected too.”)
  • Our friendship means a lot to me, and I want to work this out. (This says, “I’m willing to do my part if you’re willing to do yours.”)

Ask how the conversation went and see if your child needs more support. Maybe they will mend their friendship, or maybe they will grow apart, as friends often do. But if the bullying behavior continues or escalates, it might be time to take action.

Act immediately if the bullying is severe

girls-teacher talking

Though all bullying hurts, not every behavior warrants the same response. Someone teased for a ketchup stain on their shirt doesn’t require the same response as someone whose inappropriate photos get leaked to the internet or a child who receives death threats in their locker after they come out as gay. Ignoring severe bullying can reinforce the behavior and let your child know they should just expect that kind of treatment. You need to step in.

Here are some tips for how to get help:

  • If you observe the bullying in person, use these tips from stopbullying.gov to stop bullying on the spot. For example, separate the kids involved and don’t immediately try to sort out the facts. 
  • If the bullying happens at school, encourage your daughter to reach out to the teacher, school counselor, principal, or superintendent—or do so yourself. Encourage your child to keep a journal and calendar to track every bullying incident. This record comes in handy when no adults observe the behavior, but school officials need more proof before they can act.  
  • If your child faces taunting or tormenting in public school based on the following protected categories – race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion – the school is required to address it in a certain way; this goes beyond bullying, this is considered Harassment, and there are Federal Protections in place for individuals that experience harassment based on the aforementioned categories. If you’re not satisfied with how your child’s school handles the bullying, reach out to the school superintendent or your state’s department of education. For more information about discriminatory harassment laws, refer to stopbullying.gov.

Help your child regain her confidence

Bullying—especially at the hands of someone she thought was her friend—can wreck confidence. But you can help your child get back their groove with some fun and relaxing activities.

Try some of these ideas:

  • Help your child achieve an attainable goal, like cleaning their room or baking a batch of cookies.  
  • Give your child space and materials to create art or music. Consider taking a pottery class together or writing colorful chalk poems on the sidewalk.  
  • Leave a positive sticky-note message on your child’s mirror or in their lunchbox.  
  • Exercise together—go for a walk, toss a frisbee, or strap on some rollerblades. 
  • Look through old magazines together and cut out pictures of things that make your child happy. They can use them to decorate her room, locker, or notebooks.  
  • Plan a game night or movie night with the family.  
  • Visit the library and learn about something new together, like coding, quilting, or art history. 
  • Volunteer together for a charity or cause your child believes in. You might walk dogs at the animal shelter, or participate in a march.
  • To help your child make new friends, encourage them to reach out to people intheir life they would like to know better—kids from other schools, a pen pal, or that kid they never talked to from her after-school program.  

Facing some who is bullying causes a lot of pain—for both your child and you. But helping your child take the right actions and then recover from the pain can empower your child to be a stronger, more confident person.

To give your child more resources for standing up to someone who is bullying, check out Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friendsand A Smart Girl’s Guide: Friendship Troubles.

Adapted from A Smart Girl’s Guide: Friendship Troubles by Patti Kelley Criswell. ©2013, Special thanks to stopbullying.gov.