Bullying: Know the Signs and How to Prevent It

Bullying Inside a Classroom
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October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and the issue of bullying—both at school and through cyberspaces—continues to negatively affect the lives of children in many ways.

“I think bullying has been thought of as something that happens in childhood, in that it’s something that all kids go through, and they’ll get over it,” says Rashida Barner, a child psychologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

But recent research has shown those effects can also last through adulthood, adds Heather Martinsen.

As behavioral health and wellness supervisor for Prince William County Community Services in Virginia, Martinsen explains that repetitive aggression can cause physical changes in a child’s developing brain.

These changes can have lasting impacts later in a child’s life, such as absenteeism, substance abuse, anxiety and depression and physical health issues such as diabetes and heart problems, she says.

By the numbers

Data shows a downward trend of bullying on school property in Maryland, but bullying through electronic means—anything from video games and social media to email and texting—has remained a problem over the last decade.

In the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maryland’s at-school bullying dropped overall from 2011 to 2018, but reports of students bullied electronically only fluctuated within 1% for the past five surveys through 2018.

The most recent survey results released in 2019 refer to bullying within the previous 12 months.

Baltimore City saw a more significant jump, from 9.9% of students reporting being bullied electronically in 2016 compared to 12.1% in 2018.

Martinsen notes that these numbers don’t account for the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were at home and online, but an increase definitely occurred during that time.

Although not always a product of bullying, suicide ideation is a greater risk for teens, so it’s important to look for the warning signs, such as isolation and language that indicates a loss of hope, Barner and Martinsen note.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among high school-aged youths 14 to 18, according to the 2019 YRBS summary. Youth ages 10 and older are also at risk, the CDC notes.

And YRBS data shows middle school students are affected even more by bullying than high school students.

Among Baltimore, Frederick and Montgomery counties, reports of students being bullied on school property ranged from 37% to 40.4% in 2018. And between 16.8% and 20.1% were bullied electronically during the same year.

These numbers compare to the high school survey, which only saw between 14.3% and 18.9% of students in those counties bullied on school property in 2018, and between 11.7% and 14.7% bullied electronically.

Knowing the signs

Signs a child is being bullied might include unexplainable injuries, belongings that are destroyed or lost, frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in eating habits, an increase or onset of nightmares and loss of interest in school, Barner says.

Bullying can come in a myriad of forms, but the most prevalent in recent years has been relational bullying—excluding a peer from an interaction—and cyberbullying.

“The bullying of previous generations is not this generation’s bullying,” she says. Now it happens 24/7.

Barner says some children don’t realize what they’re sending is harmful or could be misused, so it’s good to remind them that “whatever you send out and put online…it lives forever,” she says.

Addressing the problem

Bailey Huston, bullying prevention center coordinator for Pacer—which hosts National Bullying Awareness Month, an annual event since 2010—says focusing efforts schoolwide can have the greatest impact.

“When we look at bullying prevention as an organization especially, we look at it as a community issue,” she says.

The Minnesota-based advocacy organization for parents of children with disabilities established the National Bullying Prevention Center in 2006 after an increase of calls reporting these students were targets of bullying.

Huston says Pacer encourages schools to embrace positive language of kindness, acceptance and inclusion.

“For so long, we’ve talked about behaviors we don’t want to see, but it’s also really important to be talking about those behaviors that we do want to see,” she says.

Schools can be resources for students in reporting bullying and in providing connections to social workers, counselors and mental health therapists, Martinsen says.

In turn, schools can support students by having anti-bullying policies that clearly define traits or characteristics, such as race, disability, religion, sex or gender identity or expression, of students historically targeted by bullying.

It’s listed as one of 11 key components of anti-bullying policy by the U.S. Department of Education, the CDC notes.

Anti-bullying measures are also important at the individual level.

A child is less likely to come to a parent who is displaying bullying behavior, Martinsen says. Parents should model for their children how to be an “upstander” who intervenes when other children are bullied.

It’s also important for children to see anger being dealt with in a constructive way, especially from parents, Barner adds.

“If you get upset with your kid…owning up and modeling for your child, ‘I’m sorry I raised my voice at you. Moving forward, before I engage, I’m gonna take a deep breath or go for a walk,'” is beneficial, she says.

A child could be bullying based on the perception that another child did him or her wrong, she adds. It’s also best to not be too confrontational and instead engage in perspective taking and discussing less aggressive alternatives.


  • Sourcesofstrength.org focuses on groups within middle and high schools in the Greater Washington, D.C. area, focusing on the connection between positive peer groups.
  • The Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia offers suicidepreventionnva.org, youth-led mini-grants for organizations and youth in Northern Virginia who want to implement bullying prevention initiatives in their schools or neighborhoods.
  • Dhs.gov provides resources for bullying prevention including a free app called KnowBullying with tips for talking to children about bullying.
  • Stopbullying.gov features resources on bullying, cyberbullying and prevention run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site includes a map that links to state anti-bullying policies across the country.

About Lindsay VanAsdalan

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