4 Stealthy Forms of Bullying—and What to Do About It

Learn how to recognize bullies’ more subtle tactics and to take action to support your child.

teen girl, head down holding cell phone in her room

The classic image of a bully is the freckle-faced rascal teasing a smaller child on the way to school. The reality? Bullying can take many different forms, and kids are experts at hiding it from adults, says Yevgeniy Gelfand, MD, a psychiatrist at Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Anyone can be a bully: The star student or “teacher’s pet” who spreads rumors about her rival at school, even the “nice” boy down the street who closes his bedroom door and posts vicious comments about other kids on social media.

This may be one reason why bullying seems to be everywhere. A survey of 6,117 students in grades 6 to 12 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 20 percent of students ages 12 to 18 were bullied in school during the 2016-2017 school year. The survey, published in 2019, also found that 13 percent of those polled were the subject of rumors, 13 percent were called names, insulted or ridiculed and 5 percent were purposefully excluded from activities—incidents that may be more likely to go unnoticed by adults and more difficult for young people to verbalize.

But whether it’s done in person or online—by calling names, shoving a kid into a locker or freezing a girl out of her friend group—bullying is always cruel, always intentional, always creates a power imbalance and is always repeated, adds Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World.

Here are four of the more subtle forms of bullying, and what you can do to help your child.


Kids who are perceived as “different”—because of their weight, sexual orientation or gender expression, physical frailness, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity—are more likely to be bullied. This can come across in subtle comments that might not outwardly appear menacing, but that nevertheless “create an environment where the child feels unaccepted and put down,” says Dr. Gelfand.

Small comments like, “I love your sneakers, did your mom buy them at the discount store?” or, “Why does your lunch always smell like curry?” might not seem like outright bullying to a teacher or an observer, but these microaggressions add up over time. “These can be difficult to pinpoint, and the person being bullied can even question whether or not they’ve misperceived something or ask themselves if it’s actually happening,” Gelfand notes.

Social exclusion

Whether your teenager was left off the invite list for a sweet sixteen party (and then spent the night scrolling through everyone else’s pictures from the bash), or your 6-year-old is told by a giggling group of classmates that there is no room for her at the lunch table, social exclusion is a common form of bullying in which a child or teen tries to manipulate other kids’ relationships.

“When young kids are learning the ins and outs of society, there is a natural tendency to want to be on top, and sometimes that involves putting other people down or creating a group that's exclusive, so certain kids get elevated and everyone who is excluded gets pushed down,” Gelfand explains.” Borba points out that this kind of jockeying for position starts as young as kindergarten and peaks in middle school.

Spreading rumors

Another insidious form of social bullying is spreading rumors, which can start with whispers in the school hallways, texts or online posts. This is actually one of the most common forms of bullying, with 17.5 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys between 12 and 18 years old suffering from rumor-mongering, the NCES survey showed.

“A bully can start spreading vicious rumors, inside and outside of school, and the problem is you might not know who started it, who has repeated it and who has heard it,” says Borba. “And since no one knows who is spreading it and no one can confirm whether it’s true or not, everyone may assume it’s true.”


The fastest-growing form of bullying takes place on social media—posting mean-spirited, false or embarrassing pictures and comments about someone on Instagram, Snapchat, group texts or shared gaming sites. The NCES report revealed that 15 percent of the students surveyed were bullied online or via text.  

One of the reasons cyberbullying has become so pervasive is that it’s so easy, particularly for a bully to hide behind a screen, says Gelfand. “You don't even need to leave the privacy of your own home to bully someone anymore,” he says. “And when you’re in an online forum, you can have a different screen name that isn’t linked directly to you, so the bully can feel like he’s wearing a mask, and he can say whatever he wants without worrying about retaliation,” he adds.

What can parents do?

It’s not always easy to recognize when your child is being bullied, advises Gelfand. “If something's going on, it may just look like they are more withdrawn and not as cheerful as usual,” he says. “They may just want to stay in their room by themselves.”

Rushing home from school to use the bathroom or raid the fridge may be a red flag. Kids who are bullied may be too fearful to use the bathroom or cafeteria at school, adds Borba. Students who are being bullied may act out and, in turn, start bullying their younger siblings.

Changes in eating or sleeping habits, dropping grades and unexplained headaches and stomachaches may also be signs that a child is being bullied. Since less than half of kids report bullying to an adult, it’s important to be aware of these changes in habits or behaviors and take action. Some steps you can take to support your child include the following.

Bring up the issue in general terms. Suggest a family movie night watching Tina Fey’s seminal 2004 movie about bullying, Mean Girls, and use that to start a conversation about what might be going on in your teen or tween’s school, suggests Borba. For younger kids, you can say you read an article online about bullying and ask if that kind of thing ever goes on in their school.

Listen without interrupting. Though you may be tempted to jump to express your own anger or offer suggestions right away, be sure to hear your child out, says Gelfand. “Giving suggestions right away doesn't validate their story as much. So, sit down and really listen to what they have to say. They want to be heard and understood and know that someone cares,” he adds.

Seek help when needed. If possible, assess the severity of the situation and determine whether or not those involved would benefit from the help of a trained professional, such as a guidance counselor or a mental health professional.

Figure out a safety plan. Pay attention to where and when physical or verbal harassment is happening and make a plan to never allow your child to be alone in those areas if possible, says Borba. “Many students tell me they find a safe space in the school library, where they can sit near the librarian and everyone needs to be quiet,” she says.

Keep an eye on their screens. If your child is being cyberbullied, saving screenshots of the offending content to help document the abuse and reporting it to the social media platform may help. Keep in mind, this also has the potential to backfire. If your child receives serious threats online, report it to the police.

But you could help prevent cyberbullying in the first place by teaching your children about social networking safety. Make sure they know what cyberbullying is and how it can be hurtful. Be sure that young people never share personal information on social media sites and that they keep their accounts private and never “friend” strangers. You can also help wean children off their reliance on social media by making a contract of when and how they can use their phone, tablet or computer.

Bring in allies. Many kids don’t report their bullying because they are afraid of retaliation or being labeled a tattletale. But remind your child that schools have anti-bullying policies, and it is in everyone’s best interests to maintain a safe environment. “Encourage them to talk to an adult at school and let them know it’s totally normal to pursue safety,” says Gelfand. (Borba says that in extreme cases, if the school is not willing or able to help, parents should consider switching schools or moving to a new district to protect their child.)

Find a new friend. For social bullying, it may be best to encourage your child to forget about the group of friends that’s excluding her or whispering behind her back. Once she shows she doesn’t care about being invited to the mall, the bullies will lose their power.

“Help your child find at least one loyal friend,” says Borba. That may involve signing up for activities outside of school that she loves—a dance troupe, a horseback-riding club, a computer animation class—where she can find kids who will bond over a shared interest, far from the influence of the local bullies.

Article sources open article sources

National Center for Education Statistics. “Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey.”
National Center for Education Statistics. “Fast Facts: Bullying.”
Stopbullying.gov. “Who is at risk?”
American Psychological Association. “Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions.'”
Stopbullying.gov. “What is bullying?”
Stopbullying.gov. “Facts About Bullying.”
Stopbullying.gov. “What is Cyberbullying.”
Stopbullying.gov. “Warning Signs For Bullying.”
Stopbullying.gov. “Prevent Cyberbullying.”
Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Cyberbullying.”

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