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Advice from an Expert on How to Handle Teen Bullying

Teen bullying is painful, both for the bully victims and their parents. We asked two experts, Dr. Carolyn levers-Landis and Dr. Lisa Damour, to answer some common questions about teen bullying.

My teenager is being teased by some boys at his school, but he says it doesn’t bother him. How do I know if that’s true?

Dr. Landis: If a teen is internalizing the pain, he or she will most likely have other symptoms such as physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches), sleeping problems, issues in school (either academic or behavioral), or moodiness/irritability. If the “bully victim” is functioning very well and says that the teen bullying does not bother him, it is reasonable to take this at face value (it’s true!).

I think my teenager is a bully victim, but he denies it. His behavior has changed dramatically and his grades have dropped significantly. What’s your advice?

Dr. Damour: I encourage you to reach out to his teacher or an advisor at his school to ask whether they are aware of anything at school that might be grounds for concern. If the school personnel has nothing to report, ask if they will quietly observe your son for a few days and let you know if anything surfaces. If the teacher comes up empty-handed, consider seeking outside support from a counselor or psychologist to help assess what might be going on with your son. The symptoms you are describing are not part of normal childhood or adolescence and should be taken seriously.

My friend’s kid is bullying my son. I want to tell my friend. Will that be productive?

Dr. Lisa Damour: The success of such a conversation depends heavily on the nature of your friendship and your friend’s likelihood of blindly defending her son. If you do choose to raise your concern with your friend, you might begin by approaching the situation with neutral, genuine curiosity: “Have you heard anything from Jim about Billy and Jim having a hard time with each other? Billy is telling me that Jim is teasing him and being physical with him at school.” Such an approach may get your conversation moving in the right direction and is less likely to prompt a defensive response than an approach in which you accuse your friend’s son of being a bully.

How do we prevent bullying?

Dr. Landis: Our society in general does not value empathy and kindness the way we value physical strength and dexterity or the ability to be successful in getting good grades and high test scores. This just happens to be what is valued most by the society we live in. However, as parents, we can praise empathy and we can let our teenagers know that this is a quality that we highly prize and expect from them.

I read a lot of advice about helping bully victims. How do we help the bully?

Dr. Landis: I think that this is indeed necessary to work on both clinically and with additional research. In many cases, the bully is suffering as well as the victim, and we should pay attention to unmet needs or undiagnosed issues. However, the bully and the bully’s parents have to want to be helped to prevent bullying. Some may be more open to this than others. That is why it is vitally important to assist those who are bullied.


Dr. Lisa Damour is a clinical psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Your Daughter Through the Seven Transitions to Adulthood. Dr. Carolyn levers-Landis is a clinical psychologist with Cleveland’s University Hospitals.