Physical bullying is a serious problem, affecting not only the bully and the victim, but also the other students who witness the bullying. Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults and young people should be aware of what a physical bully is and some of the ways to handle it.
There are many types of negative physical interactions that can occur between young people, including fighting, practical jokes, stealing, and sexual harassment. These things are not considered physical bullying unless:
- The same victim is targeted repeatedly
- The bully or bullies intend to hurt, embarrass, or intimidate the victim
- The actions occur in a situation with a real or perceived imbalance of power, such as when the bully is stronger than the victim or has a higher social standing
In this context, physical bullying can take many forms:
- Stealing or destroying possessions, including books, clothing, or lunch money
Physical bullying may also cross the line into sexual harassment or sexual assault.
Physical bullying occurs most often at school, though it can also occur on the way to and from school and after school. Middle school is the age when bullying is most common, with almost all middle school students being affected directly or indirectly by bullying. This is an age where young people want more to fit in with their peers, making some students more likely to bully or condone bullying to fit in, while those who don’t fit in stand out more as victims. Bullying can also occur in earlier grades, as well as through high school and even into adulthood.
Physical bullying is more likely to occur among males, though females may also be the perpetuators or victims of physical bullying. Bullies may have any number of reasons for bullying others, such as wanting more control over others, and wanting to fit in. Bullies are often physically stronger than their victims and have friends who condone their behavior. Students who bully others, however, often have trouble with self control, following rules, and caring for others, and are at higher risk for problems later in life, such as violence, criminal behavior, or failure in relationships or career.
Victims of physical bullying are usually physically weaker than the bullies, and also may be socially marginalized for some reason, including weight, ethnicity, or other characteristics that make it harder for them to fit in. Bullying can have serious consequences for the victim, leading to low self esteem, depression, trouble at school, and sometimes even violent behavior.
Some signs that a student may be a victim of physical bullying include:
- Coming home from school with bruises, cuts, or other unexplained injuries
- Having damaged clothing, books, or possessions
- Often “losing” things that they take to school
- Complaining of frequently not feeling well before school or school activities
- Skipping certain classes
- Wanting to avoid going to school or going to school a certain way, such as taking strange routes home from school or not wanting to ride the bus
- Acting sad or depressed
- Withdrawing from others
- Saying they feel picked on
- Displaying low self esteem
- Mood swings, including anger or sadness
- Wanting to run away
- Trying to take a weapon to school
- Talking about suicide or violence against others
If a student is a victim of bullying, show love and support to the child and explain that the bullying is not their fault, and that what the bully is doing is wrong. Talk to the victim to find out when and how the bullying is taking place, then talk to teachers and school administrators about the problem. Bullying should always be taken seriously. Don’t encourage the victim to fight back. Often the best way to deal with bullies is to avoid them or react as little as possible. Unfortunately, with physical bullying this is not always possible. Staying with a friend or friends or where adults are supervising can sometimes help deter the bullying. If the victim is struggling with feelings of depression or anger, seek counseling to help them deal with their emotions.
If a student is being a bully, tell them that the behavior is not acceptable. All young people should be taught to respect others and that bullying is not acceptable.
Parents should talk to their children often about what goes on at school, including their friends and if they ever see or experience bullying. Parents should encourage their children not to support bullying, even by watching it, and to report it if it’s happening. Depending on the situation, the student may be able to stand up to the bully, show support for the victim, or at least walk away from the bullying and report it to an adult.
Parents of victims or of bullies can also encourage schools to have stronger anti-bullying measures, like anti-bullying campaigns, careful adult supervision of students, zero-tolerance policies, and counseling for students involved in bullying.
SAMHSA Family Guide, “Bullying Affects All Middle School Kids” [online]
Nemours, TeensHealth, “Dealing with Bullying” [online]
Consortium to Prevent School Violence, “Fact Sheet #2: Bullying Prevention” [online]
HealthNewsDigest.com, “Know the Signs of Physical Bullying” [online]