How to Handle Bullying

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 32 │How to Handle Bullying

Wednesday, October 28, 2020



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Dr. Deborah Temkin

What can families do to address bullying and how can schools act proactively to prevent bullying altogether? We talked with Dr. Deborah Temkin, the vice president VP Youth Development & Education Research at Child Trends to get answers. She shares strategies for supporting children who are bullied and offers advice to parents who have learned that their child is doing the bullying.


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Helen: Welcome back to another episode of Notes from the Backpack a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland.

LaWanda: And, I'm LaWanda and we're your cohosts. Today, we're going to talk about bullying.

Helen: From cyberbullying to name-calling to physical harassment, many kids are experiencing some form of bullying. Or, they might be the ones doing the bullying and school closures have added a new dimension to this topic. As parents, we know that you're worried about what's going on with your kids when it comes to bullying.

LaWanda: So, how do we talk about this? How do we tell the difference between bullying and other conflicts that happen between kids? How can we raise kids to be kind and compassionate and stand up to bullying when they see it?

And of course, how do we navigate this issue right now during this unusual school year?

Helen: Those are great questions, LaWanda, and I'm so glad we have Dr. Deborah Temkin here to speak with us today. Dr. Temkin is the Vice President for Youth Development and Education Research at Child Trends, where she oversees the work of over 40 researchers investigating the policies, programs, and practices that support the healthy development of youth. She is also a Senior Advisor to Child Trends work on the US Department of Education's National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments.

Before joining Child Trends, she led the Federal Initiative on Bullying Prevention, where she played a major role in creating and coordinating the White House Conference on Bullying. Dr. Temkin is also the mom to a four- year- old daughter. Welcome Dr. Temkin, thank you for joining us.

Deborah Temkin: Thanks so much for having me.

Helen: So let's just dive in, tell us a little bit about how you decided to become a researcher and what made you choose to focus on issues of school, climate and bullying?

Deborah Temkin:  Yeah, that's a really interesting question. And I think it's really indicative of a lot of people who study bullying. it should come as no surprise that I was bullied, as a kid in the past as well. It wasn't just that I was being bullied, but my school really didn't know to how to handle things. They tried everything from peer mediation to even sometimes disciplining me. I remember there was quite a few times where I got detention or suspension simply for trying to stand up for myself.

It was quite a mess and I knew when I started college and then onto grad school that I really wanted to find a way to better support schools, in how to handle bullying. So, when I was in college, I started really digging into relational aggression, which is the more typical type of bullying that, girls engage in. And then, when I went to grad school I started studying both education policy to understand what schools were being told around bullying, as well as understanding more of the child development aspects of bullying to understand where does this behavior come from?

LaWanda: That's all very fascinating, Dr. Temkin. can you share with us what the definition of bullying is and how common is it?

Deborah Temkin: Yeah. So, it's really important to note that there are many definitions of bullying. Researchers use one type of definition. Policymakers use another definition, and parents and kids themselves have different definitions. So, it's really important for us to all be on the same page of what we're talking about. I will give you the research definition. The research definition, generally, talks about aggressive behavior that is in the context of a power imbalance that is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time.

What this really means in practice is that, it's behavior that someone is perceived as affecting them. That, is being done over and over again, or has the potential to be done over and over again by someone who has a different, power over you. And that could be their physical size, their social status. It could be that they have some information about you that you don't have, or that they're holding over you, all sorts of different types of power.

LaWanda: And, how common is bullying?

Deborah Temkin: So, it really depends on how you ask the question, but typically on federal surveys, what we see is somewhere around one in five students is saying that they're being bullied and that's for middle through high school students.

Helen: And Dr. Temkin, I have a question related to the definition of bullying. How would families know the difference between a bullying incident versus maybe just a disagreement with their kids?

Deborah Temkin: It's a very important question. First and foremost, especially when we're talking, in the context of schools, you need to understand how your school is defining bullying. So, the definition that I gave is the one that we typically use in research studies.

But at school, typically they  have definitions that go something along the lines of behavior that is so severe that it's affecting a kid's ability to benefit from the educational opportunities of the school, which is a bunch of jargon. But what it really does is say, we are not going to take action if this is more of a minor incident. And, this is where we see a lot of disagreement between schools and parents and kids, because a child may feel really hurt over an incident that the school says, yeah, that's not severe enough for us to take action and so we have this difference of perception.

A child may feel very hurt, feel like they're being bullied and the school may not feel like it's behavior severe enough to actually be risen to the bar of being bullying under their definition. This is largely driven by the fact that most schools’ response to bullying is discipline. So, they don't want to suspend or expel or give detention to another student when the behavior is more subjective. A kid may think they're joking around or teasing, without, malicious intent, but the child on the receiving end might really feel that it's bullying.

That difference of perception means that the school is probably going to default to saying, you know what? This is subjective. It's not severe enough. We can't take action. Of course, then you hear in reports when there is bullying happening and in it drives a kid to, leave school or in worst cases, we've heard about, kids who have unfortunately died by suicide who have been bullied in their life. And, I'll caveat to say, suicide is never driven by just one thing.

But we do hear in those cases where parents say, well, I raised the bullying incident to the school and the school didn't do anything. It's this difference of definition and difference of subjectivity versus the need for objectivity that often leads to these disagreements.

Helen: So, is part of what you're saying, some of whether it's bullying or conflict depends on how it's affecting the child that's experiencing it negatively. If it's an ongoing thing that is causing them to not be able to participate in school or not want to go to school, then even if the intent is positive, it might be considered bullying. Is that right?

Deborah Temkin: Again, it depends on the school. So, many schools will default actually to the intent of the aggressor. So was the, the aggressor being intentionally malicious. And, as we all know, it's very hard, especially with children and adolescents to understand what their intent is. Often, they don't know what their intent is. So, this is why we see a lot of cases where schools say, yeah, we're not going to consider that bullying under our definition. What I would stress though, is just because a school doesn't call something bullying doesn't mean that can't and shouldn't take action.

And, I think that's one thing that parents really can advocate for their kids and say, it really doesn't matter about whether you're calling this bullying or not. We need to make sure that my child's feeling safe. They're not feeling safe right now. What can we do to make sure that my child's feeling safe?

LaWanda: Dr. Temkin, Are there certain populations of students that are more at risk of being bullied than others?

Deborah Temkin: Yes and no, it really depends on the context in which the bullying is taking place. Globally, yes we see that children who are from underrepresented groups are statistically more likely to get bullied. So LGBTQ students, students of color tend to report, more incidents of bullying, but that can change depending on their context. When they make up the majority of a population, they're actually less likely to get bullied.

It's also really interesting, that some studies have pointed out that when a child is the only, representative of a given identity, they are less likely to actually attribute the bullying to themselves and they will attribute it to their identity. So, I am being bullied because I am gay, but when they are being bullied and, they are one of many, and those others, who share the identity are not getting bullied, it becomes much more personal and it becomes much more effective. It affects them much more, than if they were the only person that, that identity.

So the intersection between identity and bullying is a very interesting question.

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Helen: I'm curious, switching gears a little bit. We're in the middle of a pandemic, you are a researcher and, psychologist. And so we're curious, what you've been hearing.

How is bullying looking the same or looking different for kids during the pandemic?

Deborah Temkin: Yeah, it's interesting. If we were recording this podcast before the pandemic, one of the first things I would say, for parents to understand is that, cyber bullying is still less prevalent than in person bullying, at least from the statistics that we have. I don't know if that's still the case anymore, considering that most kids are, are not physically in school or are more likely to be online for the majority of their school time, these days. And so, I suspect that those statistics are going to reverse themselves, particularly for this year, where we are gonna see much more cyber bullying, then in-person bullying.

What that means in practice though is not actually a lot. Parents tend to get really scared of cyber bullying. I think this is getting less prevalent as, more of the older Gen X, and the older millennials are having kids who are now entering middle and high school. Those parents experienced being online. I remember when I was growing up, I'm considered an older millennial at this point. I grew up with AOL instant messenger and I was probably the first generation of having some cyber bullying. So, it's not as scary to me. as it may have been to some of the parents who did not grow up with the internet and computers.

But one thing that I really want to stress is it's the same behavior it’s just happening in a different context. The reasons why it's happening thing are the same, the motivations are the same. The strategies to combat them are very similar. What's different is that it's perhaps a little bit more public and a little bit more permanent.

So,when someone's putting something on the internet about another child, it becomes harder to take that down. It's visible to many more people, because it's not just contained within, a friend group or a school community it's on the internet for people to see. So, that's a really important distinction of cyber bullying, but it's meant to only stress that is really not a different behavior. And, parents have to understand that the same things that they would do if this were happening in school are the same things that they can do now. They can still go talk to their schools about things that are happening between classmates. They can still talk to their child and form strategies about what to do about the behavior.

These are fundamental to preventing bullying and it really doesn't matter whether we are doing virtual schooling and dealing with cyber bullying or in person school with in-person bullying.

The other thing that we're seeing with COVID, especially in right now with kids being isolated from their friends is more feelings of isolation, that could also be a result of bullying. It's harder to know right now, whether children are feeling down, whether they're depressed because they're being bullied or because of all the other things that are going on in the world. So, it's really important for parents to be having those conversations with kids. Making sure that they are having open dialogues and making sure that they're asking specifically about their relationships with peers, as well as how they're dealing with all the other stressors that are happening right now.

LaWanda: That's great advice and we've talked a lot about the child who's being bullied. Can we talk a little bit about what advice you give for families who find out their child is being the bully?

Deborah Temkin: So, the first thing I would note is being a quote, unquote "bully", is not a permanent state. I even go so far as to try to not use the label bully, because we all have had experiences where we've been a little meaner to someone, than we maybe should have been in our lives. Especially kids, kids are learning how to socialize. So we never want to label a child a bully because the whole point is that they need to learn from their experiences and, and grow out of that.

So, I always refer to it as the child who engaged in bullying behavior. Now as a parent, when you are told that your child has been bullying someone else, I think one of the first reactions does it say no, not my kid, my child does this sweetest person in the world. They would never do that. They must have been provoked. This isn't my child. The first thing for parents really to do in that situation is to take a breath and listen. It way well be that there's lots of other contextual information that needs to be heard to understand what actually happened in that situation.

But, if you take those first two steps to say they may have been engaging in behavior they shouldn't have, let me understand what that behavior is, so I know how to address it. Taking that step back really can help actually address the situation. As opposed to getting into semantics of whether something was bullying or not, whether a child is a bully or not.

The next step is really to listen, both to your own child, but also to seek out information typically through the school, you shouldn't contact the child who is accusing your child, or their parents. You really need to go through the proper mechanisms. And we say the same thing about the child who's being bullied. Their parents shouldn't go contact the parents of the child who is bullying. In part, because you don't want there to end up being heated arguments between those parents. We really do need a third party, a neutral mediator to help figure out how to make the situation better for everyone.

The last point I'll make about, the child who is bullying is that, we have to understand if they are taking out aggression on other people, there's usually a reason behind that. Now, one thing I would stress is people tend to stereotype and say, oh, well, you know, bullies must be being bullied at home. That's not always true, a lot of times, children who are bullying others, may be very concerned about their social status, may be engaging in these behaviors because they think that's the way that they can gain social status with others, putting other people down in order to raise themselves up.

So, maybe they need a support to find other strategies. We have to make sure to actually dig into what is going on that they're exhibiting those behaviors and give them new tools to use. Bullying can be very constructive for some kids, they view it as a way of affirming their social status. They see it as a way of making sure that they themselves don't get bullied. So, these are things we have to understand and realize we can't just tell them don't bully. We have to give them new tools in their toolkit.

Helen: Yeah, absolutely. I want to go back because you mentioned the importance for, both parties, to go through the school as they're the proper mechanism and you talked a little bit at the top of the hour, some things in your own childhood that didn't work so well, when it came to you being bullied, could you give our listeners a little bit of a sense of the landscape of what are some of the models out there for either preventing bullying or addressing it after it's occurred? And, what works and what doesn't work.

Deborah Temkin: Yeah. So I'll start with the addressing and then move to preventing, because I think they are two very different things and honestly, the best way to address bullying is to prevent it to begin with and to really equip students with the tools to address it on their own. But, that said we aren't there yet. And most schools are not there yet.

So, how schools address bullying? Typically, schools will use a discipline framework as I think I mentioned, this means that they are going to try to interview everyone, figure out what happened, figure out if they have enough evidence to say that yes, a child bullied another child. And then, the child who did the bullying might face some sort of disciplinary consequence. Now there's a number of reasons that is not productive of in the long run.

One, we know that there is a school discipline crisis right now. We know that school discipline can lead down a track leading to the juvenile justice system. There is a huge issue of disparities in school discipline, for, youth with disabilities and youth of color in particular. So, anything that is going to solely depend on discipline is probably not the best solution. The other reason that doesn't work is, just because you have addressed quote unquote, the behavior with the child who engaged in the bullying does not mean that you have resolved anything with the child who feels like they've been bullied.

Helen: Right

Deborah Temkin: That  child, especially because it can take a long time for them to come to a resolution. And often that resolution is we don't have enough evidence to actually say that this child bullied you. That child is left feeling that they're not supported. No one's believing them about what their experience is and not actually getting the tools to feel safe anymore. The other thing is with the suspension, that child is going to come right back to that environment. And, if you don't solve the environment, they're just going to be angry because that I just got kicked out of school for a while. So, that's not solving anything. So, we really have to think beyond a disciplinary model when we're thinking about bullying. I talk to parents a lot, they just want a school to kick the bully out of school and be done with it.

Schools can't do that. There, there is an obligation for schools to educate children. If their behavior didn't rise to the level of an expulsion that the schools can't actually take that action. And so, there becomes real tension between the parents wanting that child removed, what a school can actually do and it becomes a little bit of a mess. So, my advice is really to shift the frame and say, it's no longer about that other child. Yes. That child needs help to address their behaviors, find other tools in their toolkit. To use alternative strategies, get mental health help, if they are experiencing something at home, but really a parent's concern needs to be about their own child.

What are we going to do to make sure my child feel safe? What are we going to do to make sure that my child's needs are taken care of? And for that, I really turn to a trauma-informed lens. So, we've heard a lot, especially in relation to COVID about the need for schools to really be trauma sensitive.

One, is actually listening and believing a child when they say that they're hurt. So even if you would disagree that, that behavior should not have made that child, you don't know what the context of that child’s history is necessarily. But the school needs to understand that they don't have the full story. So just because, if someone were to call me "little Debbie", which is a nickname I really don't like, that seems benign, but there may be history to that that makes me very upset when someone does that, especially when I tell them to stop.

So, a school has to understand that they may not have the full context that, when a child is hurt, we need to believe that they are hurt and figure out ways to make them safe. We need to talk to them. We need to listen to them. We need to explain when we can't take an action and figure out a plan that will work.

In terms of prevention, I think the best strategies for prevention are really to focus in on empathy, social emotional learning, and really building an awareness of understanding that, just because I don't intend to be mean, my actions, my words can be interpreted as something that's going to be hurtful and to understand when that happens how to respond, how to make sure that we are being supportive or our peers. I am a big advocate of school climate, and really trying to make sure that all kids feel like they have a place in a school. And, what that means is that there's an adult that they can go talk to when something's going wrong, that they feel like they have opportunities to engage with the school, and really create their own identity within school walls.

So those are strategies that I think are very effective. What is not effective is simply telling kids not to bully. Cause it really is, something where it's a tool that kids are using. It’s a strategy because they don't have other strategies. We have to make sure that we are well-equipping them.

LaWanda: I agree, Dr. Temkin. We've covered so much. What is one thing parents should take away from today's conversation? Something that they can start applying even today.

Deborah Temkin: So, I think the number one piece of advice is to create that open line of discussion. I know one of the things when I was growing up that I struggled with the most is that, I often felt like I couldn't tell my mom what was going on. In part, because she would immediately rush to the school and demand action without listening to what I needed or what I felt I needed. And, I didn't feel like I had that open communication with her to be able to let her know everything. And so, it usually took to the point where things got really bad for her to find out, which is never a good situation for anyone involved. And so, really being proactive and having those regular conversations with your children about, who are you hanging out with? Is everything okay with this friend? I haven't heard you talking about them in a while.

Making sure that you are really trying to be open, willing to listen, not jumping into action immediately. So a big mistake that parents do is they hear that their child is having a problem with a friend or someone's cyber bullying them and they immediately want to call the police or they immediately want to call Facebook and take that post down.

Helen: Yeah.

LaWanda: Yeah.

Deborah Temkin: But, often children will have their own strategies and we have to listen and say, okay, well, what do you want to do about this situation? What do you think is going to work? Okay, well, let's try that and see if that works. And if that doesn't work, why don't we have a plan B and a plan C and really plan that out with your children, as opposed to jumping into immediate action and being the protector. Now, obviously this works better for older children, middle and high school students, elementary school students may need a little bit more scaffolding, but even then I think it's really important to listen to your children and what they want to do.

LaWanda: Yeah, that's great advice, are there any resources available for families that you might suggest?

Deborah Temkin: Definitely check out There is a lot of great advice and information about bullying on that website. SAMHSA, also has a lot of great information about trauma informed care, which as I said is a really important strategy for thinking about how to handle children who feel like they've been bullied and I am hopeful, especially as we start to recover from COVID and students get back to school, that there has been a real recognition of the role that schools play in mental health care. And that, schools will be better equipped to handle some of these things, given that investment and given that awareness, especially about all the trauma and all the adversity that, children are experiencing right now because of the Coronavirus.

Helen: Absolutely. Well, thank you again, Dr. Temkin, not only for sharing so much great expert advice, but your own personal experience with us and our listeners. We are so grateful for you joining us.

Deborah Temkin:  It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Helen: And for our listeners, that wraps up today's episode. But, before you go be sure to check out to stay in the know, and if you enjoy this show, we hope you'll leave a review on Apple podcasts, we'd love to hear from you. And we also would like to give a final thank you to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for funding this season of Notes from the Backpack.

Thanks for listening.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.