The emotional cost of bullying

for parents and carers  

This webpage looks in detail at what bullying is and how it can affect young people. It also gives advice for parents and teachers about how they can help a young person who is being bullied.



This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Bullying happens when a child is picked on by another child or group of children. It is hurtful and deliberate. Victims find it difficult to defend themselves. Bullying usually happens again and again, and can go on for a long time unless something is done about it.

It can happen in many different ways which include physical, verbal or emotional.

Children who bully may:

  • hit or punch another child
  • kick them or trip them up
  • take or spoil their things
  • call them names
  • tease them
  • give them nasty looks
  • threaten them
  • make racist remarks about them
  • spread nasty rumours or stories about them
  • not let them join in play or games
  • not talk to them – “send him to Coventry”
  • send repeated false or obscene messages on the phone or internet/social networking sites.
Bullying is very common and can happen in all schools. Surveys in this country have shown that half of primary school pupils and one in 10 secondary school pupils in England are being bullied.
There is no single reason why some children become bullies or victims. Children who are aggressive are more likely to become bullies. They pick on children who appear different in some way - those who are quiet, shy, alone at playtime, and unable to defend themselves. Children who have an illness or disability or who are obese are also more likely to be bullied.

Being bullied can seriously affect a child's physical and mental health. This can include:

  • feeling sad and lonely
  • lacking confidence and feeling bad about themselves
  • becoming depressed
  • complaining of various physical symptoms e.g. headaches, stomach aches
  • worrying and trying to avoid going to school

These problems can carry on long after the bullying has stopped.


Be open to the possibility that your child might be being bullied. Some parents may not think of bullying as a possible reason for their child's distress.


One of the most important things you can do is to listen to your child if they say they are being bullied. It can be very difficult for them to talk to anyone about it.

Take your child seriously

Many children suffer in silence for a long time before they tell anyone. They may be ashamed, embarrassed, and may believe that they deserve it. Many children are frightened of telling because they fear the bullies will find out and hurt them even more. It can take great courage to tell an adult.

Do not blame the child

Being bullied is not their fault (although they may think it is). Reassure them that they were right to tell you.

Do not promise to keep the bullying a secret

Something must be done about it. Reassure your child that you, and the teachers, will make sure that things do not get worse because they have told you. Tell the school so they can stop it. Teachers don't always know that a child is being bullied. Find out if there is an anti-bullying programme in the school.

Talk with your child and work out ways of solving the problem

Include your child in decisions about how to tackle the problem. For example, work out some practical ways for them to stop the bullying. You might discuss what they should say back if they are called names, or where it's safe to go at playtime.


Bullying happens in every school, so it is important that each school has an effective anti-bullying programme. Good intentions are not enough.

Both pupils and staff need to act when they see a child being bullied. Every school can obtain an anti-bullying pack from the Department for Education and Skills.

There are a number of agencies that can offer advice and help in how to set up effective programmes (see above sources of further information).

Other professionals who can help

Children whose health has been affected may benefit from some specialist help from their general practitioner, school nurse, a social worker or an educational psychologist who will be able to offer help and advice.

Children with emotional problems quite often need these to be treated directly, even if the school has managed to stop the bullying. Your general practitioner can refer your child to a child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS).

"I don’t know whether it has ever happened to you? It started when Justine came into our class. I was friends with Joanne and Justine wanted to hang round with us. It was OK at first but then she and Jo began laughing about things and I didn’t know what was funny. They had secrets they wouldn’t tell me. They started nicking my things and pretending I had lost them. I stopped hanging around with them and sat next to Lucy in English and Science. She was my friend from primary school.

Then they started spreading rumours about me. They said I was a slag and slept with Pete Smithson. They said I was pregnant. They started sending me horrible text messages. They got everyone against me. I didn’t want to tell her – but my Mum found out when I told her because she found me crying in my room.

I wouldn’t go to school. Mum went to school and spoke to Miss Ratcliffe but she said they, the teachers, hadn’t seen anything and they couldn’t do anything about it. I got really down. My Mum went to school and got angry because I was missing so much school. They got everyone together and changed my form. They also gave me a mentor. Things are better now but I still don’t speak to Jo and Justine – although they aren’t friends anymore."

ChildLine - Provides a free and confidential telephone service for children: Helpline 0800 1111.

Department for Education - Produces information on bullying.

Kidscape - Provides advice, run training courses and produce helpful booklets and information about bullying.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) - Brings together over 100 organisations into one network to develop and share good practice across the whole range of bullying issues.


Bond L, Carlin JB, Thomas L, Rubin K, Patton G. (2001) Does bullying cause emotional problems? A prospective study of young teenagers. BMJ323:480–4.

Gini G & Pozzoli T. (2009) Association between bullying and psychosomatic problems: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics123; 1059-1065.

Vreeman RC & Carroll AE. (2007) A systematic review of school-based interventions to prevent bullying. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine161:78-88.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. (2008) Promoting children’s social and emotional wellbeing in primary education (public health guidance 12). 

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. (2009) Promoting young people’s social and emotional wellbeing in secondary education (public health guidance 20). 


Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Sarah Bates, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy.

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

Published: Jul 2015

Review due: Jul 2018

© Royal College of Psychiatrists