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How to Deal with Friends Who Start Bullying

Advice

As your daughter gets older, you may find yourself setting up fewer playdates and having less control over who she spends time with—but you can help give her the tools to make great friends on her own. And even if she already has friends, you can nurture her social skills to help her create healthy, long-lasting relationships.

Friend-making doesn’t come easy to all girls. Maybe she’s the new kid at school, and her shyness makes it hard to talk to people she doesn’t know. Maybe her best friend just moved away, and she’s reluctant to forge new friendships. Maybe she faces exclusion or bullying at school and has trouble trusting her classmates. Whatever the obstacle, you can use these eight strategies to help her form strong bonds with new friends. You can also read some letters from real girls to see how they overcame difficulties and formed great relationships.

Is your daughter at risk of bullying?

girl-studying

While any girl can face bullying, there are some factors to look out for that might put your girl at higher risk. According to stopbullying.gov, girls and boys experience bullying at similar rates, but girls are more likely to experience non-physical bullying, such as verbal bullying, rumor-spreading, exclusion, and cyber-bullying. Girls in elementary school are at the highest risk, as middle schoolers and high schoolers tend to report fewer bullying incidents. (The exception is cyberbullying, which increases in high school.)

Besides her age, your daughter is more likely to face bullying if she:

  • Has a learning disability, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder.
  • Has special health care needs or a chronic disease. 
  • Is overweight or underweight.
  • Identifies as LGBTQ+ or does not conform to gender stereotypes.
  • Speaks a language other than English at home.

If your girl has any of these risk factors, you’re likely already hypervigilant for signs of bullying.

Bullying in elementary and middle school can create invisible scars that affect girls for years afterwards. According to stopbullying.gov, kids who experience bullying can face mental health issues like depression, anxiety, panic disorder, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as psychosomatic problems like headaches, stomach pain, sleeping problems, and poor appetite. The stress of bullying can also affect memory, which can lead to declining grades and class participation. Because of these risks, you can best set your daughter up for future success by identifying bullying quickly and working together to put a stop to it.

Is she facing a bully, or is she just fighting with her friend?

girls-talking

Even best friends argue and tease each other sometimes. Friendships change during late elementary school and middle school, so if your daughter is coming home from school with hurt feelings, it’s possible the girls might just be working out their differences or growing apart. But the difference between a strained friendship and outright bullying is a power imbalance between the two girls.

If you suspect your daughter’s friend is bullying her, consider whether the friend:

  • Is older, taller, or stronger.
  • Is more popular or socially savvy.
  • Uses her race or socio-economic status to assert power.
  • Has more access to resources.
  • Has higher academic, physical, or artistic abilities.

If these power differences exist, your daughter’s friend might be taking advantage of her position to tear your daughter down. Of course, two girls with different social statuses can still be great friends—but if one of them uses their power to take advantage of the other, that relationship is no longer a friendship.

If it’s not clear whether your girl’s friend is asserting power in a harmful way, consider how your daughter feels about the friendship. For example, if the friend teases your daughter during a softball game for striking out at bat or running too slowly between bases, does she respond with a clever quip, or does she hang her head and beg you to take her home? If being around the friend makes your daughter sad, the relationship isn’t healthy.

Be on the lookout for these signs that the friend is bullying your daughter: 

  • When the friends are together, do they spend most of their time competing or arguing with each other?
  • Does your girl act depressed after spending time with her friend? 
  • Does she seem unenthusiastic to meet up with the friend, or make excuses to get out of planned activities with the friend?
  • Does the friend criticize her or constantly point out things she could improve on?
  • Does your girl come home with damaged or missing belongings after spending time with the friend?
  • Does the friend bail on plans she had with your girl? Does she un-invite her to group outings or birthday parties?
  • Does the friend make unkind remarks about your girl’s appearance, abilities, or identity? These comments might be disguised as playful teasing, or even as compliments, but if they hurt your girl, the behavior is bullying.

Signs of bullying—especially at the hands of a friend—can be subtle. But paying attention to your daughter’s feelings and moods can help you pinpoint what’s going on, even if she doesn’t come out and tell you.    

When should you step in?

girls-momr talking

Seeing your girl suffer can hurt but intervening in her friendship can often make the problem worse. In fact, many girls are afraid or embarrassed to ask their parents for help dealing with bullies, because they’re worried about the parents overstepping to “fix” the problem. Her friend might lash out at her in retaliation if you, for example, talk to the friend’s mom. So, play it cool, Mom.

The best thing you can do is listen to what your girl is experiencing and validate her feelings. Don’t jump into action right away (unless the bullying is severe or she’s in danger)—just hear her out. 

Here are some conversation starters to help her open up:

  • I noticed you haven’t been acting like yourself. Is so-and-so making you feel bad?
  • I just want to check in on how you’re feeling and hear about what’s been going on with this friend. I won’t go to your friend or her parents—unless we decide that you want me to. 
  • When I was a kid, a friend of mine treated me in such-and-such way, and it made me feel awful. Has anything like that been happening to you?

If your girl feels threatened enough that she wants you to jump into action, do. But if she thinks she can handle the problem on her own, supporting her to do that is a great option. Resolving her own problems can give her the tools and confidence she needs to solve other relationship issues in the future.

If your girl wants to stand up to her friend but doesn’t know how, suggest these things to say during a conversation. You can even write them down on a notecard that she can keep in her pocket until she has some one-on-one time with her friend.

  • Remember the other day? Well, it’s been bothering me. I was really hurt by… (Being specific gives the two of them a problem to solve together.) 
  • Can we talk about the other day? How do you view what happened? (This question acknowledges that her friend has a point of view and she’s willing to hear it.)  
  • Maybe we have to agree to disagree on that. (This says, “I respect your opinion and can compromise some—but I expect my opinions to be respected too.”)
  • Our friendship means a lot to me, and I want to work this out. (This says, “I’m willing to do my part if you’re willing to do yours.”)

Ask her how the conversation went and see if she needs more support. Maybe the girls will mend their friendship, or maybe they will grow apart, as friends often do. But if the bullying behavior continues or escalates, it might be time to take action.

Act immediately if the bullying is severe

girls-teacher talking

Though all bullying hurts, not every behavior warrants the same response. A girl teased for a ketchup stain on her shirt doesn’t require the same response as a girl whose inappropriate photos get leaked to the internet, or a girl who receives death threats in her locker after she comes out as gay. Ignoring severe bullying can reinforce the behavior and let your daughter know she should just expect that kind of treatment. You need to step in.

Here are some tips for how to get help:

  • If you observe the bullying in person, use these tips from stopbullying.gov to stop bullying on the spot. For example, separate the kids involved and don’t immediately try to sort out the facts. 
  • If the bullying happens at school, encourage your daughter to reach out to the teacher, school counselor, principal, or superintendent—or do so yourself. Encourage your daughter to keep a journal and calendar to track every bullying incident. This record comes in handy when no adults observe the behavior, but school officials need more proof before they can act.  
  • If your daughter faces bullying at a public school based on her race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion or another facet of her identity, the school is required to address it in a certain way. If you’re not satisfied with how your daughter’s school handles the bullying, reach out to the school superintendent or your state’s department of education. For more information about discriminatory harassment laws, refer to stopbullying.gov.

Help your daughter regain her confidence

Bullying—especially at the hands of someone she thought was her friend—can wreck a girl’s confidence. But you can help your girl get back her groove with some fun and relaxing activities.

Try some of these ideas:

  • Help her achieve an attainable goal, like cleaning her room or baking a batch of cookies.  
  • Give her space and materials to create art or music. Consider taking a pottery class together or writing colorful chalk poems on the sidewalk.  
  • Leave her positive sticky-note messages on her mirror or in her lunchbox.  
  • Exercise together—go for a walk, toss a frisbee, or strap on some rollerblades. 
  • Look through old magazines together and cut out pictures of things that make her happy. She can use them to decorate her room, locker, or notebooks.  
  • Encourage her to take a nap or bubble bath. 
  • Plan a game night or movie night with the family.  
  • Visit the library and learn about something new together, like coding, quilting, or art history. 
  • Rearrange her bedroom together.  
  • Sort through old family photos.  
  • Volunteer together for a charity or cause she believes in. You might walk dogs at the animal shelter, participate in a march, or collect items for a women’s shelter.  
  • To help her make new friends, encourage her to reach out to people in her life she’d like to know better—kids from other schools, a pen pal, or that girl she’s never talked to from her after-school program.  

Facing a bully causes a lot of pain—for both your daughter and you. But helping your girl take the right actions and then recover from the pain can empower her to be a stronger, more confident person.

To give your girl more resources for standing up to bullies, check out Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends and A Smart Girl’s Guide: Friendship Troubles.

Adapted from A Smart Girl’s Guide: Friendship Troubles by Patti Kelley Criswell. ©2013, 2018 American Girl. All American Girl marks are trademarks of American Girl.

Special thanks to stopbullying.gov.

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