Addressing Bullying

Bullying is repeated, forceful behavior meant to cause physical or emotional harm as a way to scare or control others. The behavior can include teasing, insulting, shoving, hitting, or gossiping, and it is often an act of power. This page will talk about bullying and children with disabilities, how children are affected by bullying, signs a child is being bullied, important things to know when watching for bullying, and where to get help.

Bullying and the Child with Disabilities

Bullying can happen to any person in any place. While no one cause puts a child at risk of being bullied, children with disabilities are both at risk and highly affected by being bullied. One study shows 60% of students with disabilities tell someone they are being bullied often, compared with 25% of all students.

How are Children Affected by Bullying?

Children who are bullied may feel upset, afraid, ashamed, embarrassed, and nervous about going to school. Longer-term effects include lower scholastic success and aspirations, greater anxiety, loss of self-esteem, depression and post-traumatic stress, physical health problems, self-harm and suicidal thinking, suicide, feelings of loneliness, more absences from school, and other harmful impacts to a child’s health and education. [Young: 2010]

Children who bully other children also have lasting problems. Sometimes children who have certain emotional or behavioral disorders or limited social skills act in a way that is mistaken for bullying. Whether the behavior is intended, or is due to disability, it still needs to be addressed.

Signs a Child is Being Bullied

Bullying usually keeps happening unless there is intervention, but knowing when it happens can be difficult. Children will not always tell you they are being bullied. Possible signs are:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Unusual episodes of acting out
  • Sleep problems
  • Bed-wetting
  • Crying or sadness for no known reason
  • Unusual “clinginess” to family and caregivers
  • Fear of leaving home, going to school, or usual daily activities
If you notice any of these with your child or other things that are not normal to his or her behavior, ask your child lots of questions.

Important Things to Know

Children may not necessarily know they are being bullied.

Sometimes children may believe they have made new friends when in fact those friends are making fun of them. Children with special needs may be more trusting and at risk in social situations. Ask your children about their day, who they were with or talked to, and who their friends are. Listen carefully for anything that causes you concern.

Bullying is different from conflict.

  • Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views
  • Bullying is a negative behavior directed by someone exerting power and control over another person.
Sometimes people think that bullying and conflict are the same thing, but they aren’t. In one way or another, conflict is a part of everyday experience, in which we navigate the complexities of how we interact. Typically minor conflicts don’t make someone feel unsafe or threatened. Bullying, on the other hand, is when someone is hurt by unwanted words or actions, usually more than once and has a hard time stopping what is happening to them.


Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like smart phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.

Warning Signs a Child is Being Cyberbullied or is Cyberbullying Others

Many of the warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring happen around a child’s use of their device. Some of the warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying are:
  • Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting.
  • A child exhibits emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device.
  • A child hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device.
  • Social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear.
  • A child starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past.
  • A child becomes withdrawn or depressed, or loses interest in people and activities.

Practice Digital Awareness as a Parent

  • Monitor a teen’s Social Media and Apps, and browsing history if you have concerns that cyberbullying may be occurring.
  • Review or re-set your child’s phone location and privacy settings.
  • Follow or friend your teen on social media sites or have another trusted adult do so.
  • Stay up-to-date on the latest apps, social media platforms, and digital slang used by children and teens.
  • Know your child’s user names and passwords for email and social media.
  • Establish Rulesabout appropriate digital behavior, content, and apps.
Educate yourself on digital monitoring apps and parental controls. Sit down with your child and review their activity. Discuss intent vs impact of their actions.

Getting Help

If your child has let you know that he or she is being bullied, call the school to talk about this with the teacher and principal. If your child has an IEP, involve the team right away, create strategies for your child to cope and let adults know if they are being bullied. Children with disabilities are protected under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Schools are required by law to make sure they are addressing their needs and resolving harassment or bullying issues.

The Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework includes school-based interventions or services that address different “levels” of supports needed to deal with the range of learning, mental health, and emotional-behavioral health concerns that a student may have. It is also used in bullying prevention and intervention. Multi-tiered service delivery involves providing universal and selective prevention services, as well as indicated intervention services.

In all cases, bullying is a public health challenge. Awareness and focus is needed with intervention and prevention of bullying of students with disabilities. Share your child’s comments about their day with their IEP team members to provide context. Have the IEP team agree upon a communication method that is accessible, convenient and can be used regularly by the whole team to be proactive. An example is a shared Google document.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Bullying and Harassment of Students with Disabilities
From Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center.
Parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help kids prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment, and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.

Pacer Kids Against Bullying

A Report and Guide on Bullying and the Child with Special Needs (PDF Document 3.7 MB)
Walk a Mile in their Shoes: Bullying and the Child with Special Needs, a report and guide from

Bullying and Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Care Needs
Creating a safe environment for youth with disabilities and for youth with special health needs from

What if Your Child IS the One Showing Bullying Behavior? (PDF Document 88 KB)
Children who bully can be affected as much as those they target; from the Pacer Center.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: May 2016; last update/revision: October 2022
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Anna Dees
Authoring history
2018: update: Tina PerselsA
2016: first version: Jennifer Goldman, MD, MRP, FAAPA
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer

Page Bibliography

Young J, Ne'eman A, Gelser S.
Bullying and Students with Disabilities.
National Council on Disability; (2010)