Sooner or later, it happens to just about every parent. Your child comes home from school sobbing, “That kid is so mean to me!” It’s enough to make you want to find that kid (or his parents) and give him a piece of your mind.

But what really happened? Most of the time, as many kids will eventually confess, there are two sides to the story. Your child may have upset a classmate; or, as commonly happens, two friends misunderstood one another and the problem escalated, distressing them both. But sometimes, there is something worse going on: bullying. Professionals agree if that’s the case, it’s a big deal, and adults need to move in to stop it.

Here are three key signs that this is more than just an argument:

  1. Power Imbalance. Arguments happen between peers. When two children feel equal, they can solve problems together. But bullies pick on people they consider weak, says Nathaniel Floyd, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Violence Prevention. “It’s psychologically important,” he says, “for the bully to have that person under his control.” One child may physically torment another; but more often (and just as devastating), a bully will jeer and threaten. Children may also try “relational bullying” – hurting other kids by excluding and harassing them.
  2. Intent to Harm. While kids may argue and become angry, they rarely walk into it intending pain. Not so with bullying. Bullies want to hurt other kids, says Virginia Blashill, M.Ed., a program implementation specialist at the Committee for Children, an internationally respected anti-bullying group. “The person doing the bullying takes a certain amount of pleasure in witnessing the pain or humiliation which has been caused.”
  3. Repetition. While bullying may occur just once, it often includes further threats. In severe cases, bullies target their victims and pursue them. Floyd adds, with regret, that this isn’t “just a phase.” Adults must step in, or violent habits can continue for life.

Extreme as these behaviors may sound, researchers have found that they happen often in schools. What can parents do?'s resident child psychologist LIsa Medoff, Ph.D., has these tips for parents on how to help your child deal with bullying:

  • Give your child a comfortable way to begin the conversation about bullying, such as bringing it up when you see a television show with a bully or talking about experiences that you had when you were younger.
  • Let your child know that being bullied is nothing to be ashamed of. You should both understand that bullying is most often about issues of the bully, not the target. Make sure that your child knows that you do not believe he needs to change the way he looks or acts, and that you are on his side – you will work together to find a solution to his problem.
  • If your child is fearful about going to school, approach the teacher or school counselor to ask for advice and assistance. It is helpful if you and your child can keep a detailed list of incidents, including exactly what happens and when it occurs. Sharing this list with school personnel can help them provide the correct type of help for your child.
  • In some cases, talking with the bully’s parents can be helpful, but be aware that this may not always be the case. No parent wants to hear accusations that his or her child is behaving poorly, and the result may be defensiveness. Some parents are also relieved to hear that their child is the bully and not the target, so they may be reluctant to make any changes. If you do feel that it is necessary to include the bully’s parents, consider having a mediator, such as a teacher or school counselor. During the meeting, take care not to attack the bully or her parents.
  • Help your child understand that fighting back can often cause the situation to escalate, and your child could end up hurt or in trouble. The best thing to do is to walk away, and if necessary, tell an adult. Role-play things like walking away from the bully, staying calm in the face of teasing, and the words to use when telling an adult.
  • Work with your child to brainstorm strategies for dealing with the bully, such as avoiding places where she might encounter the bully, or at least making sure to have a good friend with her when the bully is around.

And finally: be a model yourself. Use fair negotiation and problem-solving strategies whenever you can. Bullying is bad news, but there is good news too: schools are doing more than ever to stop it, and parents can help.