How to Encourage Kids to Open Up About School Violence and Bullying

Mother and teen son having a conversation on the living room sofa

School violence is cyclically at the forefront of U.S. media. The most extreme and deadly instances of violence highlight the intense fear, anxiety and stress present inside school walls. 

There are also less publicized but constant forms of school violence, such as bullying, verbal threats and fighting, that impede students’ learning and growth.

Ellen deLara, associate professor emerita at Syracuse University School of Social Work, researches childhood bullying and school violence. She says the emotional and psychological toll of the pandemic was largely left unaddressed for kids, and that amplifies these issues.

“Kids have returned to school under tremendously adverse circumstances. They feel angry, sad, disappointed, depressed and anxious—just like practically every adult in the country,” deLara said. “They have experienced a great deal of loss.”

“Kids have returned to school under tremendously adverse circumstances. They feel angry, sad, disappointed, depressed and anxious—just like practically every adult in the country,” deLara said. “They have experienced a great deal of loss.”

This mental health crisis makes it more difficult for children to navigate the complex emotions surrounding school violence. 

Adults who want to support students and respond to school violence should create an environment where children feel empowered to discuss it. But stress, guilt and fear of inaction all contribute to students’ propensity to stay silent about violence.

The information and resources below are meant to guide educators and caregivers as they engage in conversations with youth about school violence and its effects.

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What Is School Violence?

Every year, up to 1 billion children experience some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence, according to a UNICEF handbook on preventing school-based violence (PDF, 5.9 MB)

Children’s experiences with violence have lifelong consequences: Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol, experience depression and other mental health disorders, have difficulty in school and engage in criminal behavior as adults, according to the National Institute of Justice.

School violence includes violent acts that occur on school property, on the way to or from school or during a school-sponsored event. The CDC explains that this kind of violence disrupts learning and negatively affects the entire school community.

School violence can be perpetrated by anyone at the school, including teachers and other staff. A U.S. Department of Justice review of the causes and consequences of school violence (PDF, 992 KB) shows that these acts include the following:

  • Physical assault and battery
  • Physical and noncontact aggression
  • Bullying
  • Fighting
  • Robbery
  • Unwanted sexual contact
  • Weapon possession
  • Verbal threats and psychological violence

How Often Does School Violence Occur?

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey monitors health-related behaviors among youth that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability, including drug use and violence. 

This system of national and local surveys helps provide an understanding of the prevalence of school violence. The 2019 results of the survey indicate the following:

7.4% of students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.

8% of students were in a physical fight on school property.

19.5% of students reported being bullied while at school.

School shootings meet the definition of “targeted school violence,” according to the U.S. Secret Service. In its 2019 threat assessment of such incidents (PDF, 7.1 MB), the U.S. Secret Service found there were more than 40 cases of targeted school violence between 2008 and 2017.

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What Happens When School Violence Is Left Unaddressed?

The effects of the different kinds of school violence are pervasive and serious. For immediate victims of violence, school becomes a dangerous space.

In 2019, almost 9% of high school students surveyed reported skipping school at some point because they felt unsafe there or on their way there—the highest number recorded via the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 1993, when data was first collected for the survey, the percentage of students reporting this behavior was 4.4%. According to deLara, more updated research may reveal greater numbers of students skipping school as school violence is perceived to go unchecked.

Examples of how victims of school violence might feel and act include:


Anxiety and depression
Anger and hostility
Internalized shame
Low self-esteem
Psychotic symptoms


Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Change in eating patterns
Alcohol and drug use
Aggressive behavior
Skipping classes or dropping out
Early sexual activity and pregnancy
Running away from home

It is not only those directly involved who experience adverse effects of school violence. “All students are impacted by school violence, to greater and lesser degrees,” deLara explains.

Bystanders and witnesses often feel helpless and confused if they are friends with a perpetrator of violence. They may also feel afraid or anxious about becoming a victim themselves. According to the Children Safety Network, most bystanders are passive (PDF, 454 KB), meaning they do not intervene to help victims. This can also lead to bystanders feeling ashamed or guilty.

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Why Might Students Hesitate to Talk About School Violence?

Each student’s approach to dealing with school violence will be informed by their own experiences and fears. 

But deLara said there are common reasons that a child may choose not to speak up about an experience with violence while at school.

Inaction: A student may have tried sharing fears or experiences in the past with no solution or relief from the problem. This may reinforce the idea that sharing is futile.

Disempowerment: Adults might encourage kids to figure out how to resolve issues themselves without providing the tools or support they need to feel safe and empowered.

Fear: Students may fear retribution from perpetrators of violence if action is taken against them. Children might also be afraid of a caregiver’s response, such as disappointment or anger.

Guilt: Children may want to avoid burdening their parents or introducing a problem that causes stress and uses time and resources.

Shame: Students could feel ashamed that they are a victim of violence. They might feel isolated or like this experience is unique to them and wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” or, “Do I deserve this?”

Strategies to Encourage Students to Talk About School Violence

Helping students through these experiences requires information, but it is difficult to know what is happening if victims do not feel comfortable sharing with trusted adults. Building that rapport takes time, deLara said.

“First, build an open and trusting relationship with your child,” she suggested. “That encourages conversation about small day-to-day issues and greater issues.”

Below are some of deLara’s tips for parents and caregivers speaking to children about school violence.

Tip #1: Ask open-ended questions.

Let your child lead the conversation and avoid presupposing truth or making assumptions.

“Tell me about the bullying at your school.”

Tip #2: Validate their feelings and experiences.

Sometimes a solution-oriented approach comes at the expense of a child’s story. Instead of interrupting with an answer, make yourself available to listen over and over again.

“I see that you are becoming more and more distressed about something. Let’s talk about it. I want to hear how you are feeling and help if I can.”

Tip #3: Assure them that you will not be mad.

Kids may fear a parent’s response—whether because they believe they have done something to deserve this experience or because they could not handle it alone. Remind your child that you are on their side.

“I’m not upset or disappointed. My number-one priority is your safety, and we are here to focus on that.”

Tip #4: Ask for permission before taking action.

Many kids fear retribution from perpetrators of violence. It is important to build trust and give your child agency over what happens next.

“I’m here to help, but I won’t take any action without talking to you.”

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What Else Can Caregivers Do to Help Children Experiencing School Violence?

DeLara suggests that caregivers who notice there is a problem encourage their child to speak to a professional at the school, such as a school social worker, counselor, psychologist or other mental health professional.

Parents can also coordinate with a mental health professional outside the school system, such as a therapist or family counselor, for the child or the whole family.

Mental Health America recommends caregivers create a safety plan with their child. A safety plan outlines the safe places, people and actions for a child experiencing risk.

Most children are already familiar with school safety plans. Fire and lockdown drills can be useful examples when explaining to your child that it is important to have a plan in case of emergency. To create an individual safety plan with your child, try working through the following questions with them:

  • Who are the trusted adults in your school?
  • Where do you feel safest in school?
  • When and with whom do you feel unsafe? How can we avoid those interactions?
  • How can you reach me during the day if there is a crisis?
  • If you need to leave school immediately, where will you go?

Consider what responses are safest and developmentally appropriate for your child. It is likely that the plan will need to be revised over time, as your child ages and circumstances change. 

Additional Resources

Technical Packages for Violence Prevention, CDC: actionable, research-based packets to help states and communities take advantage of the best available evidence to prevent violence.

School-Based Violence Prevention, CDC: overview of the CDC’s HI-5 Interventions regarding school violence. This page explores the research behind school-based violence prevention programs and what makes them successful.

School-Based Violence Prevention: A Practical Handbook, UNICEF: guide detailing a school-based approach to violence prevention through school policy, curriculum-based activities, community involvement and more.

How to Talk About Bullying, tips for parents and caregivers to have thoughtful conversations with children about bullying, their own experiences and what kids should do if they witness it.

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Last updated June 2022.

Citation for this content: Created by Syracuse University’s online MSW program.