sad teengirl with red heart balloon

Valentine’s Day Can Be Painful for Victims of Bullying. Here’s How to Help.

February 9, 2024

Homes, schools, and offices across the country are full of love on Valentine’s Day. But when people around you receive candy, flowers, or gifts and nothing comes your way, it can sting.

Imagine how that feels to a child.

Whether the exclusion is intentional or not, the heart-filled holiday can be painful. And more so if it’s accompanied by teasing or, worse, bullying.

“Bullying is never okay,” says pediatrician Dina Romo, MD. “It’s a serious problem that can have significant, long-lasting, physical and mental health consequences.”

Valentine’s Day, she says, is a holiday that exacerbates feelings of exclusion, making some people a target for a bully.  

We spoke with Romo, who specializes in adolescent medicine, about bullies, bullying, and how to support and protect kids.

What is bullying?

Any gossiping, exclusion, name-calling, or treating someone differently because of the way they look, dress, or speak is a form of bullying.

More specifically, repeating the behavior—taunting, excluding, etc.—to deliberately hurt another person is bullying.   

Bullying behavior can be:

  • physical (hitting, pushing)
  • verbal (name-calling, teasing)
  • social (excluding someone, spreading rumors)

Bullying can happen in school, on the playground, on the bus, at parties, and in other settings. It can also happen through electronic platforms such as social media and texting.

What type of person becomes a bully?

Anyone can be a bully.

The stereotypical bully is a person who is physically bigger or stronger, but studies show bully characteristics are more complex. A bully may have issues adjusting to their social environment and feel a strong need to attract attention and establish power. Power positions make people appear popular, socially skilled, attractive, or athletically able—whether it’s reality or not. Bullies continue aggressive and bullying behaviors to fuel these perceptions and maintain social status.

Studies also show bullies have often been bullied themselves. Bullies who have been bullied, like other people, have more negative health consequences than those who were not bullied.

What type of person gets bullied?

Bullying can happen anywhere to anyone.

In Romo’s experience with teenage patients, bullying is most commonly about appearances: clothing, weight (over or under), ethnicity, or toward a targeted group, like people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Bullies also target people who are less popular or seem less able to stand up for themselves to appear powerful.

Fake or misleading information in communities can perpetuate bullying, harassment, and hate crimes and make people perceived as different, especially at risk.

How does bullying affect kids?

The consequences of bullying are many—from the physical to a spectrum of mental health consequences—and vary in severity for both the victim and the bully.

  • Physical consequences: immediate physical injury; long-term physical complaints such as recurrent headaches, increased gastrointestinal concerns, or sleep disturbances
  • Studies have also shown that people who are bullied are more likely to be aggressive themselves.
  • Academic performance can be affected as early as kindergarten and can continue into high school.
  • Mental health consequences: depression and anxiety, difficulty regulating emotions, feelings of loss or ostracism which may persist long-term
  • Both victims and bullies may resort to alcohol and drug abuse to cope with the mental health consequences.

Are there times of the year or holidays when bullying is more intense?

Not necessarily. Bullying is happening without a break for some people. It’s simply more visible than usual during holidays and celebrations.

Valentine’s Day offers a clear reason for a bully to target someone. It’s a prime opportunity to tease or embarrass a peer about a sensitive topic, like romantic relationships, or not getting the expected attention of the holiday.

When school is out for vacation, snow day, or simply the evening, parents and caregivers may notice a child is suddenly upset, especially if on social media. Cyberbullying can happen at any time of day.

What can parents, family, and friends do?

Parents, caregivers, and family members can set a good example and model positive peer relationships and behavior. If you know a child or adolescent is getting bullied, ask about what’s happening, talk to other adults who may be helpful in this situation (doctors, school administration), and help the child make a plan.

Here are a few other tips:

  • Be attentive to children and adolescents. This lets them know you are a trusted adult and are interested in what’s going on in their life.
  • Help children and adolescents identify where and who they can turn to for help and safety. A safe space may be a physical location or ways to stay safe and away from cyberbullying, such as blocking bullies or reporting unwanted or harmful social media postings.
  • Partner with other adults in the community. School administration, teachers, and counselors can help bring awareness to the situation and find solutions specific to a situation or for the school community. In addition, a pediatrician or primary care provider can help ensure a child’s health and safety.