How to Know if your child may be a victim of bullying: 19 warning signs of bullying and the questions you must ask
You’ve read the news and you’ve seen stories about bullying tragedies. Forty-nine states have passed anti-bullying policies – law makers, educators, counselors, law enforcement, pediatricians and parents alike are concerned. If your child is bullied it means that a peer or peers are intentionally causing her or him pain. Peer abuse! Just the thought can send shivers down our spines.
But the fact is children do skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated by other students. Reports also confirm that bullying is starting at younger ages and may be more intense. Chances are your child may be bullied.
Also troubling is that our children don’t always tell us that they have been bullied. I’ve spent many a meeting with kids who were repeatedly victimized and in clear emotional pain.
“Why didn’t you go to a trusted adult for help?” I’d ask.
Their replies were concerning:
“I did tell my mom. She didn’t believe me.”
“I tried to tell, but I got too embarrassed.”
“If I told my dad he would have only made things worse by yelling at the bully.”
“Why bother? The stuff my mom told me to try wouldn’t work.”
Repeated bullying causes severe emotional harm and can erode a child’s self-esteem and mental health. Whether bullying is verbal, physical or relational, the long-term effects are equally harmful. Both boys and girls report high levels of emotional distress and loneliness as well as lower self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Some situations the outcome is tragic: the child may take his or her own life.
So it’s time to get savvy and learn the warning signs of bullying. Bullying is always intentional, mean-spirited, rarely happens only once and there is always a power imbalance. The victim cannot hold his own and often will need adult help. Your child may not feel comfortable telling you about his pain, but if you know these signs your child is being bullied and tune in closer, you might be able to start bullying prevention in your home.
19 Signs A Child May Be Bullied
Here are possible warnings that a child may be bullied and needs your support. Of course, these signs could indicate other problems, but any of these warrant looking into further. See my blog, Signs of Cyber-bullying for signs of electronic bullying. Every child is different and any child can have an “off” day, so look instead of a pattern of behavior that is not typical for your child.
1. Unexplained physical marks, cuts, bruises and scrapes (every child is going to have a bump or bruise but are there repeated marks or scrapes).
2. Unexplained loss of toys, school supplies, clothing, lunches, or money; clothes, toys, books, electronic items are damaged or missing or child reports mysteriously “losing” possessions
3. Doesn’t want to go to school or do other activities that he or she enjoyed with peers
4. Afraid of riding the school bus or the carpool or walking a particular way home or he suddenly wants to be dropped off at school in a different location, walks into school using a different route — especially if it’s out of the way or inconvenient as if trying to avoid something) or uses a different route home.
5. Afraid to be left alone: wants you there at dismissal, suddenly clingy
6. Suddenly sullen, withdrawn, evasive; remarks about feeling lonely
7. Marked change in typical behavior or personality
8. Appears sad, moody, angry, anxious or depressed and that mood lasts with no known cause
9. Physical complaints; headaches, stomachaches, frequent visits the school nurse’s office. Stress causes the immune system to breakdown.
10. Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, cries self to sleep, bed wetting, exhausted when he wakes up
11. A sudden and lasting change in eating habits – not eating or eating too much.
12. Begins bullying siblings or younger kids. Bullied children can sometimes flip their role and become the bully.
13. Waits to get home to use the bathroom. School and park bathrooms, because they are often not adult-supervised, can be hot spots for bullying. 43 percent of US school students fear using the school restrooms.
14. Suddenly has fewer friends or doesn’t want to be with the “regular group” of kids. The group or pal he used to hang around doesn’t call.
15. Ravenous when he comes home. Bullies can use extortion stealing a victim’s lunch money or lunch.
16. Sudden and significant drop in grades. Suddenly has difficulty concentrating. Bullying is stressful and can cause a child to have difficulty focusing and concentrating.
17. Is jumpy or fearful when a text/email/call comes in; tries to avoid reviewing the email/text/call when you or others are present; covers up the computer screen if someone walks by; starts to use electronics at different times such as late at night or when you’re not present.
18. Blames self for problems; feels “not good enough or talks about feeling helpless or about suicide; runs away.
19. Something is just not right. You feel it. The change in your child lasts and you just suspect that all is not well.
What to Do if You Suspect Bullying But Aren’t Quite Sure
Kids often don’t tell adults they’re bullied so you may have to voice your concerns. In fact, don’t be surprised if you are the last to find out that your child has been bullied.
The most common reasons kids do not tell adults they are bullied are: 1. Embarrassment or humiliation; 2. Fear of retaliation (they worry that if they tell, the adult will meet with the bully and things will get worse-not better); 3. Fear the adult won’t believe them – or in the past the child has told but the adult didn’t believe them “It’s not a big deal.” “Kevin’s such a good kid – he wouldn’t do that!”; 4. The child figures it’s not worth it because it won’t help: “What’s the point? Adults only give kids bad advice.” (Bullied children often complain that the advice the adult provided was ineffective or just not doable).
1. Ask the right questions
Be certain that this IS bullying and not normal discord between kids or teasing).
Bullying is: “A conscious of deliberate act of cruelty by a child or group with a negative intent; it is usually repeated; and their is a power imbalance — the bully or bullies choose kids who cannot hold their own or have unequal footing in the situation (which could be due to size, status, power, lack of skills, a disability, etc. The child who is targeted rarely has anything to do with causing this pain upon him or herself).” Is this really bullying?
Review the signs of bullying above, and then if you suspect bullying could be an issue, ask direct questions.
“You’re always hungry: have you been eating your lunch?”
“Your CDs are missing? Did someone take them?”
“Your jacket is ripped. Did someone do that to you?”
“Do you think he(she/they) meant to do this?”
“How often has this happened?”
“Did you ask them (him/her) to stop?”
Ask these questions to assess your child’s feelings of safety at school.
“Are you seeing other kids being bullied? Are your friends bullied?”
“What places are safest at your school?” (Does your child feel safe anywhere?) “Which places are least safe?” (Usually the places where kids feel least safe are places bullying happens).
“What are the rules about bullying at your school?” (Does the child say that the school has a bullying policy or is concerned about bullying behavior. You can always look up the policy with your child on the school’s website to verify if such a policy exists).
“If you or your friends were bullied who would help you?” or “Which teacher would you go to?” or “Would the teachers help?” (Find out if your child has a support system).
2. Tune in closer
Watch your child’s reactions. Often what a child doesn’t say may be more telling. Tune into your child’s body language. Silence is often powerful and telling. What is your child not saying or telling you? Don’t push. Speaking calmly and in a supportive manner is your best approach.
3. Get another perspective
If you suspect bullying and your child won’t talk to you, then arrange a conference with a trusted adult who knows your child. If your child has more than one teacher you may need to meet with each educator or coach or the teacher from each class period.
Keep in mind that bullying is situational – it usually does not happen in all school settings and in all classrooms. It usually happens when adults are not present so the teacher, coach, supervisor may not be aware of the bullying. Seek out a variety of references — trusted people who know your child and have a pulse on the social environment.
The trick is to figure out if your child is bullied, and then where and when it is happening so you can get the right help for your child. Hint: If your child has a classmate, you might be able to gain more information from the pal than your own child. Listen!
Meanwhile, keep an eye on your child. Children who are embarrassed or humiliated about being bullied are unlikely to discuss it with their parents or teachers and generally suffer in silence, withdraw and try to stay away from school.
Keep track of the behavior. Track it on a calendar. You may need to provide evidence or data to the adult in charge that this is a problem.
4. Keep up your relationship
Stress to your child you are always available, are concerned and recognize bullying may be a problem.
Emphasize that you believe your child and you are there to help. Be emphatic. Be available. Don’t blame your child. He or she needs your support.
5. Seek help!
Please seek the help of a trained mental health professional if the signs continue, intensify, or your gut instinct tells you “something is not right with my child!” If at any time you think your child’s safety – emotional or physical – is at stake, don’t wait. Get help immediately. Also do not promise your child that you won’t tell. You may need to advocate for your child.
For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or my other 22 publications.