Warnings that a child may be the target of a bully and crucial steps to take if it’s true
Peer abuse–just the thought can send shivers down our spines. But the fact is hundreds of children 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 is more frequent and aggressive than before. Bullying peaks at middle school ages, and the cruel behavior generally increases with age. So chances are that your child may be bullied. Remember, that bullying is not teasing.
Bullying is always an intentional or purposeful negative act of aggression or cruelty and the bullied child is not able to hold his or her own against the bully. There is an unequal distribution of power. Bullying is also not an argument or normal discord amongst kids. Children who are bullied generally need adult guidance or advocacy. Tune in!
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.”
“Are you kidding? I’d have every kid in the school thinking I’m a wimp.”
Let’s get over those horrific myths that “Bullying is a right of passage.” Or “Bullying toughens kids up.” Repeated bullying can cause severe emotional harm and can erode a child’s self-esteem and mental health. Bullying can be verbal taunts, physical, electronic, sexual, or relational aggression, but whatever the type, the long-term effects are equally harmful.
Bullying is always intentional, mean-spirited, is repeated and there is always a power imbalance (or unequal footing) between the victim and bully. The victim cannot hold his own and often will need adult help.
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. Your child may not feel comfortable telling you about his pain, but if you know those signs and tune in closer you might be able to spot them so you can help.
Possible 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. Every child is different and any child can have an “off” day, so look for a pattern of behavior that is not typical for your child’s normal behavior.
Unexplained and reoccurring physical marks, cuts, bruises and scrapes
Unexplained loss or damage of toys, school supplies, electronic items, clothing, lunches, or money
Doesn’t want to go to school or other activities with peers
Fears riding the school bus Afraid to be left alone: wants you there at dismissal, suddenly clingy
Suddenly sullen, withdrawn, evasive; remarks about feeling lonely
Marked changed in typical behavior or personality Appears sad, moody, angry, anxious or depressed and that mood lasts with no known cause
Physical complaints; headaches, stomachaches, frequent visits the school nurse’s office
Change in eating or sleeping; nightmares, cries self to sleep, bed wetting
Begins bullying siblings or younger kids. Bullied children can sometimes flip their role and become the bully
Waits to get home to use the bathroom. (School and park bathrooms are often not adult supervised and be hot spots for bullying).
Suddenly there are fewer friends or doesn’t want to be with the “regular group”
Ravenous when he comes home. (Bullies can use extortion to steal a victim’s lunch money or lunch)
A sudden drop in grades. Bullying can cause a child to have difficulty focusing and concentrating
Blames self for problems; noticeable decline in self-esteem; feels “not good enough” Talks about feeling helpless or about suicide; runs away
Could any of those be signs your child is displaying? Track the pattern! Tune in! Listen closer. If you suspect that your child might be bullied, then read on.
What To Do If You Suspect Bullying But Aren’t Sure
Kids often don’t tell adults they’re bullied so you may have to voice your concerns. Review the signs of bullying and then 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?” 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. If your child is not opening up, listen to his or her friends. Ask parents of your children’s friends. Watch a little closer. Kids may not tell you a problem but their behavior often “speaks loudly.” Try these strategies:
1. If you suspect bullying and your child won’t talk to you, then arrange a conference with a trusted adult who knows your child. Share the facts.
2. Check your child’s school website or handbook for rules and regulations against bullying. Forty-nine states have passed anti-bullying policies – your child’s school should have such a policy.
3. If your child has more than one teacher you may need to meet with each educator or coach. But don’t wait. Call a conference.
4. Ask your child: “Where do you feel safest at school?” Or “What spots do kids avoid at your school?” Or “Where do you see bullying happen?” Keep in mind that bullying usually does not happen in all school settings and in all classrooms and generally happens when adults are not present. 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.
5. If your child has a buddy who is a classmate that you know well, you might be able to gain more information from the pal than your own child. That pal’s parent may also be able to give you information. Ask around. 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. 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. Identify an ally at the school (a teacher and a student) who your child can go to an feel safe. (Do ask your child: “If you had a problem at your school, who would you go to?” Is your child able to name a ‘safety net?’ If not, be concerned!
Every child needs allies – students and staff. 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!”
I’m an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing orThe Big Book of Parenting Solutions.