Most parents think they know their kids pretty well, but research shows that 64% of bullied children do not report it to parents and teachers. So why are they staying silent? There can be many different reasons, but children often worry about parental involvement, being labeled a "snitch," a lack of understanding, or a belief that nothing can be done. The truth is, we simply don't know our kids as well as we think we do. According to a survey conducted by the National Cyber Security Alliance, it was found that 60% of teens have online accounts that their parents don’t know about and only 28% of parents suspect that their kids have secret accounts. Given the prevalence of online bullying, these are some pretty scary figures.
But what about verbal, social and physical bullying? In one large study, a whopping 70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools (as well as 70.4% of school staff). That's a lot of stuff going on that we (as parents) aren't hearing about.
When adults in leadership roles respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior they send the message that it is not acceptable, but as parents, how do we know when our own child is the victim? Unfortunately, many signs of bullying are often misinterpreted as normal pubescent changes and it's not always as simple as spotting a black eye. So how do we identify the red flags and respond to them without making things worse?
Here are 15 UNLIKELY signs your kid is being bullied (and 5 approaches that will only make things worse).
20 Begins To Bully Younger Siblings/Children
Often children who are bullied at school will begin putting others down in a misguided effort to feel better about themselves, usually with younger children or siblings who they don't perceive to be a threat. Because kids use bullying to mask their own insecurity and to replace the social skills they're supposed to develop in grade school, middle school and high school, sometimes the bully is actually the bullied. When a child begins targeting younger children they're often just reusing bullying techniques that have been previously been used on them.
19 Frequent Headaches Or Stomachaches
My older brother got bullied a lot in middle school and was plagued by stomach pains throughout the 7th grade. Once he actually had my mom drive him to the emergency room where they discovered it was nothing more than anxiety and stress. Headaches and stomachaches are common physical manifestations of the stress and anxiety associated with bullying, and like my brother, many kids are not making these symptoms up. Stress and anxiety can manifest in a lot of different ways, from aches and pains, nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat, etc.
18 Personality Changes
Is your normally bubbly, outgoing child withdrawing into themselves and suddenly unwilling to interact with others? While many people just assume that this is nothing more than hormonal changes (particularly in preteens), they can often be a sign of bullying. Laid back, easy-going children can suddenly become nervous nellies. Ordinarily sweet-natured kids can surprise you by lashing out in anger or becoming sullen and distant. When these personality changes are dramatic and paired with other red flags it might be more serious than you think.
17 Difficulty Sleeping
Nervousness and anxiety are common causes of insomnia in adults, and it's not any different with children. If you notice that your kid is a walking zombie in the morning, (despite going to bed at a reasonable hour) then there might be something more to it. Are they tossing and turning every night on the weekdays but seem to sleep better on the weekends (when they don't have to get up and go to school)? Are they having nightmares or showing a lack of focus on personal appearance and hygiene? These potential warning signs should never be ignored.
16 Change In Eating Habits
Is your child coming home from school famished? Have you noticed that their lunchbox is still full at the end of the day, despite it being packed with their favorite foods? Believe it or not, this might be a sign that your child is being bullied at school. Whether they're sitting alone every day or having their lunch money stolen at school, the cafeteria has always been a prime location for bullying simply because all of the students are assembled together. Also note that children who receive free or subsidized school lunches are more at risk for being bullied. If your child is experiencing unexplained weight loss, dizziness or binge eating at home, make sure to find the cause.
15 Refuses To Use The Bathroom At School
The bathroom is a prime location for bullying to occur because of its private nature (and the lack of adult supervision). If you've noticed your child is "holding it" until they get home, then there might be more to it than the ick factor. Kids who are targeted in the bathrooms will often refuse to relieve themselves, even at the risk of having an accident or significant discomfort. No child should feel unsafe doing something as simple as using the toilet, but unfortunately, it happens all the time.
Have you noticed that your kid is always "forgetting things?" You send him to school in a nice jacket and he comes home without one. He's always losing money at school. He can't remember where he left anything. More often than not these things can be explained by a child's irresponsibility, but sometimes it can be more than that. Children who are bullied at school are often having things stolen from them and will explain the loss by claiming they simply forgot.
13 Loss Or Change Of Friends
A loss or change in friends could be an indicator of bullying, especially in adolescent and teen girls (think Mean Girls). Also pay attention to a child's sudden reluctance to hang out with their usual friend group, particularly when they refuse to offer up an explanation. Many times bullying is happening within the "squad" and the child isn't willing to talk about it. Parents can stay on top of the shifting of friend groups by connecting with other parents in the group so it's easier to notice when a child is being excluded or picked on.
12 Change In Grades
A sudden drop in grades with a child who typically does well in school can be a pretty good indicator that something isn't right at school. Kids who are being bullied often have trouble staying focused on their schoolwork due to anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping, and is it any wonder? It's kind of hard to focus on good grades when you're just trying to get through the day without crying. Parents of teens should always monitor attendance as this age group is much more likely to skip school or cut classes to avoid being bullied.
11 Asking For A Change In Transportation
There's no doubt that students should feel safe on the bus, as it's how they start and end their day, but unfortunately, about 10% of all reported middle and high school bullying happens on the school bus. If you notice that your child has a fear of riding the bus, deliberately "misses" the bus on more than one occasion, or continually asks for rides to and from school, then it's very possible that bullying is taking place. Remember, bullying on the school bus should always be reported to the school's administration.
10 Overly Critical About Themselves
This kind of behavior can be pretty common in teens and preteens, which can make this a hard red flag to recognize. All kids can be critical of themselves, but victims of bullying often become hyper-aware of their perceived "imperfections" (seemingly overnight). Is your child suddenly concerned about their weight, despite never having mentioned it before? Have they expressed disgust with their physical appearance, almost out of the blue? Bullied children will often fixate on whatever the bullies have chosen to make fun of, so be on the lookout for these types of behaviors.
Most of the time bedwetting (also called nocturnal enuresis) is not a behavioral issue, it's simply a matter of the bladder and urinary functions not being mature enough to keep the child dry overnight. Not surprisingly, "bedwetters" are often more at risk of being bullied at school if the word gets out (or someone has an accident at a sleepover, for example). Also keep in mind that stress-related sleep deprivation can sometimes be responsible for night time accidents.
8 Feigning Illness To Get Out Of School
Almost every kid has feigned an illness at some point or another to get out of school, but parents need to pay extra attention to kids who make a habit out of it. This can be a tricky one because some kids avoid school simply because it's work. If they magically seem to feel better for out-of-school activities and they have no problem doing their class assignments at home then there might be certain people at school they're trying to avoid. Bullied kids might also ask about other learning options, such as homeschooling or online school.
7 Obsession Or Withdrawal From Devices
In the event that your child is dealing with cyberbullying, you might notice either an over-attachment toward electronic devices or a complete withdrawal from them. Some kids will become enraged if you try to limit their usage while others will simply disappear completely on social media and refuse to text anyone back. Bear in mind, many kids refuse to tell their parents about cyberbullying for fear that their devices will be taken away from them. Instead of threatening to take everything away, parents need to set up firm rules and guidelines concerning the Internet usage from the minute their children are old enough to set up social media accounts.
6 Loss Of Interest In Sports Or Other Activities
Remember, bullying doesn't just happen in school. My son got bullied playing on a recreational basketball team when he was younger, but it took us weeks before we figured out what was going on. At the beginning of the season he'd been excited about games and was always practicing in his free time, but almost overnight he seemed to lose interest completely. Bullying can also lead to depression, making it hard for kids to get excited about anything both in and out of school. Always take notice when they lose their passion for something.
5 What To Avoid: Overreacting
All loving parents feel angry and hurt when their child is unfairly targeted, but acting on those emotions can be nothing but a landmine of NOPE. Parents often react prematurely and jump to their child's defense without knowing all the facts and giving their child a chance to navigate the situation on their own, resulting in (often unpleasant) phone calls with teachers and school staff. Remember, not all unkind behavior is bullying. According to bullying researcher Dan Olweus, there must be 3 elements present for something to constitute bullying: a power imbalance, an intent to harm your child, and repeated incidents.
4 What To Avoid: Ignoring The Issue
How many times have you heard people say, "just ignore them and they'll stop?" Depending on the situation that's not necessarily bad advice, but keep in mind that it does not work in cases of bullying. Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away, and dismissing it as "kids being kids" is making light of the situation and implying that the bullied child should toughen up. Bullying should never be tolerated by the child, the school, or the parents. Teach your children conflict resolution, not conflict avoidance.
3 What To Avoid: Focusing On Justice/Revenge
Research shows that the most helpful actions for bullied victims are support, affection, and friendship, but parents often lose sight of that in their quest for revenge or payback. As parents, the main goal should be helping your child cope and feel stronger, not on making sure the bully gets their just desserts. If the bullying happened at school, recognize that federal law prevents schools from telling you anything about another child, including the punishment of your child’s bully, so try to let it go.
2 What To Avoid: Telling Your Child To "Fight Back"
Just because your Grandpa beat up his bully back in 1959 and ended the problem does NOT mean this a recommended (or even effective) piece of advice to give your bullied child today. Bullying is intended to render victims timid, frozen and incapable of defending themselves. Not only that, but most bullies have a bullying "squad" with them, so it's not just a one-on-one situation. When a parent or a teacher tells a child to fight back, those kids who are unable to fight back may end up feeling weak and blamed for the bullying. Instead of teaching the victims to fight back, let's teach the bullies not to fight in the first place.
1 What To Avoid: Talking To The Bully's Parents
There are three important reasons why you should not immediately go and speak with the bully's parents. Number one, most parents will deny their child is a bully in the first place. Number two, bullies are often raised by bullies and there is a very good chance that they will shift the blame to you and your child. Number three, your child will get branded a "snitch," or a "tattletale," increasing the odds of more abuse. After you've spoken to your child and determined the nature of the bullying, come up with a game plan. If the bullying is happening at school, meet with the school administrators. If it's happening to the bus, talk with the school's transportation department. THINK before you ACT.
References: winwinparenting.com, clark.com, stopbullying.gov, pridesurveys.com, olweus.sites.clemson.edu