Bullying isn’t a rare occurrence. About 25 to 33 percent of kids in America are bullied at some point during their school years – that’s one out of every three or four kids. This grim statistic might make you think twice about sending your kids out into the world, but that’s not a practical option. You can’t keep your children in a bubble, after all.
But what you can do is to be aware of what’s happening in your kid’s life. Know the signs of bullying, know what to look for and – most important – know how to handle it if it happens. Here’s what to look for and what to do if you suspect that your kids are being bullied.
Signs of Teen Bullying
Teens don’t always open up to their parents about being bullied, so you may have to do some detective work to figure out what’s going on. Changes in behavior or demeanor can serve as useful signs that there’s a problem. Common signs include:
- Poor sleep
- Binge eating or a lack of appetite
- Frequent complaints about physical issues, like headaches or stomachaches
- Symptoms of anxiety or depression, which can look different by person
Your teen’s attitude toward school may change. A kid who didn’t previously complain much about going to school may look for excuses to stay home, such as complaints about not feeling well. His grades may start to slip, or he may come home without essential books or assignments. Your teen might start taking a new route to school or try to get out of riding the bus.
Bullying can impact your child’s social life, too. If your teenager doesn’t hang out with others or mention friends often, that can be a reason for concern. Kids should be social even if they aren’t social butterflies. Lack of any friendships could indicate a bigger problem. Your teen might also resist the idea of going out with friends or participating in extracurricular activities.
Cyberbullying is an additional problem among teenagers. Signs that point to a cyberbullying situation include nerves while using the internet and anger afterward. You might also notice that your child suddenly stops spending time on the computer or the phone.
Indications of Bullying in Younger Kids
We might think of bullying as a teen problem, but sadly, this issue isn’t reserved for older kids. Young children can also bully and be bullied. Signs of bullying in younger children can look the same as in older ones. However, young bullies are more physically aggressive or violent than their older peers. Teens tend to use verbal abuse while younger children act out their aggression.
You may receive more physical hints of a problem with kids and preteens, such as unexplained bruises or scrapes and cuts that go beyond regular childhood roughhousing. If your kid isn’t usually a rough-and-tumble person anyway, a sudden influx in injuries could indicate a problem.
Of course, this type of abuse can happen to older teens, too, so don’t write it off if your teenager seems to have an unusual number of unexplained scrapes and bruises. And if your younger child doesn’t have bruises but seems upset, withdrawn or otherwise out-of-sorts, consider whether bullying might be the cause.
What to Do If You Suspect Bullying
Being bullied as a kid can have lifelong mental and physical health effects. Research shows that chronic bullying can alter the brain and make a teenager susceptible to anxiety or depression. If you suspect that your child is being bullied, take action. A proactive approach could make a difference in how she heals.
Getting your child to open up about bullying can be a challenge, but talking to your kid is usually the best place to start. Asking outright, “Is someone bullying you?” may not be effective. Instead, consider asking leading questions designed to help kids open up:
- How’s school life, in general? How do you feel about school and the people in it?
- Are there bullies? Are there kids at the school who bully others? What’s the bullying situation like?
- Are the kids nice? Do you get along with them? Does anyone make you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome?
If you get the sense that bullying is happening, you might feel the need to rush out and stop it right away. And while you should address it quickly and head-on, take a moment to get the facts first. You want to model appropriate behavior for your kids, which includes handling tough situations carefully. After you’ve assessed the situation, consider these tactics for addressing the problem:
- Teach your kid to stand up for himself. Roleplay situations in which your teen stands tall and confidently tells his bully to stop speaking to him or treating him that way. Note that taking a stand against bullying behavior doesn’t need to be physical. Fighting violence with violence is a recipe for failure.
- Build your child’s confidence through activities she likes, shows interest in or is good at already. She might have lost her confidence in the process of being bullied, so giving her new options to excel could help her regain self-assurance.
- Encourage him to make new friends or rebuild relationships with friends he’s ignored. Isolation can make kids easier targets for bullies. Establishing a strong social support system – of both peers and adults in his school – could help deter future problems.
Also, remind your kids that they can always come to you if there’s a problem. Teens don’t always want to bond with their parents, which is normal, but they should know that they can talk to you about tough situations. Opening and maintaining a dialogue are key steps in making sure that your kids can tell you when something’s amiss.
Where to Get Bullying Help
You and your child don’t have to and shouldn’t deal with a bullying situation alone. Keep a record of names, dates and bullying behavior so that you have facts to support your allegations. Then reach out to authorities who can help.
If the abuse is taking place at school, enlist the assistance of school staff. Start by contacting a teacher or the school’s social worker or psychologist. Next, reach out to the principal.
If school staff can’t or won’t resolve the problem, keep moving up the hierarchy until you find someone who will. This may mean involving the district superintendent, the school board or even your regional or state education department. In some cases, parents have needed to contact the U.S. Department of Education.
Police involvement may be necessary as well. If the bullying involves criminal activities or threats toward your child, file a police report. Bullying outside of school hours may not fall under the school’s jurisdiction, so you may need police help instead. Additionally, cyberbullying should be discussed with your local police force.
Whether or not addressing the bullying resolves the situation right away, your child will benefit from professional emotional support. Encourage your child to visit a mental health counselor who can help her work through her feelings. It may also help you to see a counselor to get advice on how to handle this tough situation.
Major medical plans under the Affordable Care Act cover mental health services as an essential benefit, so you should have coverage if you have health insurance. If you don’t, some therapists work on sliding fee scales and may offer their services at a reduced rate to help you and your child.
Words of Caution
Although you’ll want to resolve the bullying problem as quickly as possible, avoid trying to settle the matter yourself. Don’t approach the bully or her parents to discuss the matter, settle differences or make threats. That can create more problems than it solves.
It’s essential that you go through the proper channels. If the bullying takes place at school, go through the school to solve the matter. For bullying that takes place outside of school or involves criminal behavior, make sure that the police are involved.
Finally, bullying can profoundly affect a child’s self-esteem, happiness and quality of life. In some cases, a bullying situation may be so bad that a child thinks death may be his only escape. If your child seems hopeless or talks of taking his own life, don’t wait. Get help quickly. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Bullying can happen to any kid. It’s not your child’s fault – a fact that’s important for both you and your child to understand. You may not be able to stop a bully from targeting your children, but you can do your best to address the situation if it happens and get the support you all need.