Childhood Bullying: How to Spot It and Stop It
Whether you’re learning the ropes with a newborn or sending your child off to college, parenting is hard! Perhaps one of the most difficult experiences a parent can have is learning your child is being bullied. While bullying was once viewed as a childhood rite of passage, the potential negative effects on children’s mental and emotional health and development, and even physical safety, have become more widely recognized and acknowledged in recent years.
Even though bullying can be scary, however, there’s no need to panic! By learning to recognize the signs of bullying and know when and how to step in, you can help your child better navigate the situation with confidence and resilience.
How do I know if my child is being bullied?
Evidence of bullying varies and can range from obvious physical signs to more subtle clues. Some common signs include:
- Unexplained injuries (cuts, bruises, scratches, etc.)
- Missing or damaged clothing, schoolbooks, or other belongings
- Frequently complaining of headaches or stomachaches and asking to stay home from school
- Suddenly not wanting to go to school, ride the school bus, or participate in extracurricular activities
- Changes in route taken to school (walking the long way around, avoiding certain roads, etc.)
- Changes in eating habits (coming home hungry, skipping meals, binge eating)
- Falling grades or loss of interest in schoolwork
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent bad dreams
- Increased sadness, moodiness, or anxiety/stress
- Decreased social activity (not wanting to spend time with friends, avoidance of social situations)
- Self-destructive behaviors (self-harm, talk of running away, suicidal thoughts)
Every child is different – some may display many of these signs while others show very little indications that something is wrong. You know your child best, so be on the lookout for any unexplained change in their habits or behaviors.
My child is being bullied. Now what do I do?
Stay calm. It’s natural to have an emotional reaction when someone we love is being hurt, especially a child. But when your child is being bullied, what they need most from you is calm and stability. If you react with anger or anxiety, your child may shut down and be less willing to come to you with problems in the future. If you can remain calm, however, it will reassure them that it is safe to discuss things with you. By staying calm, you can help calm them down as well and help them see that their problems are not unsolvable.
Listen and provide a safe space for them to share. If your child opens up to you about being bullied, don’t immediately start peppering them with questions. Let them tell the story in their own way and time. Let them know that their reactions – anger, sadness, anxiety about school – are perfectly natural. Reassure them that you love them and that the bullying is not their fault or a result of anything they did or didn’t do.
If your child has not come to you themselves, but you suspect there is something going on, ask subtle questions to help spark a conversation. Some examples include:
- Who do you sit with at lunch and on the bus?
- What do you like most about going to school? What don’t you like?
- Do you have any new friends this year? Are there any kids at school you really don’t like? Why don’t you like them?
- I’ve been hearing a lot about bullying in the news. Have you noticed any kids at your school picking on or excluding other kids?
At the end of the conversation, thank your child for opening up to you; this will encourage them to keep sharing things with you in the future.
Help brainstorm solutions. Once you’ve listened to your child and heard about what is going on, you can help them come up with appropriate responses. This could include walking away to play somewhere else or asking a teacher or other adult for help. Try to come up with a “script” so your child has some verbal responses ready in the moment as well – simple things like “Leave me alone” or “Stop it, that wasn’t nice.” You can even roleplay to give them the chance to practice their responses and gain more confidence.
It’s important to work through this problem-solving together. When children feel like they are coming up with, or at least contributing to, a solution on their own, they’ll be more confident about using it. This also helps them build important critical thinking and social skills. For example, if your child suggests calling the bully a name in response, ask them how they think that would make the bully react and let them think it through. Chances are, they’ll conclude on their own that name-calling will just escalate the situation and that they need to find a better solution.
Make sure your child’s teacher and other school authorities are aware of the situation. If your child is being bullied, it’s important for them to feel empowered to handle the situation themselves, with your help and the appropriate tools. However, it’s also important for the adults in the environment to be aware of the problem. Make an appointment to talk with your child’s teacher, coach, etc. after school or at a time when there are no children present. Again, it’s important to stay calm – most of the time, kids are smart enough not to bully one another in front of an adult, so chances are that your child’s teacher hasn’t seen what is happening. Calmly describe the situation and the impact that it’s having on your child (lack of appetite or sleep, stomachaches, moodiness, etc.). Ask the teacher to keep an eye on your child and the other student(s) in question and look for any signs of trouble; then make an appointment to check in with them, either in person or via email, in a week or so for an update.
If the bullying is ongoing or is escalating, it’s time to go to the school principal or school board. Explain that while your child’s teacher is aware and is attempting to help you address it, the bullying has continued and ask what steps you and the school can take next. Again, set a clear time to follow up to receive an update on the school’s response and measures taken.
Document the incidents. Obviously we all hope that incidents of bullying don’t escalate into something more serious. However, it’s best to be prepared. Save email communications with your child’s school and document any meetings on your calendar. If your child comes home with damaged property or cuts and bruises as a result of bullying, take photos. If there is cyberbullying involved, take screenshots of the text messages or social media posts. Having clear documentation of the incidents, and your responses to them, will help if you need to escalate the situation to the school board, legal support, or local authorities.
No one wants to think about their child being bullied. By helping your child to be calm, confident, and empowered, however, you can show them that the bullies don’t win!
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