Watch out for these red flags.
More than a quarter of U.S. students have experienced bullying. And of course you want to know if your child is one of them so you can help. Not good at mind reading? Experts say the best way to find out if your child is being mistreated is to cultivate an open relationship so he or she will talk to you when something’s wrong, and to watch out for warning signs.
If there is a problem, listen carefully before taking action, says Stan Davis, a bullying researcher and former school counselor. “Stay calm,” he says. “We found in our national research that kids said the most valuable thing adults did for me after I was bullied was just to listen to me.” Ask what happened, how many times, what your child thinks about it and how bothered he or she is. If the issue is serious, take it up with a teacher, counselor or principal.
There are no surefire signs of bullying—if only it were that easy—since many factors can explain a behavior. But paying attention to these common cues could help you spot a problem.
She Doesn’t Enjoy What She Used To
Lack of pleasure is a key sign of depression, Davis says. If your child has lost interest in the foods, entertainment or hobbies she used to love, pay attention. Let her know you’ve noticed she’s down and ask her to tell you about it. “A little sadness is just life,” he says. “But when you start developing a sense of hopelessness, an absence of joy and sparkle, that is something to be concerned about. That’s something to inquire more deeply about with your kid. … Out of that [conversation] might come bullying, but it might be a lot of things. There’s really no way to tell the difference without asking.”
Your Instagram Fiend Suddenly Goes Unplugged
A dramatic change in how your child uses technology or social media could be a sign he is being bullied online, says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. For instance, if a teen who usually spends an hour or two Snapchatting after school starts ignoring his phone, or using it much more than usual, “something’s going on with respect to that environment,” Patchin says. Also watch out if he seems angry, frustrated or nervous during or after time spent on his devices.
She’s Getting a Lot of Headaches or Stomachaches
The stress of being bullied can cause kids to feel physically sick, and head and stomach pains are common ailments, says Jan Urbanski, director of the Safe and Humane Schools program at Clemson University. “Take a look at if it’s always happening in math class, or third period,” she says. “See if something’s happening in that particular setting.” The symptoms are often real, but kids who are being mistreated by their peers will sometimes fake illness, too, in order to dodge situations where they might be bullied.
She Goes Through a Lot of Friendship Breakups
Major changes in the people kids hang out with can sometimes signal a problem. “There are going to be some shifts in [friendships] in adolescence,” Patchin says. “That’s normal, but have a conversation with your kids to see if there was a falling out, if there is just a typical conflict or if there is something more serious.”
He Doesn’t Want to Go to School or Soccer Practice
If your child is suddenly giving up on extracurricular activities, showing up tardy to school, skipping class (or begging to), he could be a bullying victim. “It’s really just avoidance of a situation that might be happening,” Urbanski says.
He Feels Bad About Himself
Bullying can decrease self-esteem, and it can also be a reason he is attacked by peers in the first place, Urbanski says. “Once a child is targeted as a victim of bullying … they start to internalize that and think ‘maybe it’s something I’m doing or something’s wrong with me,’” she says.
She Gets in Trouble for Bullying Herself
It might seem counterintuitive, but some victims end up behaving hurtfully to other children, according to Urbanski. “As a reaction to their bullying they may choose to bully someone else,” she says. If you find out your child has been bullying a classmate or friend, make sure she takes responsibility, but also ask her if she’s being targeted too or has been in the past. Those earlier problems can often be overlooked.