Q: I think my son is being bullied, but I am not sure and he won’t tell me. His teachers think he is fine. What can I do?
A: When it comes to the well-being your child, any type of uncertainty can be scary. When your child is not forthcoming about whether he or she is being bullied and school personnel has not reached out to you with any concerns, but you are suspecting something is going on, recognizing warning signs can be an important first step. After you are able to identify and recognize signs, you are in a better position to talk about them with your child. It is important to keep in mind the warning signs shared below can be related to other issues as well; however, having open communication with your child can help differentiate the root of the concerns.
Before jumping into warning signs, let’s take a moment to understand bullying. According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Often, it is repeated behavior over time. Bullying can come in three forms: verbal, social, and physical. Here are examples of each form:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
Take time to educate yourself on the warning signs or potential red flags related to bullying, so that you can identify them as they come up. The stopbullying.gov website outlines the following signs linked to possible bullying:
- Unexplainable injuries
- Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, jewelry, etc.
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches
- Feeling sick or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits (i.e., suddenly skipping meals, binge eating, or coming home hungry because they did not eat lunch at school)
- Sleep difficulties
- Declining grades
- Loss of interest in schoolwork
- Not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends
- Avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of helplessness
- Decreased self-esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors (e.g., running away from home, self-harm, or talking about suicide)
As discussed above, these red flags may be indicative of other issues and not just bullying. Regardless of the cause, if any of these signs are present, parents should explore them further and not ignore them!
Kids sometimes respond better to shared stories than to direct probing. Try sharing a story from your own childhood of when you or someone you cared about was bullied or not treated well by other kids, then check in to see if your child has experienced or seen anything like that. Using softer words and moving up to more serious words can also help draw kids out, such as using the phrase “not treated well by others” initially versus “bullying” when asking him what he has experienced. If he shares nothing and you still strongly suspect there are issues with bullying, consider taking your child to a therapist. Sometimes it is easier after a few sessions for a child to share information with a neutral third party than with parents. Also, let the school personnel know so they can keep an eye open for any issues; tell people such as teachers, principal, school counselor, school nurse, recess or lunch room supervisors, and coaches. Lastly, even if your child denies it is happening, engage in an educational discussion about how to deal with being bullied, why it is important to engage the help of adults, etc.