Bullying is a problem that affects thousands of children in schools across the country. A parents, we hope that our kids are safe and well-cared for when we send them off to school. But sadly, that is not a reality for too many young people. If you’re in the habit of communicating regularly with your kids, they will probably feel comfortable opening up to you if they’re being bullied at school. But even the best communicators don’t always ask for help. Many kids are afraid of coming forward. They may fear retaliation from the bully, ostracization by their peers, or being judged or blamed by adults. You can’t always count on your child telling you they’re being bullied, so knowing the warning signs of bullying is incredibly important.
Signs of bullying can be fairly obvious.
1. For example, if your school-loving kid suddenly doesn’t want to go to school anymore, that’s a big red flag.
I’m not talking about wanting to take the occasional day off (every kid needs and should take a day off every once in a while!). I’m talking about a flat-out refusal to go to school. If your child goes from loving school to having to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the house every morning, there’s something wrong. Now, this isn’t to say that a sudden change of heart about school couldn’t have other explanations. Kids go through stages, and it could be any number of things. But not wanting to go to school can be an indicator that there’s a major problem AT school.
2. Another obvious sign of bullying: unexplainable injuries and torn, damaged, or missing clothing or other personal items.
Kids play hard, and they forget stuff. We’ve come to expect that as parents! But losing a sweater or tearing a hole in their new leggings on the playground is different than coming home exhibiting signs of a physical altercation, or their belongings regularly going missing. If you notice something like this, and your child is unable or unwilling to explain what happened, that should get your Spidey-sense tingling.
3. Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or frequent nightmares.
Sleep problems don’t always stop once your child leaves the infant and toddler stage. But if your “good sleeper” is suddenly having problems falling asleep, wakes frequently during the night, or starts having frequent nightmares that disrupt their sleep, it could be a sign of distress in their life. If they seem more tired than usual in the morning, or have difficulty concentrating or focusing during the day, lack of sleep might be to blame. And anxiety over bullying could be a reason.
4. Changes to their group of friends, or avoidance of social situations.
Sadly, bullying can happen in peer groups and among friends. We’ve all seen Mean Girls, right? Sometimes, it’s not the big brute at school who’s to blame. Sometimes, it’s the very people your kid trusts. If they’re suddenly reluctant to see their friends, or you notice a change in who they’re hanging out with, it’s worth looking into. Stay connected with other parents, so you are in the loop if someone is being left out or isolated.
5. Frequent physical ailments, like headaches or stomachaches.
Is your normally healthy child suddenly complaining of constant headaches or stomach pain? First things first, get them checked out at the doctor. Better safe than sorry! If a serious ailment is ruled out, pay attention to when these “illnesses” pop up. Just like with adults, stress and anxiety can manifest as physical ailments in kids. If they have a headache every morning before school, or their tummy hurts before every soccer practice, there could be an underlying issue.
6. Changes in behavior at home.
If your talkative kid suddenly not-so-talkative after school? Happy-go-lucky turned sullen for no reason? Are they talking back (more than usual), or picking fights with siblings? While some behavioral changes are to be expected as kids get older and go through puberty, sudden and unexplainable changes in their behavior could be a sign of bullying at school. And some kids will take their frustrations out on younger siblings as a way to drop the “victim stance” and become the aggressor.
7. Pay attention to changes in their eating habits or appetite.
Maybe your kid is suddenly skipping meals (“I’m not hungry”). Or maybe they’re binge-eating. Victims of bullying may come home from school hungry, having skipped lunch. Anytime you notice a chance to their regular routine or behavior, you should do a little digging.
8. Self-destructive behaviors are a huge red flag.
Obviously, any time your child exhibits self-destructive behavior, you need to act quickly and find out what’s going on. But bullying victims will often take their anger or fear out on themselves through self-harm, or even talking about or attempting suicide.
As much as we want our kids to always come to us and talk to us about what’s happening in their lives, that’s not always going to happen. It’s up to us to know the signs of bullying, and step in at the first sign of a problem. We are their protectors and advocates, even when they don’t know how to tell us what’s wrong.
(Image: iStock / LSOphoto)