How to Spot the Signs of Bullying

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When it comes to bullying, many kids stay silent and never say a word. Not only do they keep it from their friends, but they also rarely tell the adults in their lives, including their parents. Instead, they often suffer in silence, allowing the bullying to escalate.

"You will have to use their detective skills, asking lots of questions, and observing nonverbal reactions to assess if they are possibly holding things back," says Ciandra St. Kitts, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in social anxiety, family issues, and parenting challenges.

There are many reasons why kids keep quiet about bullying, one of which is that bullying is embarrassing and painful for kids. These emotions are compounded when they tell another person that they are being bullied. They may feel like they are reliving the bullying, and they may worry that others will agree with the bully or believe that they deserved the treatment.

Kids also sometimes worry that telling someone will only make the situation worse; and in some cases, this may be true. Retaliation is a very real risk when it comes to bullying. Children also may fear that their parents or other adults will place the blame for bullying on their shoulders.

"Once it has been confirmed that your child is being bullied, you should reassure them that you are there to support them," suggests Kitts. "Let them know that you will begin advocating for them, to end the situation."

If your child does not share what they are experiencing with you outright, you have to be able to recognize the signs that your child is being victimized. You cannot count on them to share the information with you, no matter how good your relationship is. Here are nine signs your child may be experiencing bullying.

Vanishing Friends

As a parent, you are most likely familiar with your kids’ friends. Take notice if your child’s usual friends are no longer calling or inviting them over. Sometimes friendships break up because the kids are growing apart. But other times, vanishing friends can be an indication that bullying is taking place.

Ask your kids about their friends. If your child answers, “I have no friends,” that is a major red flag and you need to find out more.

"It is common for children to experience multiple changes in friend groups," says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and empowerment coach who specializes in bullying. "The concern lies in the perception that your child reports having 'no friends' or saying 'everybody hates me.'"

If your child normally comes home from school talking about their peers—especially by name—and you have now noticed they are no longer mentioning them, it is a good idea to ask your child about them and observe their reaction, Suarez-Angelino says.

"Observe not only what they say in response, but their body language as well," she says.

Changes in Mood

Look for a significant change in your child’s typical behavior and personality. Kids who are being bullied will sometimes appear anxious, clingy, sullen, or withdrawn. They may also appear sad, moody, teary, or depressed, especially after school or after being online.

"You may notice your child starting to become more irritable, such as snapping back at comments or jokes that are made, or seeming to have a shorter fuse," says Suarez-Angelino. "If you notice your child appears to become more worried or hesitant to be out in public, especially where peers may be, these also could be indicators that they are being bullied."

You also should dig deeper if your child is suffering from low self-esteem, blames themself for things, or says they are not good enough. In extreme cases, a bullied child will engage in self-destructive behaviors like self-harm or talking about suicide.

Even if your child is not being bullied, you still need to address changes in mood, especially because they could be a sign of a mental health issue. Talk to a healthcare provider or a mental health professional about the changes you are witnessing.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Physical Symptoms or Complaints

When kids are bullied, they might complain frequently of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical ailments. Other signs of bullying include unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches.

"Listen to your child’s complaints of a stomachache, headache, or diarrhea," says Suarez-Angelino. "These physical symptoms or complaints can be caused by anxiety or an increase in stress. There is a chance that your child is truly experiencing these symptoms without any underlying cause, but start to make note of the frequency and when these complaints arise."

Kids also may exhibit changes in eating habits like skipping meals or binge eating, says Kitts. They may even come home from school hungry because they skipped lunch to avoid bullying.

Another explanation could be that someone destroyed or took their lunch. If you notice any of these signs, it is time to find out what is going on in your child’s life.

Changes in Sleeping Patterns

Changes in sleeping patterns often indicate that something is amiss in your child’s life, says Kitts. Kids who are being targeted by bullies may have trouble sleeping or may experience nightmares when they do sleep.

"Kids who wake up throughout the night, wake with bad dreams, sleep more, or state that they are always tired, could be victims of bullying," Kitts says. 

Other possible indicators include crying themselves to sleep and bedwetting. Because quality sleep is a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle, investigate any changes in your child’s sleep patterns. Even if these sleep issues are not related to bullying, they are issues that deserve your full attention.

Dropping Grades

Kids who are being bullied often find it difficult to focus on schoolwork. As a result, they may lose interest in school or have trouble focusing. Look for signs such as refusing to go to school, a sudden drop in school performance, and more.

"A change in school performance may be a sign of bullying due to the increased amount of stress and distraction that bullying causes," says Suarez-Angelino. "If your child is spending a great amount of time coping, ignoring, or defending themselves from a bully, it can be difficult to have time for anything else."

Routinely ask your children whether or not they like school. If your child says they “hate” school, find out why. Sometimes bullying will be at the root of the problem. "If school is where bullying is taking place, your child will most likely develop an aversion to school as they no longer feel safe," says Suarez-Angelino.

Even if your child is not being targeted at school, you want to pay attention to issues with school. Your child may need some type of intervention if their grades continue to drop or if it appears that they are struggling to keep up.

Losing Interest in Favorite Activities

Skipping school activities or claiming that regular activities are canceled may indicate that your child is being bullied. Also, pay close attention if your child loses interest in a favorite sport, hobby, or activity. Deviating from their usual routine is usually an indication that something is wrong. Find out why things have changed.

"As your child matures, it is common for them to change interests or decrease their in-person social engagements," says Suarez-Angelino. "If your child enjoys playing video games online with friends, the social engagement may not be as obvious. The reason that these changes may be a sign of bullying is the timeline of their change in interest. If it appears sudden or unexpected, this may be grounds to explore their reasoning behind the change."

Lost, Damaged, or Misplaced Items

Coming home from school without personal property and supplies may indicate more than just irresponsible behavior. Many times kids who bully others will damage or steal a target's property.

"If items are coming home damaged and the reasons your child gives for this happening don’t match up, then they may be experiencing bullying," says Kitts.

If your child comes home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, toys, electronic items, and other belongings, dig a little deeper. You may find that your child is being bullied.

Complaints About Treatment at School

Many kids will not actually use the word “bullying” to describe what they are experiencing. Take note if your kids say there has been a lot of “drama” at school or that others are “messing” with them. Ask them to describe what happened and how they felt.

"Educate your child that if anyone doesn’t treat them with respect and dignity, how they can get assistance from the adults around them to intervene right away," suggests Kitts. "A parent can bolster and improve their child’s confidence, which decreases the likelihood of them being targeted by a bully."

Seem Upset While Online

As children get email accounts, cell phones, and join social networking sites at an earlier age than ever, cyberbullying is increasingly becoming a potential problem for kids as young as elementary school.

If you notice a change in your child's demeanor while they are online or if they appear particularly upset while scrolling through their social media accounts, this could be a sign that they are being cyberbullied, which is the electronic version of bullying.

Kids who are cyberbullied express feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They also struggle academically and report feelings of distress. Research indicates that more than 30% of kids who are cyberbullied feel stressed.

A Word From Verywell

Maintaining good communication with your child and keeping up with what's going on in their life are key factors in spotting any signs of potential problems at school, including bullying. If you find out your child is being targeted by kids who bully others, try to gather the facts surrounding the situation.

If your child does confide in you, do not minimize, rationalize or explain away the experience. Assure your kids that they did not cause the bullying. Instead, give them some ideas for overcoming bullying.

If the symptoms they are displaying persist, it is important to talk to your child's pediatrician or a mental health professional. Even if bullying is not at the root, these issues are warning signs that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

Originally written by
Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.
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