The name calling and taunting involved in bullying can often be detrimental to the lives of the victims. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” couldn’t be more wrong. While the words and insults hurled on the playground may not leave a physical mark, the impact it has on the victim rivals the visual effects of physical bullying, and can actually be more hurtful and longer lasting, and at times, can lead to deadly consequences. In the last couple years, there have been several widely reported suicides from young teenagers who took their lives due to being bullied simply on the internet from people they may not have even ever met in person. As technology changes, so do the methods bullies use, but the psychology behind it is the same as always. It is just so tragic and should never happen. Anywhere.
While bullying may not be a recent event to the school environment, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that it was formally researched and addressed through a systematic study on the phenomenon of bullying. Since that time, the evolution of technology has allowed the methods available for bullies to torment their targets much easier. Bullying can be a pervasive event that impacts all aspects of an individual’s life, often not just occurring on the school campus. When the effects follow your child home, it is important for parents to identify the signs, as often children may not want to talk about their experiences of being bullied. Studies have indicated that even the witnessing of a bullying event can impact the lives of the onlookers (Salmivalli, 2010).
Signs of being Bullied
Know that your child may not always let you know verbally they are being bullied. Do not be a parent that just assumes "my child will tell me everything". This is the worst assumption a parent can make. Be wise, and be aware of signs. Fear is a powerful force that can cause a child to keep a secret even from someone they are closest to. But if you know the signs, you will have some great tools at your ready that will empower you, and even if you never need to use them (which we hope is true), you may have a friend or someone you know who might. So please read on. This is an issue we can all tackle together, regardless of whether or not we even have children.
Bullies often choose targets that will not be likely to disclose the bullying, which stresses the importance of parents being aware of any changes in their children’s behavior, as well as maintaining an open dialogue with their children. Some of the reasons children don’t identify the bullying behavior they are experiencing ranges from “I tried, but I was too embarrassed,” to “Why bother?” Such helpless feelings are a relatively common reaction to repeated victimization, such as bullying, which can cause severe emotional harm and diminish a child’s self-esteem, with the effects lasting into adulthood (Aluede, Adeleke, Omoike, & Afen-Akpaida, 2008).
Some signs that your child may be the victim of a bully include both physical and psychological symptoms, which can be a challenge to identify at times. Schools have incorporated bullying questionnaires, such as the Olweus Bully/Victimization Questionnaire, which is a self-report survey that aims to identify bullying behavior (Green, Feliz, Sharkey, Furlong, & Kras, 2013), and while it may be a valid form of identifying potential behavior issues, it may not be a feasible tool for parents to use in the home environment.
For parents, the power of observation is the best tool when it comes to identifying if a child is the target of a bully. Aside from the appearance of unexplained physical signs, such as cuts and bruises, there are a variety of signs parents need to be aware of, and while children’s behavior can often vary, keeping observant of a change in behavior patterns can be a priceless quality for parents. Some warning signs that a child is being bullied include:
- An unexplained loss of toys, school supplies, or other belongings
- Being afraid to be alone or ride the bus
- Headaches, stomachaches, or wanting to stay home from school
- Change in eating habits
- Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or bedwetting (these are signs of great stress in a child)
- Begins bullying younger siblings or animal cruelty
- Self-harming behaviors. Might hit self when playing with toys.
- Dreading going to school
- A change in vibrancy ("He used to be happy and light hearted, and now he often seems down, and heavy)
- Has outbursts of anger that weren't there before (i.e. starts destroying his/her toys, or acts excessively harsh)
- Unexplained change in personality, becoming more withdrawn, closed, not opening up
- Loss of innocence towards life and the world that may have been there before
- An increase in self doubt. May ask questions like "Am I a bad person?" May blame himself or herself for things
- Does anything to avoid school, may pretend to be sick more often than usual
- Simulates violence when playing with toys. (i.e. a toy may represent a bully and the child will make it suffer in his or her play world)
- Becomes unusually clingy. Much more anxiety when separated from you.
If Your Child Has Some Of These Signs
The worst thing a parent can do is get their child "in trouble" for some of the signs above. For example, imagine Jake a 7 year old in second grade is suddenly staying in bed late, says he feels sick, doesn't want to go to school. The parent might initially get angry and threaten Jake with discipline. "Jake! If you don't get out of bed and go to school, you will lose X, Y, Z!" This is a reactive behavior by the parent. If Jake is being bullied at school, then this is actually the worst thing a parent can do. Imagine what kind of unbearable pressure and stress is now on Jake. If he doesn't subject himself to fear at school, he has fear waiting for him at home. If your child starts behaving in ways that are not usual and are just off from where they used to be, don't just assume he or she is "growing up", this may be a sign of something deeper. True, children will change as they grow, but not their personality. Personality traits remain pretty constant. Listen to your gut, you will know if this kind of behavior is "off" for your child and out of character. Ultimately, the best thing to do is find a therapist who can help unravel what is behind the signs your child is exhibiting. If your child has a change in their personality or behavior that seems "off", please listen to your gut, search your heart, and don't just assume and react. Consider the possibility that something deeper and more dangerous could be behind it. Look at the signs. If there is a bully in your child's life, there will almost always be signs that an observant and aware parent will be able to see.
After Discovering Your Child is Being Bullied, What Next?
If parents discover that their child is being bullied, the next steps can be essential in preventing further issues from developing. It is important to support a child who is being bullied. The first step is always to embrace and defend your child, and to go straight to the school and report it. By providing a safe environment for the child to talk about their experiences, parents can provide the much needed support to their child, allowing them to know that while it may be difficult to talk about, there are people who care about them. If it feels like the issue is too big for a parent to handle alone, there are valuable resources available which can offer assistance, such as a school counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professionals.
When it comes to addressing the bullying behavior, often children will be weary of taking any steps in addressing the behavior outside of the house, out of fear of retaliation. However, with the ally of a parent, the bullying behavior can be addressed more appropriately. If the bullying behavior is occurring on the school campus, parents can contact teachers, school counselors, school coaches, the principal, superintendent, or even the Board of Education. If the school is not addressing the issue sufficiently, parents can contact the State Department of Education. If the bullying is occurring after school on the playground or in the neighborhood, parents can reach out to the neighborhood watch, playground security, or even the local or community police department. If your child is being harassed online, there are laws in many states including federal laws that protect minor aged children on internet sites. Popular sites like Facebook have links that will let you report harassment of minor aged children. In online cases, you should not hesitate to report it to law enforcement.
Now, having mentioned these resources, we must emphasize: A child who has been bullied repeatedly needs professional counseling. This we cannot emphasize enough. A parent, no matter how much love and acceptance they have for their child, is not the same as the value of professional counseling. Therapists, through years of training, experience and study, understand the developmental stages of children and how they process emotional trauma. The tools a therapist can provide to both parents and children can be an invaluable part of recovery and strengthening.
Aluede, O., Adeleke, F., Omoike, D., & Afen-Akpaida, J. (2008). A review of the extent, nature, characteristics and effects of bullying behaviour in schools. Instructional Psychology, 35(2), 151-158.
Green, J. G., Felix, E. D., Sharkey, J. D., Furlong, M. J., & Kras, J. E. (2013). Identifying bully victims: Definitional versus behavioral approaches. Psychological Assessment, 25(2), 651-657. doi:10.1037/a0031248
Salmivalli, C. (2010). Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), 112-120. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2009.08.007