Bullying is a massive problem that starts with toddlers and continues into workplace bullying between adults. Despite the broad range of ages that must deal with bullying, the majority of bullying takes place during a child’s school years. Middle and high schools are notorious for bullying problems. Teens and pre-teens are expected to face bullying at some point during their school years.
This expectation of bullying has permeated pop culture as well. No movie about high school is complete without the cruel clique of popular girls or mean spirited jock. Such movies, however, portray obvious and flagrant bullying such as shoving smaller students into lockers or mocking the new girl in front of the entire school. Most bullying today is far more insidious. Because most bullying today is more subtle, it is harder to stop or control, and the effects of the continuing bullying epidemic are seen in heartbreaking news stories about young suicides. But how can you tell if your child is suffering from bullying before it reaches the point of tragedy? Make sure you are aware of changes in your child’s behavior and alert for the subtle signs of bullying.
If your child has always been quiet or shy this may not be a tip-off. If he used to love attention and now shuns the limelight, there may be something wrong. A child who is bullied wants to avoid being noticed. If the bully doesn’t see them, they are safe. If your outgoing girl seems to have suddenly become shy, a serious conversation may be in order. Don’t fall for the common euphemisms either. Few children or teens want to admit that they have been targeted by a classmate or made a victim of bullying. Your child may attempt to brush a serious problem off as “just some drama” or “just some guys being stupid.” Teenagers are especially prone to this because they don’t want to admit they can’t handle a problem at school.
Avoiding attention can also take the form of wanting to drop out of afterschool activities. If your talented dancer wants to stop going to classes or your star soccer player wants to hang up her cleats, bullying may be the underlying reason. Talented children and teens are often targeted by bullies who are jealous of their talent, especially if those talents don’t conform to traditional gender roles. A boy who is a fabulous ballet dancer is much more likely to be bullied than if he was a star basketball player.
No one wants their child to be a braggart. When modesty tips into self-depreciation, though, there is likely a trigger for the change. A child who suddenly doubts their talent for no apparent reason or engages in a great deal of negative self-talk may be the victim of bullying. It’s easy for a child or teen to start to second-guess their abilities when they are constantly being put down at school or at practice. A little self-doubt is normal as youth continue to encounter larger and more diverse groups of people, but those periods of uncertainty should be brief or have a clear trigger. It makes sense that she might be dealing with some doubt after losing a race for the first time in her track career. He might be struggling with calculus after years of being the “math wiz.” If she’s doubting herself for no apparent reason or his self-talk is harsh enough to make you concerned, it may be time to start looking for other subtle signs of bullying.
Self-depreciating behavior can also take the form of excessive comparison to others. A little competition between classmates is healthy, but if she insists that she’s stupid because Heather is smarter than her there may be a problem. A bully can easily put down your son by pointing out that John did better on the last test. Be on the lookout for excessive comparisons, especially if the same name comes up repeatedly.
Change in Behavior Towards You
If your independent son suddenly needs your opinion on everything or your chatty girl has stopped talking to you, they may be facing a bullying problem at school. Bullies are talented at finding even the most self-assured teen’s weak points. Sudden clinginess at home may come from a feeling of being isolated at school while withdrawing may be due to a sense of emotional pain or overwhelm.
Sudden sensitivity or defensiveness can be another sign that your child is a victim of bullying. Sudden or extreme sensitivity can be caused by bullies wearing a person down with constant criticisms. Similarly, defensiveness can come from the sense that anything and everything could be an attack. Moodiness is common in teens, but there may be a problem at school if your usually calm son is ready to pick a fight when you remind him to wash his dishes or your cheerful daughter bursts into tears when you remind her to keep her makeup off the bathroom counter.
You might need to have a serious conversation with your child if they start confirming that you love them. A child who is being bullied or ostracized at school may need reminders that someone cares. Your child’s sudden need for your opinion on their weight, appearance or intelligence may also be a sign of bullying problems. Questions such as “am I fat?” or “you’d still love me even if I was weird, right?” should set off alarm bells in your head.
Changes in Appearance or Interests
Teens are notorious for changing their opinions and interests every time the wind blows. A girl who used to dress in all pink may decide she wants to try being Goth this fall. A boy who worked all summer to grow a long beard may shave his entire head on Halloween for no apparent reason. However, sudden and serious changes in appearance may indicate a bullying problem is afoot. A boy who is always mocked for his long hair may decide to cut it off in the hopes of making the teasing stop. If your child is talking about changing their appearance but lacks any enthusiasm toward the idea, it is likely that the change is not their idea.
A sudden cessation in an interest is another sign of bullying. If your science bug suddenly throws out all her National Geographic magazines, bullies might be tormenting her over her interest. Similarly, if your budding musician starts insisting that “classical music isn’t for guys” your son is likely being teased for his passion. It is time for a conversation with your child and possibly the school.
Change in Interactions With Friends
Your teen’s friends account for a large percentage of their social interaction. A teen will usually tell his friends things he would not share with his parents. Teens also usually look forward to spending time with their friends. If she suddenly does not want to hang out with her best friends, it may be a sign that something is wrong. It is not unusual for a bully to take the form of a “friend of a friend” leaving your teen in an awkward situation. She can’t confront or avoid the bully without angering or avoiding her best friend. In such situations, a teen might stop hanging out with their friends. It is easier and less painful that willingly spending time with someone who is tormenting them. They might also suddenly find a whole new group to spend time with in order to escape or replace a friend-turned-bully.
Children and teens might also suddenly start defending their friends’ bad choices. Teens tend to be somewhat defensive of their friends, but if your daughter is not bother by the fact that this is the fifth time her best friend has stool her up, there may be a problem. If your child is being bullied or ostracized he is far more likely to put up with his friends’ bad behavior rather than risk one of his few remaining allies at school.
Acceptance of Inappropriate Behaviors
If your child is a victim of bullying, they may be more accepting of inappropriate behaviors. They may tolerate poor treatment from their friends or from teammates. Inappropriate and unacceptable behavior has become normal to your teen and so no longer bothers them. A bullied child may also start copying previously unacceptable behaviors. If your son or daughter starts using language you never taught them or speaking cruelly to others, they may be copying behavior that they personally are experiencing. What your child sees as acceptable may tell you the nature of the bullying they are facing. A boy who is used to harsh comments on his weight may be more likely to call someone else “fatty” while a girl who is being gossiped about for wearing more revealing clothes may make sexual comments about her classmates.
Some children hate school. That’s just the way it is. Dreading school to the point of faking sick, however, is a sign of bigger problems at work. Feigning illness may be an attempt to avoid bullies at school, especially if your teen used to enjoy going to school. There may also be a bullying problem going on if your child no longer wants to talk about their day. If your teen has always given you one word answers when you ask about school, this may not be a cause for concern. If you used to get every detail of the day and now are lucky to get a sentence your child might be trying to avoid talking about a bully.
Getting Upset After Using the Computer or Phone
With the proliferation of modern technology, children and teens are no longer safe from their bullies at home. Cyberbullying has become a massive problem among teens and pre-teens. If your daughter always seems upset after she logs off the computer or your son is always angry after he reads his texts, your child may be a victim of cyberbullying. Watch for how your teen’s mood is affected by interaction with their electronics. If you feel there is cause for concern, ask to read your child’s phone or emails and insist that the computer is only used in common areas of the house.
Recognizing the subtle signs of bullying can be difficult, especially in teens. Be on the alert for any sudden changes in behavior or attempts to avoid friends, activities or school. There may be an underlying cause. Make sure your child knows you can confide in you about problems at school and listen to what they have to say. Plenty of bullies start out as friends with those who become their victims. Just because Sam has been your son’s best friend since first grade doesn’t mean Sam couldn’t be a bully now. If you feel something is amiss, ask your teen about it. You might not get all the details, but you have at least started the conversation.