He would have physical marks, cuts, bruises or scrapes. Or she may be afraid to be left alone, suddenly sullen or withdrawn.
Even with today’s level of bullying awareness, studies estimate that 160,000 children skip school every day because they fear bullying activities by other students. While I often have mistakenly assumed my children are growing up in a less bully tolerant culture than I did, reports also confirm that these bullying actions start at younger ages and are more frequent and aggressive than before.
However, because of technology and unprecedented access, bullying is simply becoming harder to spot. To make matters worse, many children still believe that his or her parents’ response to the harassment can actually make matters worse. So they bear their burden silently.
What kinds of red flags should we watch for? It’s important not to overreact, but be vigilant. Every child is different and any child can have an “off” day, so the experts recommend looking for patterns of behavior that are not typical for your child.
So here are some less obvious signs to watch for:
What is she saying? You’d like to think your child would come out and tell you he or she is being bullied, but it may not be so straightforward. For example, she may say things like “there’s so much drama” or kids were “messing around.” These may be code for bullying. Cindy Miller, a New Jersey–based licensed school social worker, psychotherapist and co-author on The Essential Guide to Bullying suggest you ask specifics. For instance: “When you say ‘messing around,’ did anyone get physical with you? Did someone spread a rumor about you or call you a name? How did you feel when the ‘drama’ occurred?”
If your child still doesn’t open up, tell him the difference between reporting and tattling. “Reporting is stating that someone’s hurting you and you’re trying to get help. Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble,” says Miller. This way, he knows there’s nothing wrong with providing facts.
- Is his stuff getting lost or damaged? My kids are sometimes careless and clumsy, but missing or damaged belongings can also be signs of bullying. When I was a kid, bullies might simply take your possessions and throw them out of reach. If it’s an expensive item like their glasses or their cellphone, our kids are often hesitant to tell us something has been broken. Occasionally, your child may give away possessions to win favor. Any of these could indicate bullying behavior.
- Are her friends missing? Most of us know whom our children hang out with: who calls in the evening, who joins them on school projects, who’s sleeping over. If these friends suddenly go missing, ask where they are and what they are doing. If your child is evasive with their answers, ask clarifying questions or casually follow-up with that child’s friend.
- What is he wearing? Kids, especially teens, can be fashion sensitive. Maybe he’s wearing long sleeves as a fashion statement or it may be covering physical injuries. She may resist wearing clothing styles she used to like because kids tease her about how she looks in certain types of clothing. Remain calm. For example, if you suspect your child is covering injuries, try to avoid shocked or confrontational reactions like: “Tell me how this happened!” Use your best poker face and as non-threatening forms of questions like: “What’s going on that might have caused that injury?” Let your child control the conversation.
- Is she coming home hungry? Does your child eat a lot of after-school snacks or extra helpings at dinner? The chaos of a school cafeteria can cover bullying activities and your child may be avoiding it for a variety of reasons. Another student may be taking her food or maybe he’s giving his food away to become more popular. Sometimes she fears ridicule about her weight or what type of food she’s eating for lunch. Again, the approach should be non-threatening. You can use: “Did you like what they were serving at lunch today? Who did you sit with? What did you and your friends talk about?”
- Is he coming home late? Is he taking the long way home or skipping the bus? He may be avoiding bullying situations. Trust your instincts and ask questions if your child has a dramatic change in behavior.
- Is she coming home early? The cancellation of after-school activities happen from time to time, but are they happening more often than usual? If your child claims activities are being cancelled often or she begins to lose interest in hobbies, there may be an issue
- Is he reacting poorly to online activities? Does your child get upset after a text or going online? Is he hesitant about going online or nervous when an instant message, text message or email appears? Does she minimize her browser window, or hide her mobile phone when you enter the room?
Kids today spend a lot of time online and the sheer volume of information at their fingertips can be overwhelming. However, there are precautions you can take. Here is a good article on the options parents have for cybermonitoring.
Beyond using parental spyware, you can also have copies of your child’s email forwarded to your own email, often without their knowledge. You can block their ability to download self-destructing messaging apps like Snapchat to their smartphone. Keep all computers (including your own) in family common areas. If your child is encountering cyberbullying alone in her room, she will feel more alone in her struggle.
Remember, for a teen, monitoring is often interpreted as a violation of their privacy, so pick your battles. When my children were young and first becoming “connected,” I flat out told them I would be monitoring their activities, emails and text messages so it was not a surprise later. They got used to it. I then agreed that I would not ever comment on their conversations or plans, who they were talking to or the language they used as long as:
- I knew (or was about to meet) the person they were interacting with
- I never discovered any deleted portions of online conversations
- They avoided inappropriate sites and
- They never took part in any online activities (as an initiator or a participant) that could hurt themselves or others.
So far, so good. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
As with any issues your kids are facing, the best medicine is prevention.
Talk to your kids. Ask them how their day was and pay attention to their answer. Avoid asking direct questions about bullying at first. Use a technique psychologists call “elicitation.” This encourages them to reveal sensitive information without necessarily talking about themselves. Ask them: “Do you ever see bullying at your school? What kinds of things happen? Does anyone do anything about it? Why or why not?”
Most importantly, stick with your gut instinct. When it comes to your child, bullying seems scary but it has always been going on. It simply has more media attention these days. Don’t let that overwhelm your parental worries and distract you from your primary goal: raising your child to be understanding, kind and well-adjusted.