Everyone has been teased at some point in their life. Maybe it's been by a friend or sibling, done in a playful and friendly way. When that teasing becomes hurtful and downright mean, however, that's when it crosses the line into bullying.
Bullying is a form of aggression in which one (or more) person intentionally and repeatedly harms, intimidates or harasses someone else, either verbally or with physical force. Usually the bully perceives the other person as weaker and not capable of defense.
Bullying can be done in various forms, such as:
Verbal: This includes inappropriate sexual comments, name calling, teasing and taunting.
Social, emotional or psychological: This can involve spreading rumors, public embarrassment or humiliation or excluding someone from a group or activity.
Physical: This may include beatings, tripping, hitting, kicking or destroying property.
Electronically: Also known as cyberbullying, this is when threats, hates messages and other forms of digital abuse are delivered via electronic mediums such as email, websites, social media or text messages.
Bullying has severe consequences, says the Mayo Clinic. Those being bullied can become violent; abuse alcohol, drugs or other substances; attain poor grades or acquire mental health problems like depression, low self-esteem—even suicide.
Warning signs your child is being bullied
The best way to help your child handle bullying is to know how to recognize and respond to it. Remember that every kid can have an "off" day and not all children being bullied show these warning signs. But look for an atypical pattern of behavior in your child.
Here are some bullying red flags to look for:
- Avoids school situations (such as after-school activities, walking to school or riding the bus)
- Sudden loss of friends
- Significant and sudden drop in academic performance (homework, grades, attendance) or not wanting to go to school
- Lost or destroyed personal belongings such as electronics, books, jewelry, money, school supplies or clothing
- Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, nausea or faking illness (goes to nurse to avoid class)
- Difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares, bed wetting or cries self to sleep
- Changes in appetite like binge eating, skipping meals or hungrier than normal after school (which could be due to a stolen lunch or lunch money or avoiding the cafeteria)
- Waits to use the bathroom at home (to avoid being bullied in the school's restrooms)
- Sudden weight loss
- Low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness
- Fear of being left alone or clingy
- Distress after being on the phone or online
- Unexplainable injuries such as bruises, cuts, scratches or scrapes
- Runs away from home, talks of suicide, harms himself or other self-destructive behaviors
What to do if your child is being bullied
Remember, your child may not tell you about the bullying. He may feel helpless, weak, embarrassed or ashamed. He may fear that you or others will punish or judge him or be upset or angry at him. He may worry that you'll confront the bully or tell him to do so. Or he may think that you won't understand, care or believe it's happening.
That's why you need to take the situation seriously. Talk with your child about the bullying. Ask direct questions. Find out when it happens, who is involved and what is said or done. Ask what your child has done to stop it (if anything) and what's been successful and unsuccessful. Record the details and facts objectively. The more specifics you get, the better.
Listen to your child tell you what's going on lovingly and calmly, expressing your concern, support and understanding. Remind him that it's not his fault. Praise him for talking to you about it. Tell him you're there to help and he is no longer alone.
If he won't open up, look for opportunities to discuss bullying such as talking about a relevant situation on a television show or something that happened with another family member or friend. If your child won't confide in you, set up a conference with a trusted adult such as a family friend, teacher or coach.
Then, reach out to school authorities such as a teacher, principal or guidance counselor. Find out what the school teaches students about bullying and the school's anti-bullying policies. Ask them what they can do to help address the bullying. And don't be afraid to reach out again if the bullying resumes. After you talk with school officials, you may consider contacting the police or a lawyer if you believe your child has been threatened or attacked physically or harmfully.
Handling the bully
It may be tempting to encourage your child to fight back or retaliate against a bully. However, that can only lead to more problems. Instead, suggest that he ignore the bully or walk away or ask a nearby teacher or adult for help. Power is in numbers; he should stay near friends in the location where he's typically bullied such as the bus, bathroom or cafeteria.
For kids being cyberbullied, restrict computer and phone use to your home's kitchen, family room and other common areas so that you can monitor any situations.
If the issue continues, seek the help of a mental health professional to talk with your child.