11 Signs of Bullying Every Parent Should Know
One in four children are bullied at school—and less than a third of them report the problem. Watch for these signs to protect your kids.
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Bullying comes in many forms
Today, bullying goes beyond the playground push or punch, as bullies use taunts and teasing—and online tactics—to attack their victims. But drawing the line between a little razzing between classmates and more damaging bullying can be tricky. Generally, bullying is considered aggressive behavior that keeps happening, where the victim feels like the bully has more power than he or she does, according to StopBullying.gov, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ site dedicated to solving the bullying issue. And contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with anger. “It’s about contempt—a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect,” says parenting expert Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Not-so-Innocent Bystander. According to Coloroso, bullies often feel a sense of entitlement and are intolerant of differences in others.
Research shows that one in four students reported being bullied—with 79 percent reporting verbal harassment, and half saying they felt they were harassed or excluded socially, according to a survey by the student-focused non-profit group YouthTruth. And bullying victims face a number of long-term consequences, including an increased risk of suicide and poorer overall health into adulthood, according to research published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. (If you or someone you know has thoughts of self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.) Learn more about the damage sibling bullying can do.
Verbal taunts and social bullying may be the most common, but physical bullying still happens—and 29 percent of teens say they’ve encountered it, according to the YouthTruth Survey. If your child comes home with bruises, cuts, scratches, or other injuries, “don’t tell your child to fight back,” says Coloroso. “Remind them that it’s not their fault, and report the bullying to school personnel.” Parents, learn how to stop sibling rivalry—which can lead to bullying—before it starts.
Using electronic devices less—or more—than usual
If your child used to be glued to her smartphone, and now has it shut down constantly—or if your child seems to be anxiously checking the internet, it might be a sign that they’re one of the 36.5 percent of children who reported being cyberbullied, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. If you suspect your child might be at risk of online bullying, teach them this important acronym: SCBT, says Coloroso. SCBT stands for:
- Stop. Don’t respond.
- Copy. Make copies of all messages and pictures, and save cell phone text and voice messages.
- Block or filter communications through IM contact list, email, or social media apps.
- Tell a trusted adult.
A drop in grades
If your straight-A student is suddenly flunking classes, bullying could be playing a role—in fact, a study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence found that bullying could account for more than a full letter grade drop in achievement among bullying victims.
Different sleeping patterns
Bullying victims may experience depression or anxiety, which can take a toll on their sleeping habits along with their mental health, warns Coloroso. If your child’s sleep pattern changes—whether they develop insomnia or begin spending more and more time in bed—that could be a red flag that they’re being bullied, she says. Frequent nightmares could also be a sign of bullying. Find out more about what dreams can mean.
A shift in eating habits
A bullied child may have a decrease in appetite or end up binging on food, according to StopBullying.gov. That can be especially dangerous if your child already has weight issues—weight-based teasing can cause teens to develop weight stigma, a risk factor for developing eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. If your child also seems to be skipping lunch at school, that could be a red flag that they’re being bullied in the cafeteria.
Engaging in destructive behavior
Bullying victims are more likely to do things that could hurt them. If your child starts acting out at home, attempts to run away, or starts cutting or attempting suicide, that could be the impact of bullying, according to StopBulllying.gov. Be sure to listen for the words and phrases that can signal depression or anxiety.
Withdrawing from family and school activities
Children who are bullied may not just avoid school and friends—they may shut you out, too. “They may think that no one can help them,” says Coloroso. That’s why less than a third of bullying victims tell adults what’s happening, according to research published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling.
Taking more sick days
If your child is suddenly racking up absences for illness, it could have something to do with bullying. And it’s not just that your child’s faking illness trying to avoid the bullies—being bullied puts kids at greater risk of developing illnesses like colds, or psychosomatic conditions like stomachaches or headaches, according to the study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Your child used to have a tight-knit crew—and suddenly, the playdate invites or Friday night get-togethers aren’t happening anymore. If your child suddenly seems to be spending a lot more time alone, Coloroso says that could indicate social bullying.
Keep in mind that many of these signs could also be due to depression, anxiety, or another serious problem other than bullying. However, if you suspect your child is being bullied even though they won’t talk to you about it, consider bringing them in for treatment (whether with a doctor, therapist, or school counselor), as kids sometimes feel more comfortable disclosing this type of information to adults other than their parents.
- Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling: “Middle School Bullying: Student Reported Perceptions and Prevalence.”
- StopBullying.org: “Warning Signs for Bullying.”
- Barbara Coloroso, parenting expert and author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Not-so-Innocent Bystander
- Archives of Disease in Childhood: “Long-term effects of bullying.”
- National Eating Disorders Association: “Bullying and Weight Shaming.”
- Journal of Early Adolescence: “Bullying Experiences and Compromised Academic Performance Across Middle School Grades.”
- YouthTruthSurvey.org: “Bullying.”
- Cyberbullying Research Center. “2019 Cyberbullying Data.”