Bullying: how to know if your child is suffering silently

If you are the parent of a child who is being bullied at school, there’s a good chance that you may be missing important signs that could alert you to the fact that your son or daughter is being victimized by other classmates. Newsweek’s  Lockers to Lock-up,” calls what happened to Phoebe Prince in January of 2010, a case of being “bullied to death” by teenagers that she went to school with.  Phoebe, just sixteen years old, hung herself at home after being repeatedly taunted and harassed by classmates. What happened to Phoebe has sparked debate all around the country about who’s responsible for bullying at school. More importantly, could what happened to Phoebe, happen to your child?

Most children who are being harassed or singled out by other students do not readily report it to teachers for fear that the intimidation or physical abuse will escalate. Over time, however, they begin to exhibit emotional and behavioral changes that are often associated with an unhappy and fearful child.  By being aware of the indicators of potential bullying, you will more readily recognize the threat and can take immediate steps to protect your child.

Bullied children often suffer silently while being forced to endure indignities like having to hand over their lunch money day after day or being taunted, shamed, and even physically abused. The stories of smaller students being shoved up against walls and stuffed into lockers are heard too frequently. Bullies use intimidation and threats to force compliance from peers who seem more sensitive, have a smaller physique, or are socially inept.  A few children will report being bullied to the school counselor, but more often than not, an abused child’s escalating behavior in the absence of any obvious reason, is what finally prompts teachers and parents to look for clues to a child’s unhappiness.

When a child’s behavior changes and he/she begins to act out, most parents do not immediately consider that school bullying may be at the heart of the problem.  Even many child psychologists will first look for more obvious reasons like parental divorce, moving to a new community or academic problems to explain negative behaviors before considering the possibility that a child might be a victim of bullying.  

For the child who is being continuously harassed and mistreated, school can become a very threatening place.  And although school authorities and teachers may be unaware that he is being targeted, a mistreated child does exhibit some tell-tale signs that something is badly amiss. Behavioral changes at school and at home should all alert parents to the reality that their son or daughter is in trouble and needs help. When a child exhibits behavioral changes that are markedly different from his past conduct, bully should always be considered if for no other reason than to rule it out.

While there is no definitive list of behavioral and/or mood changes that can confirm that a child is being bullied, there are some signs that should alert every involved parent to the possibility. If you have a child who exhibits one or more of these symptoms it’s time to discover what may be happening during school hours when he is under someone else’s care. If he:

  1. Has a new history of headaches, stomach aches, or other somatic complaints in the absence of any medical problem
  2. Develops separation anxiety and is reluctant to go to school
  3. Begins having frequent nightmares mixed with sleep disturbances
  4. Refuses to attend extracurricular school activities
  5. Tries to avoid riding the school bus or walking to school alone
  6. Isolates from friends or seems to have few friends
  7. Repeatedly comes home from school with items missing or torn clothing
  8. Has unexplained cuts or bruises
  9. Cries more frequently but refuses to talk about it
  10. Exhibits signs of new hostility or gets in trouble for fighting

If you believe that your child might be a victim of a school bully, sit down and talk about your concerns. Ask some open-ended questions to find out whether he enjoys meaningful relationships at school or if he is being threatened and/or harmed in any way by another student. If you find out that your son or daughter is being discriminated against, singled out, or mistreated by another child at school, make an appointment immediately with school administration and ask that decisive steps be taken to protect your child and to bring an end to the bullying.