What parents need to know about bullying

What parents need to know about bullying

Learn how to spot the signs of bullying and discover the most effective ways to become your child’s ally. 

Child facing bullying

One middle schooler calls another one fat. A certain kid gets pushed down on the playground day after day. Rumors targeting a struggling classmate circulate through social media. These are just a few examples of the kind of bullying many kids regularly face.  

Whether it’s physical or verbal, in person or online, the psychological damage from bullying can be lasting. And that’s especially true for children.  

Unfortunately, bullying is common. Roughly 1 out of every 5 students have reported being bullied, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). What’s more, 19% of high school students reported being bullied on school property during the past 12 months, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report — a scientific publication series prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In the past, bullying was limited to the school day. Now, with the rise of social media, it’s become a 24/7 problem that kids bring home in the form of their smartphones. The NCES report also noted that among the high school students facing bullying, 15% said they had been cyberbullied over the past year.  

Signs your child is being bullied 

Although bullying (online or in-person) can be hard for adults to spot, there are some common signs. 

“Avoiding school or other activities that had previously been enjoyable might signal that a child is being bullied,” explains Denise Hildreth, Ph.D., program director of Hopkinton Youth and Family Services in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. “They might also complain of illnesses such as headaches or an upset stomach. Sometimes a child might truly not feel well because they’re nervous, upset, or worried. But they might also be trying to avoid school or other interactions with peers.” 

Also, pay attention to their eating and sleeping habits. “If he or she suddenly changes eating habits, like skipping meals or binge eating, there might be an issue,” Hildreth explains. “Or a child may come home from school hungry from not eating lunch.” As for sleeping, take note if they have trouble falling or staying asleep, or are sleeping more than usual, as these could also signal a problem. 

In addition to changing patterns at home, Hildreth lists other possible signs of bullying parents can watch for: 

  1. Unexplainable injuries 
  2. Lost or destroyed personal items  
  3. Declining grades or loss of interest in schoolwork 
  4. Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations 
  5. Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem 
  6. Self-destructive behaviors 
  7. Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting 
  8. Avoiding discussions about what they’re doing on their devices 

While any of these signs might be concerning for parents, they don’t always mean a child is being bullied. The important thing is to take note of any change in behavior. This way, you can help your children get the support they need.

Ways you can help  

If you suspect a child might be the victim of bullying, your first instinct may be to confront the parent of the bully or bring it to a teacher or the principal’s attention. While this could be an effective strategy, it could also make things worse.   

Hildreth recommends having an open conversation with your child about your concerns. Start by simply talking and asking questions. How do they feel at school? Who do they hang out with? Do they need your support? Let them know that you’ve noticed some changes in their behavior and want to help them sort it out and feel better.  
 
Talking about getting bullied is an uncomfortable conversation for any child to have, so it’s important to approach them from a loving, gentle perspective and become an ally. Here are some tips to start:  

  1. If they bring up the subject, tell them you’re glad they said something. Remember to stay calm and relaxed while discussing. Give your undivided attention. Let them know you will get through it together. 
  2. See if you can pick up any specific details about the nature of the bullying. Is there a single bully, or several? Does the bully say mean things or physically hurt your child? Be understanding if they are reserved about the details and validate their feelings.  
  3. If you feel comfortable, tell a trusted teacher or nurse about the situation so they can monitor behavior at school.  
  4. If you feel your child is at risk of serious emotional or physical harm, enlist school administration by requesting a conversation, and consider filing a formal report. 

If you remain supportive of a child while they are being bullied, both by listening and taking action when necessary, you can help them build what Hildreth calls “mental sturdiness,” or mental toughness. And by regularly checking in with your child and asking specific questions about their day and interests, you can build a trusting relationship. The more comfortable they feel, the more likely they are to open up in conversation with you. 

It may also be helpful to enlist the help of a mental health professional to offer additional support, guidance, and strategies. Parents can view the resources and information available from Stopbullying.gov

For any questions regarding mental health coverage, benefits, or providers, please call the Mental Health phone number on the back of your member ID card.