How to tell if a child in your life needs help––and what to do about it.
If you or someone you knew was bullied as a child, you probably know the hurtful effects that intimidation, abuse, and ridicule from peers can have on self-esteem. But thanks to the rise of the internet and social media, for today’s youngsters, bullying doesn’t end when the final bell rings. Children are often bringing those threats and taunts home with them via their smartphones.
Frustratingly, this type of bullying (commonly called cyberbullying) is often anonymous, invasive, and, worst of all, difficult for adults to detect. But there are ways to learn if a child is the victim of verbal or physical abuse from peers if you pay careful attention.
“Avoiding school or other activities that had previously been enjoyable might signal that a child is being bullied,” explains Denise Hildreth, PhD, program director for the 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.”
Hildreth also suggests watching a child’s eating and sleeping. “If he or she suddenly changes eating habits, like skipping meals or binge eating, there might be an issue,” she explains. “Or a child may come home from school hungry from not eating lunch.” A change in sleeping behaviors (having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping more than usual) could also signal a problem.
In addition to changing patterns at home, Hildreth lists other possible signs of bullying that parents should keep a close eye on:
● Unexplainable injuries
● Lost or destroyed personal items
● Declining grades or loss of interest in schoolwork
● Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
● Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
● Self-destructive behaviors
● Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting
● Avoiding discussions about what they’re doing on their devices
While displaying one or a few of these signs might be concerning for parents, that doesn’t necessarily mean a child is being bullied. But it’s important to take note of changing behaviors to ensure children can get the help they need.
How you can help a child being bullied
If you suspect a child might be the victim of bullying by their peers, your first instinct might be to confront the parent of the bully or bring it to a teacher or principal’s attention. While this could be an effective strategy, it could also make things worse.
First, Hildreth recommends having an open conversation with the 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 have noticed some changes in them and want to help them sort it out and feel better. Getting bullied is an uncomfortable conversation for any child, so it’s important to approach him or her from a loving, gentle perspective and become an ally. Here are some tips to start:
● Develop your relationship with your child so they feel like they can talk to you about anything. Ask specific questions about their day or talk about their interests. The more comfortable they are with you, the more likely they’ll open up.
● If they do have that conversation with you, tell them you’re glad they said something. Stay calm and relaxed. Give him or her your undivided attention. Let them know you will get through it together.
● 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.
● If you feel comfortable, tell a trusted teacher or nurse about the situation so they can monitor behavior at school.
● If you feel that your child is at risk of serious emotional or physical harm, enlist school administration by requesting a conversation, and consider making a formal report.
If you remain supportive of a child while he or she is being bullied, both by listening and taking action when necessary, you can help them build what Hildreth calls “mental sturdiness,” or mental toughness. It may also be helpful to enlist the help of a mental health professional to offer additional support, guidance, and strategies.