How can we identify – and assist – a child who’s a target of bullying? If we’re lucky, other adults or kids will notice the building blocks of this problem before it reaches a crisis. Even if our first heads-up is a sad and discouraged child who asks us for help, there’s much we can do to identify the contributors to the situation, in preparation for making an effective action plan.
The following symptoms can serve as red flags when a child is being bullied. Some are more obvious, some less so, but what you’re really looking for are changes, patterns, and clusters of symptoms.
These red flags suggest it’s time to investigate further:
Stress Symptoms. Is the child irritable, sad, or angry? These can be hard to distinguish from normal teen temperament issues but do bear looking into. Biting nails? Having nightmares? Younger kids may become clinging or withdrawn.
School Refusal. Is attendance becoming a problem? Even if a child is still attending school, does she have frequent headaches or stomachaches? Are the stomachaches only on weekdays? If you have headache-free weekends, that’s a clue that something’s going on at school. It may not be bullying, but it is a signal to investigate further.
Slipping Grades. The problem could be bad study habits or a shift in interest from academics to social life, but it could also be distraction or worry about friends or other unhappiness that makes it hard to concentrate on school. Intervene early with support on this one, before the child digs too deep an academic hole. Obviously, school refusal and slipping grades often go hand-in-hand.
Ripped Clothing Or Bruises.
Damaged Or Lost Books, Backpacks, Or Money.
Sudden Loss Of Interest In School Activities Or School Friends. This could be a symptom of being cut off by former friends.
Sudden Loss Of Interest In Being On The Computer. Could be a symptom of cyberbullying.
Sudden Loss Of Interest In Answering The Phone, Especially The Cell Phone. This could be a symptom of text-message bullying. Teens are usually all over their cell phones. When a teen lets the phone ring or buzz, unanswered, repeatedly, I get curious.
Not Eating Lunch. Where do the kids eat lunch? Are the social structures flexible? Can kids eat lunch with a variety of kids or are the social structures so rigid that kids must eat with the same people every day or face social exclusion? Not eating lunch can be a reaction to anxiety symptoms, eg, stress nausea, fear of physical interference in the lunch room (food thrown at you, tray knocked out of your hands, threats to hurt you later), or social humiliation. Kids in this position often decide it’s safer to skip lunch.
“Unrelated” Behavior Changes. You know your child. There will be lots of behavior changes through the teen years; most are normal, if not desired. It can be a full-time parental job to sort through and deal with the changes! That said, the appearance of angry or depressive behavior should be investigated. Pull out your phone and text your kid: .“sup? u stressed? can I help?.” Even if you get no answer, you’ve perhaps opened the door to a later conversation, or at least let your child feel that you’re noticing and open to talk. (Don’t be surprised if you get the snarly girl or vacant boy response – that’s part of the teen years too.) Watch for behavior changes in younger kids too, and find a gentle way to open the door to a conversation, even without a cell phone.
Alcohol And Drug Use Or Cutting. These symptoms usually manifest later. Be aware that girls sometimes cut as part of a social club, not only in response to their own internal pain. Some say they cut to feel pain.
Not everything is bullying and even 1, 2, or 3 of these symptoms isn’t proof of bullying. You should, however, have your radar tuned to notice changes in behavior. If your child or a child in your class starts behaving differently, you should be asking why.