One of the hardest parts of being a parent or caregiver can be letting go. It can be both exciting and scary to see your kids grow up, make their own decisions and build friendships. And if a bully enters the picture, it’s difficult to know exactly what to do.
HuffPost spoke to experts with backgrounds in anti-bullying initiatives about the signs many children display if they’re being bullied at school, at extracurricular activities, online or elsewhere. These experts also shared helpful advice about what parents can do to resolve the situation.
What are the signs of bullying?
It’s important for parents to keep in mind that there’s “nothing that’s an absolutely 100 percent tell” that a child is being bullied, said Elizabeth Englander, founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.
“One of the things that suggests a child might be in distress is if they are having problems sleeping or having problems eating, and those kinds of problems happen with lots of different issues,” she said.
Of course, these sorts of symptoms are important for parents and caretakers to follow up on whether they’re associated with bullying or not. Many of the signs of bullying our experts shared are rooted in one thing: change.
Irene van der Zande, founder and executive director of Kidpower, a nonprofit focused on child safety, told HuffPost that kids who are being bullied often display a change in behavior. For example, they might be more fearful or aggressive.
“That can be a symptom of bullying,” she said. “Sometimes they’re acting out what is happening to them at school.”
If school is where the bullying takes place, parents might find that their kid feels well during the weekend and sick during the week, van der Zande said. She also noted that if a child suddenly gets embarrassed about something that wouldn’t normally trigger such feelings, it might be a reflection of “some hurtful teasing” the child is experiencing.
Parents should pay attention if they find that their child is now dismissing friends they used to hang out with or rejecting activities they used to enjoy, said Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Changes in sleep patterns can not only be harmful for children, but also a sign of the child’s distress, she added.
It’s also important to be aware of the language kids might use.
“They might not say, ‘Someone is bullying me,’” Hertzog said. “They might use the word ‘drama,’ like, ‘There’s drama at school.’ There might be that eye roll or they might say, ‘Nobody likes me at school.’”
What about cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is just one part of the general bullying landscape, but the anonymity that comes with online communication and the inexperience many adults have with kids’ social media platforms mean it often earns extra attention in our technology-filled society. Since many kids, even those in elementary school, now have cell phones and other devices, it’s even more difficult for the adults in their lives to access certain spaces in which the child might be facing disrespect or teasing.
“Historically, before kids had a phone in their hand, [bullying] happened in places where adults weren’t; it was out of sight of adults,” Hertzog said. “Now it happens with a phone in their hand, sitting there right in the classroom, in an inappropriate text or a group chat ... in places that we don’t, as adults, have access to. It follows that same premise that bullying happens outside of adults.”
As a result, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center offers several resources specifically on cyberbullying, including advice for teaching kids about cyber safety and how to document the abuse they encounter. Kidpower and the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center also feature helpful guides and technology agreements for adults navigating this landscape with the kids in their lives.
“They might not say, ‘Someone is bullying me.' They might use the word ‘drama,’ like, ‘There’s drama at school.’ There might be that eye roll or they might say, ‘Nobody likes me at school.’”
Bark.us focuses on keeping children safe online through its parental control technology that monitors the content on kids’ devices. Chief Parenting Officer Titania Jordan told HuffPost that cyberbullying can come in the form of hurtful rumors, impersonations through social media accounts, relentless teasing, explicit images being shared without consent and more. She advised caretakers to encourage kids to reconsider the content they share online.
“When you leave school, you don’t leave that behind. When you leave a party, you don’t leave that behind,” she said. “It follows you because you have a device that receives constant communication.”
So what can parents do?
Whether the teasing and disrespect occurs in the classroom, at a sports game, online or elsewhere, there are helpful actions parents can take to be proactive about bullying and address it head-on.
Hertzog recommended that parents speak to teachers, since they often spend more time with their kids than anyone else during the week. Educators can fill caretakers in on any changing behaviors they might be seeing among students.
Hertzog also offered a helpful example of what her family did when her now-adult son, who has Down syndrome and is the inspiration behind much of her work with PACER Center, started kindergarten. She helped teach students at her son’s school about him and his medical history and made sure she got to know the staff. She soon learned that there is “an incredible amount of empathy in kids.”
“It really became about social inclusion and friendship,” she said. “What started as trying to prevent bullying became a beautiful representation of what happens when you provide a structured program, structured content for kids.”
If parents get word that their child is having issues with bullying, it’s crucial, as van der Zande noted, that they manage their emotional and impulsive reactions, and instead learn how to help in the most effective way.
“If you run down to the school in your pajamas the minute that your child tells you somebody was mean to them at school,” she said, “you’re going to have less credibility at school and you’re also going to have less credibility with your child.”
Every expert we spoke with agreed that one of the most important things parents can do is build a foundation so if something is happening at school, on the soccer field or online, their child will feel comfortable coming to them for help and sharing their problems. Kids will go to “people they find helpful and supportive,” said Englander.
For a starting point, van der Zande suggested asking, “Is there anything that you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?”
“And the first words out of your mouth are, ‘Thank you for telling me,’” she said. “Then you listen, and then you say, ‘Thank you. You’re doing a really good job of explaining this.’ You look for what the child did that was right. You don’t tell them what they did that was wrong.”
Kirk Smalley, founder of Stand for the Silent, appeared at HuffPost’s How To Raise A Kid conference. In the video below, he discusses how he’s helping kids after his son died by suicide as a result of being bullied.