In the mercurial soup of adolescent social lives, no one is totally immune to bullying. Even with social and emotional learning programs and eagle-eyed adults trained to recognize the signs, in the United States, about 20 percent of kids aged 12-18 experience bullying.
Signs your child is being bullied
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Your child might not come right out and tell you that they’re being bullied. If you notice any of these warning signs from StopBullying.gov, look deeper to see if bullying is the problem:
- Unexplained injuries
- Lost or destroyed possessions
- Frequent headaches, stomach aches, or faking illness
- Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating (Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.)
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Declining grades, no interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide
How to tell if it’s bullying
You know something’s going on in your child’s peer group, but how do you know if it rises to the level of “bullying”?
We talked to child and teen development specialist Dr. Robyn Silverman about childhood friendships and bullying. “I created a framework to evaluate if the situation is actually bullying—in which case, stepping in as a supporter, alongside your child, may be necessary,” Silverman said.
If you notice the warning signs listed above or have a general sense that a friendship is interfering with your child’s health and well-being, apply Silverman’s ABCD approach to decide if it’s a case of bullying:
- A-Aggressive: Is it a physical, social, or emotional attack?
- B-Is the Balance of Power Unequal? Are we dealing with a relationship in which we see a large size difference, age difference , developmental difference, or popularity difference?
- C-Is it Consistent? Bullying happens more than once over a period of time.
- D-Is it Deliberate? A person typically bullies with an intention to hurt or harm.
When the bully is a friend
Tweens and teens are more likely to be bullied by their friends than by people they don’t know well, Silverman writes.
In her upcoming book How To Talk To Kids About Anything, Silverman provides these scripts for parents who want to help their children deal with bullying.
If you want to support your child while they are being bullied by a friend, say this: “Thank you for coming to me. This sounds like it’s really upsetting you and hurting you deeply—especially because it’s coming from a friend. It takes a lot of courage to admit what’s going on. I’m here for you. Would you like my advice, or would you like me to simply listen and support you quietly?”
If you want to help them approach the friend, say this: “If someone—a friend or otherwise—is stripping you of your dignity, making you feel small, or telling you that you don’t matter, you deserve to be heard. It takes courage—and I know you can do it! You’re more powerful than you think. Let’s talk about how you might approach your friend.”
If your child wants you to get involved, say this: “You can always count on me. How can I best help? Would you like me to contact ______’s parents or call a meeting with the teacher or principal so we can talk to them together? Or something else?”
How to get involved
In some cases, kids are able to resolve bullying on their own, but often, parental intervention is necessary.
“Of course, if the situation is impacting their mental or physical health, and they are unable to get themselves out of it, a parent may need to speak up,” Silverman said. “Instead of coming in aggressively, you may want to call a meeting with a teacher or guidance counselor, alongside your child, so your child can let them know what’s happening.”
Tell your child, “You are not alone. I am here and I will help you. Would you like me to come with you to talk to your guidance counselor or would you prefer to talk to her alone? How can I be the most helpful to you?”
Keep the intervention collaborative and involve your child in every step.
“I don’t feel that you should be speaking to the school or another parent ‘on the sly’ but rather, let your child know about your concerns and make a plan together to solve it,” Silverman said.
Don’t forget to follow up
Bullying is not likely to resolve after one intervention, so check in with your child to see how it’s going.
“Please note that one of the biggest fears for kids about speaking up is that speaking up will make things worse. This is usually because adults will get involved in the beginning but then don’t follow up—and the child is left to fend for themselves when the other person is furious! It’s important for adults to check back in,” Silverman said.
Ask your child, “How are things going? Has the situation gotten better? The same?”
“Even if you aren’t the right person to help,” Silverman said, “it’s important to get your child to the right person who can help them. In other words, be the bridge to the right person.”