Is my child being bullied - or bullying others?

It’s one of a parent’s worst nightmares. You discover that your child is being bullied – or bullying others. If only you had known sooner, maybe you could have nipped it in the bud.

Bullying can have a devastating effect upon a child’s self-esteem, achievement and social development – particularly if the bullying occurs over a prolonged period of time. It’s certainly something worth keeping in mind, particularly if you notice changes in your child’s behaviour.

So, what are the warning signs that we should be looking out for?

  • Teary eyes and/or sadness
  • Increased irritability (this may indicate stress)
  • Few friends/social isolation at school (children are much more vulnerable to bullying if they do not have friends to hang around with at break times)
  • Unexplained loss of property (e.g. jewellery, electrical items or other personal items) or food/drink
  • Unexplained damage to property, e.g. ripped clothes
  • Resistance to (or fear of) going to school – child may frequently complain about headaches, stomach aches or other illness
  • Reluctance to walk to school, choosing an unusually long route or resistance to taking the school bus (to avoid potential bullies)
  • Sleeping difficulties and/or nightmares
  • Loss of interest in schoolwork and/or declining grades
  • Negative comments about self, signs of decreased self-esteem, helplessness, self-loathing (these are possible signs of long-term bullying)

Of course, there are many possible explanations for these ‘warning signs’. But, if you do observe one or more of the above, you can set your radar to red-alert and possibly pick up on other ‘warning signs’ that you may have been missing.

Warning signs that your child is bullying others:

  • Uses physical strength to resolve conflict with peers and/or siblings
  • Shows a positive attitude to violence (and the use of violence to force others to submit)
  • Shows a strong need to be ‘in control’
  • Anti-social behaviour such as vandalism, substance abuse and delinquency
  • A tendency to be defensive and to try to hide insecurities with a show of bravado
  • Has a lot of detentions at school
  • A lack of empathy towards children who are bullied
  • Very sensitive and/or defensive about reputation and popularity
  • Hangs around with children who are aggressive and anti-social
  • Has unexplained new possessions or extra money

Why bullying is such a dangerous foe

Bullying is a dangerous foe because it can be tremendously damaging to almost every aspect of a child’s development. The negative impact upon a child’s self-esteem is fairly well known, although the full extent of this is seldom recognized. But there can be other damaging effects; children may lose interest in their hobbies and schoolwork, grades may decline and social isolation may reduce opportunities to experience different social situations and learn more advanced social skills.

The bully may lose out too, if allowed to continue with this form of behaviour. If a child gets used to resolving conflict by force, then he/she may lose opportunities to learn the conflict resolution skills needed for a successful relationship and career. Also, bullies may have few, if any, true friends – many children will simply pretend to like them to avoid being bullied themselves.

But bullying is, perhaps, a particularly dangerous foe due to its ability to be subtle and invisible. It can take many forms, many of which are far less visible than punches, kicks or scratches. A child may approach a group and be shunned without a punch being thrown or a word being spoken. The group may simply change body position to deliberately exclude; there may be a sudden end to the game, or the group may just walk away. Subtle, yes. But often more painful than a blow.

Why children may not tell:

  • Fear – children are often worried that telling a teacher or a parent may make matters worse
  • Children may feel humiliated that they are allowing themselves to be bullied in this way
  • They may not want adults to know what other children are saying about them
  • They may even feel guilty that they are letting their parents down by failing to deal with the bullying
  • Children may worry about being rejected by their peer group if they ‘tell-tale’
  • Often, children who are bullied are already struggling socially and they are reluctant to risk lowering their social status even more
  • Children do not want to be seen as weak, so they may try to figure out how to handle the situation on their own. Trouble is, bullying can lower self-esteem and make it harder for children to stand up for themselves

What to do about it

If you think your child may be involved in bullying, resist the temptation to dive in with a barrage of direct questions. Make a special effort to spend one-on-one time with your child in relaxing situations that encourage conversation and reflection. Maybe go for a coffee together, go for a walk, sit in a hot tub – create opportunities to connect more closely.

If there is something you really want to ask, it’s a good idea to ‘soften’ the question by saying something like “I’m wondering how your shirt got ripped today – can we talk about it?”

If you are still concerned, make an appointment to talk to your child’s teacher. Many schools are good at checking out bullying without naming names, thereby avoiding the risk of ‘backlash’. Seeking help from a counsellor or psychologist is an option too – children often find it easier to talk to a ‘third person’.

By Michael Vaughan
Registered Psychologist
BSc(Hons), MEd