We’ve all heard the phrase: Nobody likes bullying.
A bully can turn your smile to a frown in the blink of an eye.
And the trauma can last a lifetime. There are people in their 80s who could tell you about that one person in school who made their childhood a nightmare.
Kids are constantly connected to their peers via text messaging, social media and all things electronic, and it creates countless opportunities for bullies to target peers.
For parents, caregivers, teachers and others—including children themselves—it’s important to recognize signs of bullying and learn how to address it.
Spot the signs
The ages and stages of childhood will often determine the types of bullying each child encounters.
While cyberbullying may happen to children at a slightly older age, for instance, younger kids may be more exposed to in-person bullying at school.
The more obvious signs of physical bullying would include marks from physical harm or injury: a black eye, for example, or a new scratch or a bruise with no explanation.
Don’t be afraid to ask your child where they got that cut or bruise.
And keep in mind that a child who is experiencing bullying might self-harm, resulting in signs of physical injury. Self-harm is a real thing, Dr. Gonring said.
“It’s a common mechanism of coping for many, but is not an action of suicide,” she said. “Self-harm is often a method to express emotion in a different way. And (it) can be a sign that something is wrong.”
But there are also behavioral signs to watch for.
A good example: unexcused absences or missing class on a regular basis.
“This is the most common across ages,” Dr. Gonring said. “If you are hearing, ‘I don’t feel good, I can’t go to school today,’ more frequently it could be a sign your child is avoiding something or someone at school.”
Children who have been traumatized may also show physical symptoms of illness, such as feeling sick to their stomach in the morning. They might be cold and clammy, or anxiety-ridden, because of what’s happening at school.
Another possible indicator: missing personal items.
Are things being taken from your child at school? Where did their new watch go? Bullies often take personal items from their victims, and children may be too embarrassed or ashamed to alert parents or guardians.
Signs of social withdrawal could also indicate your child is being bullied.
Is your child not doing as well as usual in school? Have they withdrawn from a sport or activity they once enjoyed? Do they seem detached from their school activities in general?
All these things should be taken seriously.
The social media struggle
Social media, cell phones and connectivity among peers can be fun—but it can also cause a lot of harm when bullying is involved.
“It can be relentless—and there is no escape,” Dr. Gonring said. “This can be extremely traumatizing and can easily follow your child home.”
Children learn empathy through social stories and through perspective-taking, and they model the empathy of those around them. As they mature and have shared experiences, it brings out empathy and compassion.
Keep in mind that their frontal lobes are constantly developing, too. When they become the target of bullying, it can have a profound effect.
It’s incredibly important for parents to be vigilant to any signs of a problem.
“Hiding behind the screen is a really difficult thing,” Dr. Gonring said. “You want your kids to have access to you … and to their friends. But monitoring communication is important.”
Some parents will start by giving their children access to just one social media platform, such as Instagram. But then come others, such as Snapchat or TikTok.
As they get older—and before you know it—your kids are constantly connected.
“Make sure you follow your kids on social,” Dr. Gonring said.
It needs to be a balance of trust, she said.
“If you read text messages and check their apps every night, they will hide things from you. What is most important is to set expectations on how your child is interacting on social media.”
A good start is to tell them, “I expect you to be kind and respectful of someone’s differences.”
And being clear about consequences is important, too.
If your child was mean or said something harmful, for example, you may need to have them acknowledge that they were not kind to someone—and ask them to apologize in person. You can also opt to take their phone away.
For parents, it’s important be more of a listener when you talk to your kids about bullying.
It can sometimes be difficult to get the bullying conversation started, Dr. Gonring said.
“I tell parents that it’s OK to fabricate a situation a bit to get the conversation going,” she said. “Start by saying that you caught wind of a classmate who is struggling with being bullied. And ask if they are aware of anyone who is being bullied. Then transition to ask if anyone might be saying similar things to your child.”
This type of dialogue can help take the pressure off your child, so they don’t feel like they have to disclose everything. It also gives parents the opportunity for a slower, more measured approach.
If there are safety concerns or signs of physical harm, however, these need to be addressed immediately, Dr. Gonring said.
“Try asking your child about some things they really like about themselves,” she said. “But also ask, ‘If you could change one thing about yourself what would that be?’
Your child might reply, “I wish I had a different smile,” or, “I wish my teeth weren’t crooked.”
These types of responses may help you uncover what it is they’re being bullied about.
Is your child the bully?
As a parent, you must be your child’s social coach, Dr. Gonring said. This means checking in and making sure all is OK on a regular basis.
Talking directly to your child if you suspect they are the bully is important.
Often, the way your child treats siblings can be an indicator of how they treat classmates at school.
“Watch those exchanges,” Dr. Gonring said. “Are they quick to blame others? Do they show compassion? Do they show empathy? Most kids will treat their friends similarly to how they treat their siblings.”
Another tip: Try not to label your child as a bully.
“Being a bully is not permanent,” she said. “Implying that is who they are, and giving your child a negative label, is not helpful.”
Instead, it can be more empowering if the parent or teacher tells the child that it isn’t OK to act this way, and it’s not who they are.
“Behavior is a choice. We don’t just behave for no reason at all,” Dr. Gonring said. “And this is particularly true in children. Blaming your child when it’s out of your control is not helpful.
“Behavior stems from past experiences and learned behavior, both of which are malleable and can improve (by) processing their actions with them and modeling prosocial behavior.”
Coaching your child in a subtle and gentle way—not punitively—is often your best bet.
“Let’s think about how other people in the room react when you say this,” she said. “Put it into perspective for your child and give feedback to help them create a positive change.
“And ask in a curious way: ‘Why do you say things like that? What do you think the rest of the class thinks when you say those things?’”
You have to be curious and show interest in learning why your child has these thoughts and actions.
“That is the only way we can help each other,” she said.
If there are any safety issues or signs of physical harm, the school needs to be notified immediately, Dr. Gonring said.
“You can never assume the principal or teacher knows,” she said. “Relay your concerns in a collaborative way.”
Don’t ask: “What are you going to do about this?”
But do ask: “How are we going to address this?”
“Get involved as a parent and partner with teachers,” Dr. Gonring said.
The good news: Therapy and counseling are embraced more today than in generations past. This opens new opportunities for children.
“The amount of telemedicine visits I do with kids from school has increased so much,” Dr. Gonring said. “I’m glad that it is becoming more widely accepted. Teenagers with therapists are much more normal now and far less stigmatized.
“I think we could all benefit from a therapist at any given time. It’s always great to have someone to talk to.”
It’s never too soon to seek professional help or treatment, she said.
“You take the step if you have access and a clear need. Don’t wait for something significant to happen. Prevention is much more impactful.”