This post: Is Your Teen Being Bullied? Red Flags and Next Steps to Take
Written by: Marybeth Bock
Little else can make a parent feel angry, frustrated, or worried more than finding out their child is being bullied.
While most parents likely have a vision in their mind of bullied kids being subjected to harsh treatment like fistfights in class, tripping in the hallway, or slamming down their books while kids are walking to class, many kids today are being bullied in a much more underhanded way.
Of course, various forms of physical mistreatment can and do happen when a child is being bullied, the silent method of bullying, i.e. cyberbullying, spreading rumors and lies, deliberately leaving someone out, sending damaging texts, pictures or videos, and the deliberate erosion of someone’s reputation is the method of choice for a lot of bullies.
According to StopBullying.gov, 20% of kids aged 12-18 have experienced some form of bullying which can lead to feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, anxiety, and depression. One promising statistic shows that nearly 50% of kids who felt they were being bullied turned to an adult for help and guidance.
But as parents, how do we really know if our child is being bullied? After all, teens are notorious for teasing each other and talking behind each other’s backs, and the behavior of “frenemies” can muddy the waters making it difficult to determine if it actually IS bullying. Is your teen being bullied? Here’s how to tell and what you should do next.
Bullying comes in all types of shapes, sizes, and subtleties. Simplified, it’s any unwanted behavior from one person to another with the intent to hurt, harm, or cause distress often in the form of physical aggression, intimidation, humiliation, threats, insults, intentional exclusion, and the spreading of rumors and lies.
While there isn’t one specific reason why bullies choose to bully, experts say it oftentimes boils down to the 7 Ps:
Kids who want to be in control or want to be in a position of power are prone to bullying. This may be because they lack power in their own life, which makes obtaining it in their social life more appealing.
Kids who seek the status of popularity may engage in bullying merely to improve their social status. By spreading rumors, gossiping, ostracizing others, and diminishing the status of others, a bully may feel more in control and empowered.
Some kids who have been victims of bullying seek revenge and feel a sense of relief and/or vindication for what they experienced by turning the tables on others. Referred to as “bully victims,” these kids often feel justified in their actions because they too have been tormented by bullies.
Problems at Home
Kids who come from abusive homes are more likely to bully mainly because aggression and violence are modeled at home. Kids with parents who are overly permissive or absent in their lives may become bullies to make up for the lack of power and control in their own life. Low self-esteem is another key characteristic of bullies and kids who have or are being bullied by older siblings are more likely to turn that aggression over to others.
Some bullies bully for the sheer pleasure of hurting the feelings of others. Additionally, kids who thrive on drama may turn to bullying to add excitement/entertainment to their lives. They may also choose to bully other kids because they lack any form of supervision and attention from their parents and bullying becomes an outlet for attention.
While not always, prejudice can be at the root of bullying. Bullies may single out kids due to their race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation. etc.
Kids may bully others simply to fit in with a clique or because they fear not being accepted by others. Even if it goes against their better judgment, they’ll bully (or be an accomplice to a bully) simply to be part of their crowd.
Bullies use a variety of tactics to intimidate, insult, threaten, humiliate, or keep their victims off-kilter. Common types of bullying include:
Physical Actions: Hitting, kicking, tripping, pushing, shoving, and damaging property
Verbal Behavior: Name-calling, teasing. insults, racist remarks, verbal abuse of any kind
Social Actions: Spreading rumors, leaving someone out of a group intentionally, lying about someone, intentionally damaging someone’s reputation
Cyber Bullying: Sending hurtful or abusive texts, emails, posts, images, or videos with the intent of hurting someone’s reputation or alienating them socially, spreading nasty gossip or rumors online, and imitating someone online
According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, bullying is a widespread issue across the U.S. and globally.
- One out of every five students reports being bullied.
- Males are more likely to be physically bullied, whereas females are more likely to be subjected to rumors or excluded from activities on purpose.
- 41% of students who reported being bullied at school indicated that they think the bullying would happen again.
- Of the students who reported being bullied, 13% were made fun of, called names, or insulted; 13% were the subject of rumors; 5% were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; and 5% were excluded from activities on purpose.
Ciandra St. Kitts, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in social anxiety and family issues, says parents need to “use their detective skills, asking lots of questions and observing nonverbal reactions to assess if their kids are possibly holding things back.” To help assess whether your teen is being bullied, here are a few red flags to watch out for:
Unexplained injuries, complaints of frequent headaches, stomach pain or just feeling “sick,” difficulty eating or sleeping. Make note of how often these ailments are happening, and if they seem to get better on weekends when your teen is not in school.
Loss of Friends or Avoidance of Social Situations
Pay close attention if your teen loses interest in their favorite sport, hobby, or activity. Deviating from their usual routine is usually an indication that there’s something wrong.
Worsening grades, lack of engagement in schoolwork, and avoiding or skipping school. Many teenagers will not actually use the word “bullying” to describe what they’re experiencing. Listen for language that might include phrases like “there’s so much drama at school” or that people are “messing with them.”
Loss or Damage of Personal Property
If your child is walking in the door with missing items or items that are damaged and they don’t have a reasonable explanation, there may be cause for concern.
Emotional Distress/Sudden Loss of Self-Esteem
If you notice a change in your teen’s self-esteem, see a change in their attitude while they are online or if they appear especially upset while scrolling through their social media accounts, this could be a sign of cyberbullying.
Maintaining open communication with your teen and staying vigilant about what’s going on in their daily life are key factors in spotting potential problems.
Keep in mind, too, that according to research, your response affects how your child will cope with the bullying. Focus on offering your comfort and support, regardless of how angry or upset you are.
1. Praise Your Teen for Having the Courage to Come Forward
Sometimes, kids will suffer in silence because they’re convinced reporting the bullying to an adult will only cause it to get worse. Other times, they may feel adults won’t do anything about it or, conversely, totally overreact. Make sure you acknowledge and praise your teen’s courage for coming forward. Most importantly, reassure them that you are there to listen, love, and support them, and to advocate for them.
2. Act Quickly, If Needed
Contact the police or seek medical assistance right away if your teen has experienced threats or shows evidence of serious physical injury, sexual abuse, hate-motivated violence, an illegal act like robbery, or if a weapon was involved.
3. Listen to Your Teen
Listen without blaming or judgment. And, do your best not to overreact in front of your teen. Assure them that being bullied is not their fault, that they’re not alone (sadly, many teens are victims of bullying), and that together you will figure out how to handle the situation. If they’re uncomfortable telling you details, urge them to talk to a school counselor, therapist, or mental health service provider.
4. Ask Your Teen How THEY Want to Handle It
Before you rush in and attempt to fix things (which is a completely normal reaction for parents), give your teen the chance to voice their opinion about how they feel the situation should be handled and what would make them feel safe. Not only will you be showing your trust in them, but you’ll also be putting them in a position of power where they get to choose what happens next. if your child is unsure how to handle the situation, offer suggestions and work together as a team to develop a plan.
5. Gather Facts & Tangible Evidence
Gather any texts, videos, emails, etc., and write down as many facts as your teen can remember along with dates. Identify the names of the individual(s) involved in the bullying along with details about how your teen knows them and when the bullying began.
6. Get the School/Authorities Involved
It’s easy to brush off bullying if it doesn’t involve hitting, kicking, or tripping, but even what experts call “relational aggression,” should be reported since it can escalate. (Relational aggression, unlike physical bullying, is a type of subtle bullying intended to hurt someone’s reputation or social standing.) Ask the school for a copy of their anti-bullying policy to ensure your teen is actually being bullied by the school’s standards.
On a side note, it’s important to resist the urge to contact the other parents involved, unless absolutely necessary. School administrators or other officials should always act as mediators between parents.
7. Empower Your Teen with Tools
Make sure your teen has plenty of self-esteem-building outlets so they don’t allow the incident(s) to rob them of confidence, and work together to role-play what to do if the bullying continues. Never tell your teen to just “ignore the bullying.” Also, research has shown that having solid friendships can help prevent bullying. Quite often, good friends will stand up for one another in the face of bullying.
8. Be Persistent
Be persistent and patient. Bullying that is called out does not usually end immediately. It may take consistent effort to ensure it stops. If your family is not getting adequate and appropriate help from the school, contact your school district’s superintendent or your state’s Department of Education.
Talk to your teen, stay connected to them, and make sure they know they can come to you about anything.
If you find your teen is being bullied, work together with them and reach out to authorities. Research has proven that school bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25%, which is a start. But we need to continue to bring awareness about it and face it head-on if we want to put an end to it.
For more information about bullying, including statistics, signs, prevention, and steps to take if you feel your teen is being bullied, visit:
Stomp Out Bullying
Teen Line: Bullying
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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