For Anti-Bullying Week, we’re looking at how to spot the signs that your child is being bullied, how to talk to them about it and what steps you can take to support them...
No matter what age you are, being bullied is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person. And if a child or teenager has to go through the experience unsupported and unprotected, then the mental health effects can last well into adulthood.
Bullying is also alarmingly common for children, with a 2021 study showing that one in four young people in the UK had been victims of it the past 12 months. 77% of the those who had been bullied said that it had negatively impacted their mental health, while a third said that they had experienced thoughts of suicide as a result. In the previous year, a study into digital bullying by the Office of National Statistics found that one in five children aged 10 to 15 years had experienced at least one type of online bullying in the previous 12 months.
Yet the signs of being bullied can often fly under the radar, with parents, teachers and caregivers not always being aware of what is happening. This is because these signs can sometimes be put down to ‘normal teen moodiness’ or ‘adolescent shyness’, yet might be hinting at a much deeper issue. At other times bullying can be minimised or dismissed as a ‘normal part of growing up’, ‘just kids being kids’ or even ‘a chance to toughen up’ (especially if the child is male).
Yet this is not the case. For even when it is non-physical, bullying is always a type of violence, assault and abuse. The age of the perpetrators doesn’t matter — what matters is the effects on the child themselves. This kind of abuse can get deep under a young person’s skin long term, impacting their self-image and relationships with others. It can also impair their ability to move through the world with confidence and self-belief, even well into adulthood.
When a young person is bullied it can, at worst, shatter their entire childhood, robbing them of normal rites of passage like dating or socialising, as well as hurting their academic performance, further education opportunities and family relationships. And when it is happening, bullying can feel like a prolonged agony, with the fear and dread of what will happen next being just as bad — or even worse — than the incidents themselves.
This ongoing terror can wound them so badly that the scars last for a lifetime. In other words, bullying is about so much more than the mean things that other children do, but also about how it distorts the child’s reality. Both the intrusive memories of bullying incidents and the fear of them re-occuring can be a form of mental and emotional torture that a child just isn’t equipped to deal with, possibly even leaving them with lasting trauma systems such as PTSD.
For all of these reasons, it is important that any kind of bullying is nipped in the bud as soon as possible. That is why we are going to look at some of the warning signs, offer tips for how to talk to your child about it and finally, outline suggestions for what steps you can take next.
Bullying takes many different forms and is not always physical. For this reason, the signs can sometimes be hard to spot. And although we tend to think of physical attacks as somehow being the worst kind, this isn’t actually true — other types of bullying such as verbal or emotional can cause just as much damage, if not more.
Also, children who stand out in some way — for instance, who have a disability, a different sexual orientation or come from a minority ethnic group in their school — might be particularly at risk. That is why caregivers and teachers need to be especially vigilant in watching over children in these groups.
With this in mind, here are some of the main forms that bullying can take:
Of course, bullying can straddle a number of these categories and can also escalate. For instance, name calling can develop into physical abuse, or occasional sexual remarks can turn into grabbing or even molestation. That is why it is really important to identify and tackle bullying early, even if the initial incidents might seem ‘trivial’ from an adult perspective.
Beyond the impact on a young person in their present day life, bullying can also have lasting effects into adulthood. Research by the CDC in the USA found that there is a direct and powerful connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and physical, mental and emotional health issues in later life. While it should be stressed that this research was focused on a child’s homelife and didn’t address bullying specifically, it is also true that the stress of being bullied could result in similar effects.
This is because bullying can cause toxic stress in children, a condition that develops when a young person finds themselves trapped in a distressing situation with seemingly no escape. This can cause their body’s stress systems to stay switched on, resulting in symptoms like impulsivity, anger and difficulty regulating emotions. As these symptoms are similar to ADHD, children might sometimes be misdiagnosed with this condition.
Longer term effects of bullying could include physical health problems, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, addiction, suicide attempts and trauma-related conditons like PTSD or C-PTSD. Individuals may also have issues with assertiveness in later life, for instance by developing people pleasing tendencies or being vulnerable to workplace bullying.
But thankfully, the effects of toxic stress on children can be reversed if the bullying is properly dealt with, allowing them to return to a sense of safety and security.
Bullying can be difficult to spot as sometimes, the signs can be subtle. Also, your child or teen may go to great lengths to cover it up, partly because they may be ashamed and partly because they may be terrified of the bullies retaliating if they ‘tell on them’. They may also be worried about upsetting you, especially if there are other family stresses going on.
However, here are 25 warning signs that you can look out for, including physical, emotional, social and school-related:
Bear in mind that the above signs may not always be bullying ‘red flags’ — some might be signposts of other issues, such as depression or academic stress. However, whatever the causes, if your child is acting in a way that concerns you then it’s important to take action sooner rather than later.
The first step in supporting your child is to talk to them. However, this can be a lot easier said than done as they may be afraid of your reaction when they open up. That is why a good starting point can be to approach the subject in a gradual way, allowing your child to reveal any issues at their own pace. You may want to start by asking general questions about how their life is going, or chat about a subject that interests them. Be prepared for them not opening up the first time you speak to them – it can be an ongoing process but you will have at least laid the groundwork by letting them know that it’s safe to confide in you.
Of course, how you approach your child depends on their age and understanding. But here are a few approaches that you can take, some subtle and others more direct:
‘Do you have any special friends at school this year? Who do you sit with at lunch break?’
‘I notice you don’t hang around with your old friends as much. Is there a reason why?’’
‘I’ve noticed that you seem a bit quiet lately. Is anything worrying you?’
‘Are there any kids that you don’t like? How come you don’t like them?’
‘Are you feeling left out at school?’
‘Are you being teased at school?’
‘I’m worried about you. Is anyone or anything bothering you at school?’
‘You seem down. If you want to talk to me about it, I promise that I won’t be angry or blame you.’
‘I’ve been reading up on school bullying. Has that been happening at your school? Are any kids being picked on?’
‘I’m concerned that you’re having a hard time at school. I know you might be worried about talking about it, but I promise that we can work this out together.’
If your child doesn’t want to talk just yet, then you can end the conversation by telling them that they can come to you anytime and that you won’t be angry or upset. It is possible that they just need time to reflect on what you’ve said before they feel ready to talk. Also, if they are younger then you could encourage them to draw a picture of what is worrying them if you think that they’re struggling to communicate in words.
Even if your child doesn’t open up straight away, you don’t have to hesitate to contact their school. You also don’t need concrete proof of bullying — if you even suspect that there is some sort of problem, that is enough reason to seek support.
When speaking to the school, outline their child’s changes in behaviour and your reasons for feeling concerned. Then ask them what child welfare and anti-bullying measures they have in place to protect students. Make sure that a clear plan is created for going forward and that follow up conversations are scheduled, so that you can monitor the progress of the situation. If you think the bullying is taking place outside of school (for instance, in your local area), then it may be a case of talking to individual parents to raise your concerns.
For additional resources, the UK charity Kidscape has an advice line for parents that can help you to find a way forward. Also, a helpful book for parents is Bullied by Carrie Goldman, while books for younger children include Dragon and the Bully and Can a Unicorn Help Me Deal with Bullying?, both by Steve Herman. Teens might find The Teenage Guide to Stress by Nicola Morgan helpful. Also, our posts Worried that your child is depressed? and 4 steps you can take to help your children cope with stress could also have useful guidance.
Finally, if you think your child might be at risk of self-harm or is dealing with a mental health issue like depression, anxiety or eating issues, then you may want to talk to your GP or suggest that they talk to a psychologist or psychotherapist.
Bullying can leave a child anxious, lonely, angry, scared, sad and confused. Their bodies can become stressed from being on permanent high alert for danger (hypervigilance) and their self-esteem can be crushingly low. However, building a trusted relationship with a therapist can help them to process what has happened, make sense of it all and rebuild their sense of worth.
There are a number of therapies that can help with child and teen issues like bullying. For instance, trauma-informed approaches such as EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help your child to physically let go of any hypervigilance, toxic stress and shock, while processing upsetting memories.
Also, Trauma-Informed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help young people to overcome self-critical thoughts and negative beliefs they might have developed because of what happened (for instance, ‘I deserved it’ or ‘Other children aren’t safe’). CBT can also help them to shift away from any unhelpful (yet understandable) self-protective behaviours, such as avoiding socialising. Art Therapy can also help young people to express difficult feelings and memories in a non-verbal way, while finding emotional release for their sadness and frustration through creativity.
Also, if your child is older then they may feel more comfortable with the idea of chatting to someone over the internet. Online therapy could be a great idea and many therapists also offer a texting or live chat option, which is ideal for younger people who prefer to communicate this way.
The effects of bullying can be devastating for children and teens but thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take to help them through it. From knowing which signs to look out for to finding ways to open up a conversation, and from seeking support from their school to connecting them with a therapist, you don’t have to feel helpless. And although young people can be profoundly impacted by bullying, with time, care and protection they can also recover. Gradually, they can regain their sense of safety and rebuild their self-esteem, moving on from the experience with a much stronger sense of their own worth.
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