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Signs Your Child is a Bully or Being Bullied

Emma Winsor Wood
Aug. 4, 2011

"I just had the worst day of my life," announced Kristin's* twelve-year-old son Ben as he slumped into the passenger seat.

Earlier that day, Ben had silenced a classmate making rude comments with a terse, "Shut up." While Ben's response could have been more polite, it did not warrant the day of torture that followed. Max the bully hounded Ben for the remainder of the day -- shoving him in the hallway, loudly teasing and taunting, calling him names -- until Ben retreated to a classroom for protection.

Kristin, who lives in Rockingham County, NH, promptly called the school to inform them of what happened -- and to say that she would not send Ben back to school until they could guarantee his safety. After a brief investigation, the school decided to suspend Max for three days.

But when he returned, the bullying resumed. While Max continued to physically and verbally abuse her son, Kristin continued to meet with teachers and administrators. Since the school had suspended Max once prior to the incident with Ben, this was his third strike. Still they did not expel him.

"The school's policy of zero tolerance for bullying is a bunch of fluff they put together to make the parent's feel good. They're not putting their money where their mouth is. At some point, Max shouldn't have been allowed in school -- for the safety of all the children, not just my son."

Kristin feels relieved that her family had already planned to move towns before the bullying began.

Sadly, Kristin's story is not unique. According to "Bullying Behaviors among US Youth," a 2001 study published in JAMA by Tonja Nansel, Ph.D, 1 in 3 youths in grades 6-10 experience bullying once or several times a week.

Staying at home, however, no longer protects kids from bullying. "Technology has made bullying easier to engage in and spread, as well as harder to escape," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. Parenting Expert at Care.com.

Indeed, according to iSafe.org, 42% of middle schoolers (grades 4-8) have been bullied online and 53% of them admit having said something mean or hurtful to another person online.

Bullying is not new, but it is pervasive -- not to mention scary, embarrassing, and humiliating. And unfortunately not all children are as forthcoming as Ben was. How can you tell if your child is struggling with bullies too?

Is Your Child Being Bullied?

According to Dr. Joel Haber, bullying expert and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, your child could be a victim of bullying if he/she:

  • Is reluctant or refuses to go to school
  • Clams up when you try to discuss school
  • Demands some sort of change in a long-standing routine, like riding the bus to school or going to the park on Saturdays
  • Does not want to participate in after-school activities or play with old friends
  • Seems hungrier than usual after school - it might be a sign that someone is stealing his lunch money or that he is unwilling to brave the cafeteria at lunchtime
  • Shows signs of physical distress such as headaches, stomach-aches, or nausea
  • Goes to the nurse in order to avoid going to class
  • Performance in school (grades, homework, attendance) suddenly declines
  • Acts sullen, angry, and frequently wants to be left alone
  • Uncharacteristically uses bad language
  • Shows marked behavior change after computer time or a phone call
  • Starts asking for more lunch or transportation money without a clear explanation of why it is needed
  • Has unexplained bruises or injuries

Could Your Child Be the Bully?

While you could never imagine your own sweetie excluding or teasing a classmate, 1 out of 5 kids in grades 6-10 admits to being a bully or doing at least some "bullying" (Nansel, et al, 2001). Children know that bullying is wrong. That's why they do it when parents aren't around. That's why cyberbullying has become so common (the Internet is like one huge parentless mansion). And because adults are left in the dark, they don't often face repercussions for their actions. So they keep doing it.

Of course you don't want to admit that your child could be a bully. But you definitely don't want to let your child stay a bully. Look for the signs -- and then find a way to check the behaviors.

» Read the Care.com article about how Parents' #1 Fear is Bullying

Dr. Haber says that your child could be a bully if he/she:

  • Is exclusive - refuses to include certain kids in play or study
  • Persists in certain inappropriate or unpleasant behavior even after you have told him/her to stop
  • Is very concerned with being and staying popular
  • Seems intolerant of and/or shows contempt for children who are "different" or "weird"
  • Frequently teases or taunts other children
  • Constantly plays extremely aggressive videogames
  • Hurts animals
  • Observes you excluding, gossiping about, or otherwise hurting others: As parents we have a tremendous influence on our children. As human beings, we all occasionally exhibit some bullying behaviors. It's only natural and it doesn't mean we're bad people. But think honestly about your own behavior and then ask -- do your kids also show these traits?

Bullying seems scary, but as Dr. Haber reminds us, "It's always been going on. And it's probably been going on at the same level as it always has, but it's gotten much more media attention as of late." So don't let it overwhelm you or distract from your main goal: raising your child to be a kind, understanding, well-adjusted person.

* All names have been changed to protect identities.

Alan in Burke, VA
Oct. 24, 2016

If we took emotional attendance at school as well as physical, we'd see many of these signs earlier. There is now a group on care.com to discuss bullying: https://www.care.com/c/?r=alan...

Feb. 24, 2016

My grandson is also being bullied. The signs are all there. But the last paragraph is ambiguous. Yes; we want to raise our children to be healthy, and to quote the author: \

Feb. 12, 2015

my daughter has went from being absoloutley great at school she gets on with her work and her peers.since last week she has started to pick on this 1 girl and the school is threatining exclusion what do i do from here

User in Visalia, CA
Nov. 22, 2014

Anna Y, If you think bullying does not happen, just take a look around at the the world we live in!! Just because you don't know anyone that has been bullied, or haven't seen it, does not mean it does not exist. I for one was bullied for many years, up until the 8th grade. After years of being followed home, tormented, pushed, shoved, hair pulled, hit, having things thrown at me, tormented at school, had water, milk, full lunch trays dumped on me, all because I was a latch key kid and my mother didn't have a lot of money, I finally got fed up and on the way home one day, I beat the living crap out of the girls that had bullied me for so long. I was the lucky one, I survived it. So many kids commit suicide because they cannot handle the day to day torment. My God, look at what happened at Columbine in April of 1999! Do I agree with their methods of dealing with it? No! BUT, bullying is a learned behavior and those kids that shot up that school and killed all those people were bullied daily. The key to stopping bullying behavior is to check your own behavior at home and make sure that you are not saying/doing things that your kids are repeating. Also, keep in tuned to your child's moods and behaviors. Too many times in the news, the parents of a bullied child that killed themselves say well we didn't notice any changes. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR KIDS. I applaud the parents that are trying to help their kids, most school districts would rather look the other way than face what is going on right under their noses, and you have one heck of an uphill battle ahead of you. Anna, pay a little more attention to the world around you, it does exist, and it is brutal, and the psychological damage that can be done is not easily fixed, and it's that bullying that can break someone's spirit and wound them far deeper than anything else could, because it's coming from their peers.

Nov. 11, 2014

One more sign your child is being bullied is coming home thirsty and/or having a urinary tract infection because he/she is afraid to go to the bathroom at school. And teachers and administrators can help stop bullying in the bathroom by using the students' bathroom and checking the bathroom several times during the day.

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