When we were kids, most of us experienced some type of “bullying”. For me, it was being called names. Being a high-achiver who wore glasses earned me many an unwanted nickname—“nerd”, “four-eyes”, “geek”.
Middle school and high school were better, mostly because by then I had a core group of friends to support me, not because the bullying stopped. It just took on a more subtle, meaner form. “You get your clothes at K-Mart?” Michelle sneered after gym class one day. To this day, I have a hard time buying anything from K-Mart because of the stigma attached.
In high school, it was Kim who tormented me regularly. “That’s such an ugly skirt” was one of the mildest things she would say to me. It’s not very Christian of me, I admit, but I took pleasure in discovering she wasn’t the soccer star she bragged she would be, but rather was working at a pizza parlor ten years after graduation.
Now bullying has become the cause du jour. Not without good reason—it’s alarming how vicious bullying is, many times driving the victims to suicide or even homicide. But it can get confusing when we, as parents and educators, try to determine what exactly is bullying.
My gut reaction is to say “I know what it is when I see it”. But that’s not always true. A child hits another child and takes his lunch money. That is pretty clear bullying behavior. But is someone saying something mean to another person bullying? Yes and no. A one-time heated argument can’t really be classified as bullying. But an on-going, systemic pattern of behavior meant to hurt another person is bullying. The trick is identifying the context of the behavior.
So how exactly do you know when it’s time to be a strong advocate and protect your child? I don’t want to be “that mom” that calls the school over every little thing. The truth is, there will always be some conflict among children, and there will be teasing and name calling. I’m not saying it’s acceptable, but I do believe that we need to allow children space to work out conflict on their own before jumping in to fight their battles.
There are some obvious signs that your child is being bullied: coming home from school/camp/etc. with bruises or other signs of physical abuse; threatens suicide; fantasizes about hurting or killing certain classmates. But there are also more subtle signs you may not be aware of:
- Refusal to go to school/camp/etc.
- Emotional outbursts
- Unusual aggressive behavior towards siblings
- Regressive behavior (thumb-sucking, bed-wetting)
- Becomes more withdrawn or sad
- Talks poorly about themselves (“I hate myself”, “I’m ugly”, “I’m stupid”)
- Uses inappropriate language about themselves or others
- Lack of interest in schoolwork or other activities
If your child exhibits any of these behaviors, it’s time to sit down and have a good talk with them. Be patient—it’s hard for children to put their feelings into words sometimes. Perhaps encourage them to write them out in a letter or a journal. It can also be embarrassing, so be sure to let your child know that your love for them is unconditional.
You can also encourage your child to talk to another adult they respect, such as a teacher or a coach. You should also contact the school and ask to speak to a counselor or to the teacher about the situation. Get a copy of the organizations anti-bullying policy. If you really want to head bullying off at the pass, regularly monitor your child’s social networks. Cyberbullying is rampant and just as, if not more, destructive than behavior in-person.
If there is a positive aspect to the fact that bullying is such a hot topic it’s that it means there are more resources to turn to for help than ever before. You might want to check out a few of these for advice on helping your child cope with bullies:
I also recommend picking up Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabees, which, although written with older girls in mind, provides useful information for parents of younger children as well. I also like the American Girl® series of books, particularly A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendships. There seems to be a dearth of books geared towards boys, so if you recommend any, please add their titles in the comments section!