So your child tells they’re getting picked on. Congratulations, you’re one of the lucky parents. While this is definitely upsetting information, you are very fortunate that they feel comfortable telling an adult, confiding in you. The reality is that many kids experiencing bullying are too scared or too ashamed to speak up. So how do you know if your kid is one of these silent victims? The situation may worsen as you wait for them to speak up (which may never happen), so it’s up to you to look for the signs.
What are the signs of bullying? They range from the physical—scratches, bruises, or indirect symptoms like head or stomach ache—to the psychological—sleep or appetite changes, disturbing or sad drawings or journal entries—to the social—loss of enthusiasm or isolation. Their academic performance may suffer. Their possessions may go missing. Any of these red flags on their own may not amount to much, but if you start seeing a pattern of several, pay attention. They may be unconsciously signaling to you that something’s wrong, or it may be a cry for help that they’re not sure how to voice.
Why is it so hard to speak up if you’re being bullied? The biggest reason seems to be fear of retaliation in the form of more bullying, or fear of being judged by adults or by peers. The tattle-tale stigma carries heavy weight for kids and can signal weakness and vulnerability to a bully. Your kid is probably ashamed and embarrassed that the bullying happened in the first place. They may feel helpless about the situation and not believe adult intervention will work or help. It’s also worth remembering that kids, especially adolescents, aspire to be more independent from adults and want to believe they can handle it on their own. All of these factors contribute to kids staying silent.
You sense something’s going on but they’re not telling. How to have the conversation? Practice these dos and don’ts of communication techniques:
Do ask simple, matter-of-fact questions. Don’t get emotional or reactive. Do listen, encourage, and affirm as they explain. Don't judge them or try to rationalize or minimize their experience.
OK, so they’ve told you the truth. Now what do you say and do?? Often this is the hardest part as each situation requires an individualized approach.
Thank them for their honesty and explain that bullying happens to lots of kids (maybe it even happened to you). It doesn't mean they're unlikeable or unloveable, it means they're up against another child whose own insecurities are guiding them. Help your child problem-solve and role-play ways to find a friend and/or safe adult if the situation surfaces again. Encourage them not to fight back, but to instead tell the bully or aggressor to Stop, and if they don't, to immediately seek an adult. And if need be, as a parent or adult who's aware of what's going on, don't hesitate to call or email any involved parent, teacher, or principle that can really help understand and put a stop to the aggression. Just as kids can fear being tattle-tales, parents can fear being helicopter-parents. Let's all get clear on the difference and not fear speaking up when it's called for.