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Warning Signs of Bullying: Is Your Child Being Bullied?

Bullying isn't always easy to see - if you don't know the signs of bullying, you may not realize that your child is being bullied.

As a parent, you want what’s best for your child. But if they’re being bullied in school or online, they may not want to tell you about it. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to protect them, though. By watching for signs of bullying, you can intervene and help them deal with the situation.

Bullying and Cyberbullying

Most parents are aware of bullying. You may have experienced it yourself. Bullying is often defined as unwanted aggressive behavior towards someone that involves a perceived power imbalance (whether or not that imbalance actually exists) and is either repeated or has the potential to be repeated.

People often think of bullying as pushing, hitting, name-calling, and physical violence. But it can also include making threats, spreading rumors, intentional exclusion, telling others not to interact with the victim, breaking or stealing their stuff, or doing anything that makes the child feel threatened. The psychological aspect is an important part. It’s not just what the bullies do, it’s that they make victims feel unsafe and constantly under threat.

Cyberbullying, like the name implies, is bullying done through electronic tools. It can use text messages, messaging apps, online instant messages or direct messages, social media, forums, email, online games, or any place where people can communicate online.

Obviously a bully can’t physically hit someone over the internet. So the tactics cyberbullies use are different. They might publicly say mean things, or make up and share false things to embarrass the victim or damage their reputation. They might publicly share private or secret information to humiliate the victim. Or they could harass the victim privately by sending mean, cruel, or threatening messages. Sometimes they get a bunch of different people to send these messages, and sometimes they create multiple accounts so their target feels like a lot of people hate them.

Why Cyberbullying is Especially Terrible

Being bullied is always an awful experience for a child. But cyberbullying can be especially bad because they can’t escape it. If a child is being bullied at school, they may hate school, but the bullies don’t come home with them. With cyberbullying, the tools the bullies use are the same tools kids must use every day. They need to use email and text to communicate, social media to keep up with friends, and the internet to do schoolwork. They have to choose between experiencing the bullying and being completely isolated.

Another difficulty is that stuff on the internet doesn’t go away. It can be really difficult to undo the damage of a bully’s public posts online, even if they aren’t true. Depending on what the bullies are posting, these harmful posts can have consequences for a child for years.

Finally, cyberbullying is much harder for concerned adults to see. If a bully is being physically violent to your child, you can see the injuries. You can observe missing or broken things if a bully is stealing or destroying them. If a bully is calling them names or excluding them at school, teachers can notice. When it’s all online, you may not see it happening. If you’re not aware of the signs of bullying, you may not notice what your child is going through – or you may notice that something is wrong but not know what.

Why Don’t Kids Just Ask for Help?

If bullying is such a terrible, traumatic thing for a child to go through, why is it important that parents watch for signs of bullying? Children can easily recognize that what they’re going through is unpleasant. Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage kids to talk to parents or teachers about what they’re going through?

Unfortunately, bullying is a complicated emotional issue. There are lots of reasons kids might not want to tell anyone about it. Bullying makes the victim feel weak and helpless. They may worry that if they can’t handle it on their own, their peers may think they are weak and helpless, or they might get branded a tattletale. Or they might feel that they need to save themselves to prove that they’re not weak. They may also fear backlash from the bully, which is a real risk.

Bullying is also humiliating. A bullied child may not want adults to know what’s being said about them. They could also fear retaliation from the adults they went to for help. If the bully exposed their secrets, they may worry their parents will punish them when they find out what secrets the child was keeping. Or they could worry about adults punishing, judging, or shaming them for being weak and getting bullied in the first place.

Ultimately, bullying makes victims feel isolated. A bullied child may feel like no one would understand what they’re going through. Or they may feel that there’s no point in telling anyone about it because nobody cares enough to help them.

Watch for These Signs of Bullying

Many bullying tactics aren’t easy for parents to spot. Especially if they happen online, you may not know they are happening. But bullying is extremely difficult for kids to go through, and they will show signs of bullying that you can spot. Every child handles things a little differently, and no two kids shows signs of being bullied the exact same way. That’s why it’s important to know what kinds of signs might show up and pay attention. Whether the bullying is in person or through the internet, there will be signs. If anything seems out of the ordinary or unusual for your child, investigate.

Physical Signs of Bullying

If your child is being bullied by someone they see in person, watch out for physical signs of bullying. Injuries they can’t explain, or where their explanation doesn’t seem to match the injury, could be a sign that they are experiencing physical violence. If they frequently lose or break things, such as clothing, books, tech devices, or accessories, the culprit might be a bully stealing or destroying them.

The stress and psychological toll of bullying can lead to physical illness, as well. Signs of bullying in your child could include frequent (or more frequent than usual) headaches, stomachaches, or other stomach or digestive issues. They also might feel generally “sick,” or catch illnesses like colds more frequently. Anxiety and stress can cause all of these symptoms. Faking being sick is also a warning sign of bullying. Even if the bullying is online, faking illness to get out of going to school is a common symptom of bullied kids.

Eating and Sleeping Challenges

Bullying can also cause changes in a child’s eating or sleeping habits. A bullied child may suddenly start eating a lot less and showing little interest in food. Or they may start eating a lot more than usual or sneaking snacks. They may also come home from school hungry because they didn’t eat lunch – either because a bully stole it or because they wanted to avoid seeing people in the lunchroom.

Sleeping challenges can be a sign of bullying, as well. The stress can cause insomnia, difficulty sleeping, poor quality sleep, or frequent nightmares. This could result in your child being always tired. Some children who are being bullied even regress to bedwetting. If your child has any of these symptoms, pay attention. Even if they’re not signs of bullying, they could be symptoms of a serious medical issue.

Avoiding or Disliking School

If your child is being bullied at school, or being bullied online by someone they see at school, they won’t want to go to school. They might declare that they don’t want to go to school or fake being sick to stay home. Or their avoidance of school could show through a loss of interest in schoolwork, skipping school without telling you, or suddenly expressing more negative thoughts and feelings about school. They might even talk about what’s happening without using the word “bullying.” Common ways kids talk about being bullied are by saying there is “drama” at school or that other kids are “messing with” them.

Declining grades could also be a sign that your child is being bullied. A child under stress has a hard time focusing and learning new things. And if the bully is at school, they may be more focused on avoiding the next attack than on learning.

Warning Signs in Online Habits

With cyberbullying especially, signs of bullying can show up in your child’s device use and reactions to being online. Kids being bullied online may start using their devices less to avoid the bullying. But they may also suddenly start using them significantly more in an effort to combat the bullies’ attacks. Sudden or dramatic changes in device use means something is going on.

Changing behavior around device use and online activities can also be a warning sign. If your child deletes social media accounts and starts new ones with different names, they are most likely being cyberbullied. There is rarely a reason for a child to do this unless they are trying to hide from an online bully. Hiding their devices when you’re around or trying to keep you from glimpsing their screen is another behavior to watch out for.

Finally, watch their emotional state and reactions to being online. If your child seems upset, angry, or otherwise emotional when they are online, it could mean they are being bullied. If you notice they seem anxious or on edge when their device makes a notification sound, that could indicate they’re expecting the notification to be something upsetting. Being overly emotional, on edge, upset, angry, irritable, or aggressive after using a device is another sign. It’s normal for kids to occasionally become upset about something on the internet. But if you’re noticing a consistent pattern, it could be a sign of bullying.

Emotional Signs of Bullying

Changes in your child’s mood are one of the most common signs of bullying. Pay attention to any new behavior that’s not typical for your child. They may become anxious, clingy, sullen, withdrawn, moody, sad, irritable, or depressed. You may also notice decreased self-esteem, increased self-blame, or that they feel not good enough.

Skipping school activities, claiming activities are canceled when they’re not, and losing interest in activities they normally enjoy are warning signs. It’s normal for interests to change as kids get older, but they generally change gradually. If the change is sudden or if they are losing interest in a lot of things and not getting new interests to replace them, something is probably wrong.

Sudden and unexplained isolation is also a warning. You may notice that they seem to suddenly spend less time with their friends, or seem to have less friends overall. They may avoid social interaction and stop talking about their friends. If you ask about their friends, they may say they don’t have any.

Some kids, especially teens, may turn to vaping, drugs, or alcohol if they are being bullied. Kids of all ages might display self-destructive behaviors like self-harm, running away, or talking about suicide. Giving away a lot of their stuff, including prized possessions, is an urgent warning sign – it could mean they are planning suicide.

You should be concerned if you see any of these signs in your child. Even if they aren’t being bullied, these symptoms could be from an underlying mental health issue, and they need professional help.

What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids

Bullying is a complicated problem. But just because you can’t always see what’s going on doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Watch out for signs of bullying. Be aware if your child shows signs of being bullied. And if your child has mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, or talking about suicide, take them to a doctor.

In addition, be a safe space for your child. If they tell you that something is going on, don’t get mad – be on their side. And have conversations. Ask how they feel about school, and ask about their friends. If they hate school or say they don’t have friends, find out why. Let them know you want to help. And if they resist talking, don’t let it go. Keep trying to have those conversations. They are hard but they are so worthwhile.

If your child is being bullied, check your local laws. All US states legally require schools to have some sort of bullying response. See what your laws have and allow. You can also talk to school administration and see what resources are available. If the bullying crosses the line into illegal behavior, you can go to the police.

You can also check your children’s devices. Older kids may resist, in which case you can offer to look together. Remind them that you’re only looking for hurtful content. If you find evidence of cyberbullying, document it with screenshots. Most laws state that it only counts as bullying if it’s repeated, so having documented evidence is helpful.

Finally, support your child. It’s a very hard time for them. And even though you want to help, bullies may retaliate for you getting involved, which could make it temporarily worse. Be there, support them, and be on their side.

Parental Control Software Can Help

Parental control software is another option that can help you protect your child. These software let you monitor what’s going on with your child’s devices. With a parental control software, you won’t have to wait until bullying takes enough of a toll to show in your child’s behavior. You can see if they’re getting bullied online and intervene earlier.

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