Updated: May 21, 2019
Now that the school year has begun, there is excitement in the air. But, as most of us have experienced in our lives, there can be less-desirable consequences to returning to school; being the “new kid”, looking or dressing “differently”, or even being “smart” can all result in unwanted, negative attention. With bullying statistics at a record high, it is important to identify some of the signs that your child may be the victim of mistreatment, intimidation, and/or harassment. While any of these signs in isolation may not indicate any serious involvement with bullying, if you become aware of two or more, opening a dialogue with your child or teen about their experiences may be helpful.
1.) Not Wanting to Attend School: Even though a number of teens at this age may not be overly enthusiastic to go to school, a change in their motivation to attend may signal that something is amiss. A reluctant attitude, including difficulties in getting up in the mornings, especially on Monday mornings (after a weekend at home, in a “safe” environment) may indicate that your teens is experiencing social difficulty at school.
2.) Obsession or Withdrawal from Electronic Devices: In Canada, 1 in 5 users aged 15 to 29 have been the victim of cyberbullying or cyberstalking. If your teen is being bullied online, chances are the time they spend on their phone, tablet, or laptop will change significantly. Your teen may develop an obsession with their device, checking it constantly for any recent activity. Or they may completely withdraw from it. Talking to your teen about cyberbullying is important in helping them to deal with any potential problems online, and threatening to take their device away may in fact exacerbate the issue; if your teen is afraid of having their device taken away, they may be reluctant to reach out for help.
3.) Changes in Sleep Patterns: If you notice that your teen has not been sleeping as well as usual, or they have been experiencing persistent nightmares, this may be related to mistreatment at school. If your teen is also depressed, which is common in victims of bullying, insomnia is often a symptom. Anxiety can also be found in those who have been bullied, which can lead to changes in sleep patterns too. If you notice that your teen is more tired than usual, talk to them about potential causes.
4.) Intense Emotional Reactions: Sometimes people of any age will misdirect their emotions. Have you ever had a bad day at work, and then come home and reacted emotionally to a mundane comment that a family member or spouse has made? Teens have the tendency to do the same thing, especially if they are having problems at school. If your teen is generally an “even-keel” kind of person, and you find that there is a growing frequency of intense emotional reactions to situations that may not usually provoke it, it may be a sign that they are experiencing stressful or emotional situations at school, they just haven’t found a healthy way to cope and process the events. Providing a safe space or outlet for them to “vent” could help to open the conversation about their experience.
5.) Fewer Emotional Reactions: While some people tend to respond to bullying with an increase in emotion, the opposite can also be true. If you find that your teen, who is usually outspoken, energetic, and emotionally responsive, become quieter than usual, shut down, withdrawn, or walk with their head down, they may be trying to deal with the bullying by not feeling anything at all. In these instances, try not to force your teen to talk to you, but make it apparent that you are there for them if/when they are ready.
6.) Unexplained Loss of Property: If you find that your child has lost their lunchbox, is in need of school supplies (even though you just bought a years-worth last month), or can’t find the new headphones that they got for Christmas, an easy and common reaction would be to become annoyed at their “carelessness”. If you can attempt to control these common knee-jerk reactions, and investigate the issue further, you may find that your teens property is not being lost at all, but rather stolen, broken, or misused by another person who is has targeted your son or daughter to bully.
7.) Bullying Behaviour Towards Others: Although it is less likely that your teen will start to bully their friends or peers, they may begin to act out instead towards their family members, often their siblings. If your son or daughter normally has a caring and positive relationship with a sibling, and you find that it has turned reactive, resulting in arguments, fighting, name-calling, or put-downs, it is possible that your teen is taking out their frustration, or trying to gain “control” over the bullying that they experience at school, by bullying someone else at home. This is a definite time to open up a conversation.
8.) Physical Marks, Bruises, Cuts, or Scrapes: These can be some of the most obvious signs of bullying, but may take a keen eye to notice. Even things like ripped clothing or sore muscles/joints can indicate that your teen is being bullied at school. Asking open ended questions such as, “What happened today at school/lunch/after school?” and providing a supportive environment for your teen to talk to you can be helpful for your teen to feel comfortable in opening up.
Always remember – If your teen is the victim of bullying, they may experience deep feelings of shame, low self-confidence, embarrassment, and lose their own sense of control over their lives. These issues compound the difficulty for them to speak up, so always approach the topic of bullying from a stance of openness, support, understanding, and love.