Spot the Signs of Bullying

Worried that your child is being bullied? Here's how to tell

Teenager on phone

Whether it’s physical or verbal, the intimidation and abuse associated with bullying can take a hit on anyone's self-esteem—and that's especially true for children. 

Unfortunately, bullying is also prevalent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)’s 2017 report, about 20 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 were bullied at school. Additionally, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)—a scientific publication series prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—19 percent of high school students reported being bullied on school property during the last 12 months.

But whereas a child experiencing bullying at school might only have to endure abuse at school or in organized school activities, with the rise of social media, bullying is more widespread and permeating than ever before. The same NCES 2017 report said that about 15 percent of high school students said they had been cyberbullied over the past 12 months. 

How to Tell if Your Child is Being Bullied

Although bullying (online or in-person) can be hard for adults to spot, there are some common signs.

“Avoiding school or other activities that had previously been enjoyable might signal that a child is being bullied,” explains Denise Hildreth, Ph.D., program director of Hopkinton Youth and Family Services in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. “They might also complain of illnesses such as headaches or an upset stomach. Sometimes a child might truly not feel well because they’re nervous, upset, or worried. But they might also be trying to avoid school or other interactions with peers.”

Also, pay attention to their eating and sleeping habits. “If he or she suddenly changes eating habits, like skipping meals or binge eating, there might be an issue,” Hildreth explains. “Or a child may come home from school hungry from not eating lunch.” As for sleeping, take note if they have trouble falling or staying asleep, or are sleeping more than usual, as these could also signal a problem.

In addition to changing patterns at home, Hildreth lists other possible signs of bullying that parents should keep a close eye on:

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed personal items 
  • Declining grades or loss of interest in schoolwork
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting
  • Avoiding discussions about what they’re doing on their devices

While displaying one or a few of these signs might be concerning for parents, that doesn’t necessarily mean a child is being bullied. But it’s important to take note of changing behaviors to ensure children can get the help they need. 

How to Help

If you suspect a child might be the victim of bullying by their peers, your first instinct might be to confront the parent of the bully or bring it to a teacher or the principal’s attention. While this could be an effective strategy, it could also make things worse.  

First, Hildreth recommends having an open conversation with your child about your concerns. Start by simply talking and asking questions. How do they feel at school? Who do they hang out with? Do they need your support? Let them know that you have noticed some changes in their behavior and want to help them sort it out and feel better. Talking about getting bullied is an uncomfortable conversation for any child to have, so it’s important to approach him or her from a loving, gentle perspective and become an ally. Here are some tips to start: 

First of all, develop your relationship with your child so they feel like they can talk to you about anything. Ask specific questions about their day or talk about their interests. The more comfortable they are with you, the more likely it is that they’ll open up. 

  • If they do have that conversation with you, tell them you’re glad they said something. Stay calm and relaxed. Give him or her your undivided attention. Let them know you will get through it together.
  • See if you can pick up any specific details about the nature of the bullying. Is there a single bully, or several? Does the bully say mean things or physically hurt your child? Be understanding if they are reserved about the details, and validate their feelings. 
  • If you feel comfortable, tell a trusted teacher or nurse about the situation so they can monitor behavior at school. 
  • If you feel that your child is at risk of serious emotional or physical harm, enlist school administration by requesting a conversation, and consider making a formal report.

If you remain supportive of a child while he or she is being bullied, both by listening and taking action when necessary, you can help them build what Hildreth calls “mental sturdiness,” or mental toughness. It may also be helpful to enlist the help of a mental health professional to offer additional support, guidance, and strategies. 

For any questions regarding mental health coverage, benefits, or providers, please call the Mental Health/Substance Abuse phone number on the back of your member ID card.

Don’t forget you can visit the Behavioral Health section of 24/7 and access Magellan’s On To Better Health self-assessment tool.* This assessment offers confidential online access to self-help tools and resources proven to help emotional health and wellness. The resources include screening software and a resource library. Learn more.

*Magellan Behavioral Health, Inc., an independent company, manages mental health and substance abuse benefits for most Independence Blue Cross members