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Spotting the Signs of Bullying

If you suspect or discover that your child has been the victim of bullying, then you may be wondering what you can do and where you should turn. Often children will hide the fact that they are being bullied, either because they are ashamed and embarrassed, or because they don’t want to worry or upset their parents. This can make it difficult for parents to determine whether their child is being bullied or not. So how can you spot the signs of bullying? What should you be looking out for, and what changes might you notice at school or at home? Here’s everything you need to know:

What is bullying?

Bullying can happen to anyone anywhere, though it is particularly common in school environments. 29% of teenagers in the UK report that they have been bullied. There is no legal definition of the term bullying, but it is generally understood to be behaviour that is repeated with the sole intention of hurting, upsetting or undermining someone. Bullying can be physical (being hit or injured), verbal (being called names) or emotional (being made to feel insignificant or ‘other than’). In our increasingly digital age, bullying can also take place online or via mobile phone: this is known as cyberbullying. Sometimes there is a clear reason why children are being targeted for bullying. Often children are bullied as a result of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, disability or appearance. Often there is no clear reason as to why a child has been singled out by bullies.

Bullying is a serious issue because it can cause short-term and long-term damage to an individual’s physical and mental well-being. Talking and listening to your children is the best way to raise the topic of bullying. Even if your child is not being bullied, it’s important that they are aware of what bullying is and the impact that it can have. By talking about bullying with your child, they will be more likely to talk to you if they are being bullied, and understanding the impact that bullying has in this way will also mean that they are less likely to become bullies themselves. Often children understand concepts better when they are given clear and tangible examples. Some examples of bullying you might want to share with your child include:

  • Teasing another child or group of children, calling them names, or saying rude or mean things, often including the use of offensive language
  • Consistently and deliberately leaving a child or group of children out of your games and activities. Isolating that child or group of children and encouraging other children to do the same
  • Starting rumours about someone else or spreading stories that would hurt their feelings
  • Playing mean or nasty practical jokes on another child
  • Engaging in physical bullying. This could mean pushing, tripping or hitting them
  • Taking or damaging someone else’s property
  • Sending mean or threatening messages to another child via a digital medium (like a text message or email)
School children teasing another child

Why it is important to spot the signs of bullying

It is no understatement to say that bullying ruins lives. Bullying poses a significant barrier to learning, meaning that children who are bullied find it harder to achieve academically than those who are not. Bullying can seriously affect the victim’s mental health, both in the long and the short term. And bullying can change the way in which victims feel about themselves. It’s also important to note that, occasionally, victims of bullying can retaliate in extreme and aggressive ways: In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

For these reasons and so many more, it is important to stop bullying from occurring as soon as possible, because it can negatively affect the mental and physical health of your child. If your child tells you that they are being bullied, then it is important to take them seriously and to act on their behalf. You should work together, both with your child and with the school, to find a solution to the bullying which ensures your child feels safe and secure.

Physical signs of bullying

Some obvious physical signs of bullying that you should look out for in your child include:

  • Coming home from school with cuts, scratches or bruises above and beyond what you might expect from normal sporting activities (cut knees are common in children that play football, for example)
  • Coming home from school with clothes that appear to have been ripped and torn
  • Regularly coming home with missing property, particularly if this is high-value property. If your child loses their pencil case once, this is likely to be a simple accident, but if they come home without their pencil case for three days in a week (and you keep buying a replacement one) then this should be considered an indicator of possible bullying
  • Regularly coming home with missing property, particularly if this is high-value property. If your child loses their pencil case once, this is likely to be a simple accident, but if they come home without their pencil case for three days in a week (and you keep buying a replacement one) then this should be considered an indicator of possible bullying
  • If a child begins bedwetting then this is also a clear sign of emotional turmoil and should be interpreted as an indicator that a child may be being bullied
  • School refusal or finding excuses not to go to school (such as complaints about headaches or tummy aches) are also common among children that are being bullied
  • Requests for money or other items. This could be cash, goods, or even extra treats in their lunchbox. If your child is asking for things that seem unusual, it could be that their bully has asked them to give them these things, and this is worth further investigation

Behavioural signs of bullying

When a child is being bullied it can change their whole personality. Previously outgoing and confident children can become withdrawn, anxious and weepy. As well as being withdrawn at school, it is also common for children that are being bullied to withdraw at home, as a protection or self-preservation mechanism. They may not want to share their confusing thoughts and feelings with you. Behavioural signs that your child is being bullied that you should look out for include:

  • Withdrawing and spending more time alone. As well as isolating themselves from their family (which is normal behaviour in teenagers, to some extent) they may also start to isolate themselves from their friends
  • Feeling angrier than usual and being more prone to angry outbursts is very common in children that are being bullied
  • Other emotional reactions to be aware of are that children who are being bullied are more prone to being upset, teary and displaying other symptoms of anxiety, where they do not have any pre-existing anxiety diagnosis
  • Children who are being bullied may become withdrawn and secretive, and this may be particularly noticeable at the end of the weekend or school holidays before the child has to return to school
  • Withdrawing from after-school clubs, activities and even play dates with their friends that they previously enjoyed
  • Avoiding social media or becoming anxious about using their phone, or the whereabouts of their phone or other electronic devices
Behavioural changes in children

Changes at school and at home

Whilst you are more likely to notice many of the changes detailed above before you notice a change in your child’s schoolwork, often grades and academic performance are also negatively impacted by bullying. It may well be that your child’s teacher notices these changes before you do, and contacts you to discuss them directly. This is not unusual and does not reflect negatively on your parenting skills. Some of the changes that you, or your child’s teacher, may notice in school include:

  • A sudden change in academic performance with no obvious explanation
  • No longer wanting to be in school. This could include reduced school attendance, complaining about feeling unwell in school to get away from the classroom, or spending more time in the school nurse’s office
  • Regularly turning up without key items, such as textbooks or lunch, that could have been stolen by another pupil
  • Turning up at school with broken or damaged possessions such as broken bags, books, or ripped or torn uniforms
  • Dropping out of after-school clubs or extracurricular activities that they previously enjoyed

Not all of these signs mean that your child is being bullied. There are other explanations for a change in a child’s behaviour and attitude, so it is worth getting the whole picture before jumping to the conclusion that your child is being bullied. But bullying awareness is also important, so it is worth considering this as an option. Before you start to discuss bullying with your child you should ask the following questions:  Is there anything else bothering my child? Have there been significant changes at home like the arrival of a new baby, divorce or separation? If the answer to these questions is no, and you suspect that your child may be being bullied then the earlier you can act the better.

How to help bullying victims

Now that you’ve established that you suspect your child may be being bullied, it’s time to spring into action and look at how you can help your child to process and deal with this difficult situation. Your primary role is to support your child and to act as their comfort blanket and their safety net. You will be supporting your child simply by listening to them and letting them know that they are not alone. You should put your own feelings aside when listening to your child, allowing them to talk without getting angry or upset: the focus should be on their thoughts and feelings rather than your own, and actively listening to your child will be the best way to ascertain what kind of support then need

Beyond this, some of the most important ways that you can help your child include:

  • Approaching the school on their behalf. Often children lack the confidence needed to approach their teachers and let them know they are being bullied. If the bully has told them not to tell anyone, they may even feel that telling a teacher will make the problem worse. However, it is important to inform the school and to work with them to find a solution to the bullying problem
  • Avoid telling your child to hit or call names back. Two rights don’t make a wrong, and often this pressure to retaliate in a physical way will only make children that are being bullied feel more stressed and anxious
  • Keep a diary of each incidence of bullying. Write down who is involved, when and where the bullying occurred and what happened. This will be very helpful for the school when you approach them
  • Encourage your child to join in with activities outside of school or the environment where they are being bullied. Build their confidence in other arenas by enjoying family activities, or even enrolling them in non-school-based after-school clubs, such as dance or drama. Some children who are being bullied find self-defence classes useful, as self-defence can help them feel empowered, and that they are proactively doing something to help themselves

Where to access help

The first place you should go for help is your child’s school. All schools are legally required to have an anti-bullying policy which provides guidance on their obligations and what support they can offer.  Maintain contact with the school, informing them of each and every instance and ask them to keep you informed of what they are doing to prevent the bullying from occurring. If you are unsatisfied with the response from your child’s school, or if they make you feel like an inconvenience or a troublemaker, your next steps should be to contact the Headteacher, Governors, Education Department and Ofsted. This is a clear sign to your child that you are taking their concerns seriously, and that you are doing everything you can to help and support them.

Other organisations that are a wealth of advice and support for the parents and carers of children who are victims of bullying include:

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