Be aware of the following indicators that may indicate a child is being harassed:
- Injuries — unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches
- Torn, damaged or missing clothing or other belongings
- Anxiety, tearfulness, moodiness and resistance to going to school
- Ongoing physical symptoms — especially headaches, stomachaches or fatigue — that are invoked as a reason to stay home
If you are suspicious, ask questions that express your interest and concern: "How are things going at school? Is anything — or anyone — giving you a hard time?" Your child may be reluctant to reveal what has happened, and you may need to exercise some persistence to find out. If bullying has indeed occurred, make sure he understands that you take it very seriously, that you intend to take appropriate action and that keeping silent will only allow the bully to continue what he is doing. You will need to get as much information as possible: who, when, where and what happened. If there have been witnesses to the bullying, gather information from them as well.
Assuming that this has happened at school, make an appointment as soon as possible with the principal or administrator who is designated to handle this type of problem. Most likely this person will be ready and willing to put the heat on anyone who is involved in bullying, but he or she will need specifics. Tell the story but also provide information in writing, and be sure to take note of the response to your concern. You may want to arrange a meeting with the perpetrator and one or both of his parents in a school official's office. Your posture should be calm, but resolute: Look the bully in the eye and make it abundantly clear that even one further episode will bring disastrous consequences and that you expect his parents to cooperate.
If the harassment continues and the principal or parents of the perpetrator appear unwilling to take appropriate action, they should be put on notice that the problem may be taken to a higher level of school administration, an attorney, the police or all of the above. If the problem involves risks of extreme violence or gang activity, you will need to seek advice from law-enforcement personnel. In a worst-case scenario, a change of school (or home schooling) may be necessary to bring your child or adolescent through this situation in one piece. Do whatever it takes (within the bounds of the law) to protect your child's safety and self-respect.
What If Your Child Is Accused of Bullying?
Whatever you do, don't shrug it off (Hey, boys will be boys) or deny that there's a problem. Get the facts. You should get your child's side of the story, but also diligently seek input both from school officials and from whomever else was involved, including the victim(s) of the bullying. If the evidence (or your child's or teen's own admission) points to involvement in bullying, you will need to have a number of serious conversations:
You must make it clear not only that this behavior is unacceptable, but that if continued, it will lead to serious consequences imposed by you, the school and possibly the law.
You will need to contact the parents of the victim(s) involved to apologize and express your determination to prevent further episodes. As a gesture of integrity and courage, you might want to arrange a meeting with the other family at an appropriate location so that a formal apology can be made by your child, as well as an offer of restitution for any expenses (involving medical care or property damage) related to the incident(s).
If others have been involved in bullying — perpetrators often act in groups — you should take the lead in contacting their parents to encourage corrective and restorative action.
If your child or teen has been involved in multiple bullying incidents, you should arrange for him to undergo counseling, both for evaluation and prevention of further episodes. Other issues — depression, drug use, impulse control and even prior victimization (since some bullies have been bullied themselves) — may need to be addressed. This is a family issue, so be prepared to participate in some important discussions in the counselor's office yourself.