How can I tell if my child is having trouble with a bully? Are there any tell-tale signs? And if he is, how can I help him deal with the situation?
The first step is to approach your child directly with your concerns. You can start by asking questions like, "How are things going at school? Is anything – or anyone – giving you a hard time?" Keep in mind, however, that this may not be a smooth and easy process. Kids who are being targeted by bullies of any kind may have a number of reasons for keeping their distress under wraps. They may be ashamed or embarrassed. They may fear that there will be reprisals if they bring the situation to the attention of parents or school authorities.
Don't be surprised, then, if your child is reluctant to talk. If this is the case, you may need to be persistent in order to get at the facts. If you find he has been bullied, make sure he understands that you take it very seriously, that you intend to take appropriate action, and that keeping silent will only encourage the bully to continue what he's doing. You will need to get as many details as possible: who, when, where, and what happened. If there have been witnesses, gather information from them as well.
If your attempts at direct communication prove fruitless, keep an eye out for the following signs: unexplained emotional changes; depression and nervousness; anxiety, tearfulness, moodiness, and resistance to going to school; withdrawal, secrecy, and sadness; ongoing physical symptoms – especially headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue – that are invoked as a reason to stay home; overeating or a refusal to eat; an obsession with the phone or the computer; listlessness and loss of interest in favorite activities. The sudden onset of uncharacteristic behaviors such as stealing or lying could indicate that your child has become the victim of some form of extortion.
If you come to the conclusion that your child is indeed dealing with a bully, we recommend that you sit down with him and discuss the subject frankly and straightforwardly. Let him know that he's not alone. You can tell him that bullies often pick on kids in order to show power or gain status, or that they may acting out behavior they see modeled at home. But most importantly, you need to make it clear you are on his team and you do want to listen and help. Above all, help him see the injustice his experience. Don't allow him to blame himself for his troubles. Say something like, "This situation is not okay. No matter what the bullies are telling you, you've done nothing to deserve this kind of treatment. One way or another, we are going to put a stop to it."
In your efforts to come alongside your child, you will probably want to draw on the help of other trusted adults: school authorities, counselors, a pastor, a youth leader, a church elder, or a family friend. Make an effort to acquaint yourself with the culture of your child's school and to identify the teachers and administrators who have the most direct contact with the students. Make an appointment with the principal or administrator who is responsible for handling this type of problem. If possible, you may also want to arrange a meeting with the perpetrator and one or both of his parents in a school official's office. Whatever you do, don't leave your child in the position of facing this threat alone.
We realize, of course, that this may not be as easy as it sounds. Most bullies rule by fear, and it's likely that your son's bully has threatened to do something even worse if he tells on him. If that's the case, our advice would be to proceed with special care. Perhaps your son could look for an opportunity to let someone know, as discreetly as possible, what's going on. Maybe it would be possible for a school administrator or security person to keep an eye on the bully and catch him in the act – that way, he wouldn't know that your boy had anything to do with it.
If the situation requires it – for example, if the bullying has assumed a physical dimension or if there have been threats of violence – you should seriously consider the possibility of finding a new school or moving your child into a new environment. But don't jump at this option too quickly, since it may have the unintended effect of reinforcing the withdrawal symptoms and emphasizing your child's feelings of weakness, inadequacy, and fear. Ultimately, he will be a stronger and better person if he learns to face adverse circumstances with courage and confidence.
It's a well-known fact that bullies often pick on kids who don't seem to have many friends. If this is part of the problem, we'd suggest that you encourage your boy to put some effort into meeting new friends and beefing up his social life. Some school counselors actually run support groups where students have a chance to meet people and practice their social skills. This is important, since kids who have lots of friends and hang out in groups are less likely to be targeted by bullies. He may also want to consider taking a self-defense class. Many organizations such as the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club offer free or low-cost martial arts classes that help build a child's confidence. A trusted Physical Education teacher or coach might be able to provide referrals to such classes in your neighborhood.
Finally, feel free to call and discuss your son's situation with one of our licensed Christian counselors. They'd be happy to come alongside you in any way they can.
Strategies for Dealing With Bullying: Roland Warren offers five strategies parents can employ if their child is being bullied.