Bullying is a distressing reality in schools. Research shows at least one of every five children over the age of 12 admits to being bullied in school – being on the receiving end of unwanted, aggressive behavior that seeks to control or hurt someone.
Children who are bullied feel the effects of bullying in the present and often years down the road, experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety, complaints about their health, and a drop in school and social participation.
Tracy Maier, DO, is a pediatrician at Penn Fair Pediatric Group with Rochester Regional Health and points to some of the early signs of a child being bullied, what might be running through a child’s mind, and what adults can do to help.
While some children may shrug off bullies and bullying behavior, others are strongly affected by it. This can lead to noticeable changes in a child, both physically and emotionally.
These are some of the shifts in behavior that might indicate something is wrong at school.
Increased headaches or stomach aches: Anticipation of bullying can show up with physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or other pain. A child might even pretend to be sick or nauseous to avoid being in a situation that exposes them to bullying. If this starts to happen on a frequent basis, this may be a sign of bullying.
Changes in eating or sleeping habits: When a child shows a sudden shift in their interest in food or their ability to sleep, this might be cause for concern. For eating, this could look like a decreased appetite or eating significantly more than usual. For sleep, it could mean hardly getting any sleep or sleeping an unusually long time.
Sudden loss of friends: Most children experience some changes in their social groups in school. An abrupt drop-off of interaction with a child’s friend group, however, is abnormal. If a child stops talking about their friends for a couple weeks or they stop spending time with one another, this might be an indication that something happened that needs to be discussed.
Broken items or injuries: When bullying behavior becomes physical, clothing, electronics, or other personal items might be broken or destroyed as a result. The same applies for unexplained injuries. If a pattern starts to emerge where there are multiple broken items or multiple injuries and no one wants to talk about how it happened, a bully might be the culprit.
Self-destructive behaviors: When a child is in emotional pain, sometimes they will do things that try to dull or escape from that feeling. This might take the form of running away from home, self-harm, or contemplating suicide. These actions are often most alarming to parents and might warrant taking action right away.
Because bullying is so focused on one person or a group of people having physical and/or emotional control over another person, ensuring that a child has someone to confide in or simply be physically present with can be incredibly meaningful. Be that person for them whenever possible.
Asking questions like, ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘I noticed [this behavior] has been happening lately. Do you want to talk about it?’ might feel awkward or make them feel defensive. At the same time, pretending nothing is going on will not help the situation.
Staying calm, meeting their needs, and modeling respective behavior if other people are present are the best actions that an adult can take to help a child who is being bullied.
It might feel awkward or overbearing to intervene in a situation where bullying is happening. But data shows that when adults consistently respond to bullying behavior, over time it stops the behavior from happening.
“If any behaviors progress to the point where you are worried for your child’s immediate physical well-being, contact a professional immediately,” Dr. Maier said. “Providers at places like the Behavioral Health Access and Crisis Center are ready to provide help for the mental health of your child and family.”
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