A child holds up a sign to cover their face. The sign shows a frowning face.
Your child may not tell you about the bullying. And in a world where your kiddo may be reached anywhere, any time with social media and texts, it’s important to know the signs of harassment. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The 1870s children’s rhyme of ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me’ has endured through the years, just as taunting and teasing have persisted.

The truth, however, is that words do carry power, the power to harm. And they are often a bully’s weapon of choice.

Bullying is sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, and its effects are long-lasting on children.

Phoebe Bell, MSW, a social worker at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital provides insight into how parents can identify bullying and help their kiddos escape from its grip.

Q: What is bullying?

  • Verbal taunting: Words can hurt. Bullies use insults, put-downs, and name-calling to shame others. Bullies can be controlling by getting bystanders to participate in the verbal attack.
  • Physical aggression: Bullies may push, hit, kick and provoke peers. Various forms of physical aggression are used by bullies to intimidate others.
  • Subtle offenses: Bullies can be sneaky about their bullying. This form of bullying is sometimes hard to catch because their actions are not always observable. For example, bullies might exclude a person from an activity or spread rumors.
  • Cyberbullying: Bullies might send damaging or threatening texts or e-mails. Cyber bullying is a significant concern in a social media-focused society.

Q: How will I know if my child is being bullied?

  • Change in mood: A typically happy and outgoing child becomes more withdrawn and quiet.
  • Change in behavior: A typically good listener becomes more argumentative and irritable.
  • Change in grades: A concerning drop in academic performance.
  • Change in attitude about school: A child who enjoyed school suddenly wants to stay home or frequently feels sick in the mornings.
  • Change in sleep: Difficulty sleeping at night.
  • Change in frustration tolerance: Difficulty managing everyday frustrations in age-appropriate ways.
  • Unexplained injuries upon returning home from school.
  • Damaged or “lost” personal belongings upon returning home from school.

Q: What can I do if my child is being bullied?

  • Be observant: Notice your child’s patterns so that you can easily detect any changes in mood or behavior.
  • Talk to your child: Shame and embarrassment can make children feel uncomfortable admitting they are bullied. Parents need to initiate the conversation in a gentle and caring way.
  • Engage your child: There are many life situations that can generate good discussion about positive and negative social interactions. Ask your child what they might do in those situations.
  • Teach your child: You are a powerful teacher for your child. Teach them how to respond to bullies productively. Role play together so they can learn how to walk away, tell school staff, or be assertive with words.
  • Shine the spotlight on your child: When you see or hear of your child being kind to others, praise them. Let them know how important this is.
  • Get involved: If the bullying problem persists, talk to the school principal. Be clear about what is happening, and advocate for a solution. Schedule a follow-up phone call or meeting with the principal to ensure the issue is adequately resolved.
  • Be curious about your child’s online activity: Parents need to balance respect for privacy with ensuring safety. Talk to your child about cyberbullying. Take note of who is communicating with them. Ask questions when appropriate, and trust your instinct.