My Kid is being Bullied

There are many ways to interrupt the education of a child but none is as effective as the combination of fear and shame that come from being bullied.  For parents, learning that your child has been made miserable at school by bullies is painful. You feel his pain and misery and relive all the unfairness and horror of being ridiculed or wary of attacks that can come at any time.

Part of the difficulty is finding out what's happening. Most kids won't open up to their parents and try to avoid or endure until it's gone on much too long.  So the first job of parents is trying to determine what actually is happening.  Second comes making it stop.  Third would be assessing your child's emotional stress and trauma and deciding whether he needs additional support.  I use he in these examples but girls are bullied as well.  Much girl-on-girl bullying is relational but it can also be physical.

There is no surefire way to identify a child being bullied since each of the signs could have another cause.  But if as a parent you notice some of the following, bullying could be a problem. (from
  • Comes home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, or other belongings
  • Has unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches
  • Has few, if any friends, with whom he or she spends time
  • Seems afraid of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers (such as clubs)
  • Takes a long, illogical route when walking to or from school
  • Has lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school
  • Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he or she comes home
  • Complains frequently of headaches, stomach aches or other physical ailments
  • Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams
  • Experiences a loss of appetite
  • Appears anxious and suffers from low self-esteem
If you suspect bullying, the first step is trying to find out what's happening from your child.  He may not want to talk about it but ask him about his day:
  • Who do you eat lunch with?  Where?
  • How is your bus ride (or walk to school)?  Who do you sit with?
  • How do other kids behave on the bus, in the classroom, in the hallways or at recess or lunch?
  • Are there kids you don't like?  Why?
Teachers can share insights into what's happening in the classroom.  Ask.  If he gets in trouble for disrupting, ask the teacher if he's instigating problems or seems to be reacting to them.   Does the teacher see him alone and withdrawn or social and engaged?

If you are convinced your child is a victim of bullying, talk with the principal or vice-principal.  (Be aware that it's also possible your child IS the bully or takes both roles -- bully and victim -- at school.)  Schools have an obligation to protect your child while he's at school or on the bus.  Ask the principal the following questions:
  • Have you investigated the incidents we reported?  If so, how did you investigate them (interviewed students, staff, other evidence)?  If not, what will you be doing to investigate?
  • What anti-bullying programs are you using?  Do you have any evidence of their effectiveness?
  • How are playgrounds, hallways and cafeterias supervised during the day?  Who does the supervision and can we ask them what they see regarding my child?  Are there places and times that are unsupervised?  How can that be remedied?
  • What can you do to protect my child?  How will you ensure there is no retribution for him reporting the bullying?
  • Do you have a harassment or sexual harassment complaint form?  What will happen if I file a complaint against the student?  (sometimes complaints are against staff as well for negligence in allowing bullying to happen)
  • Can you arrange a meeting between the parents of the students involved?
  • Is there an adult on campus he connects to who can mentor him?
In your passion to protect your child though, there are some limits to what a parent can or should do.
  • The principal cannot tell you information about the alleged bullies.  Student information is confidential so don't expect to find out what the discipline history of the other child is.  
  • Ask if you can meet with the parents of the alleged bully, with the principal or a counselor present.
  • Don't ask for a meeting with the children (bully and victim) both present.  Bullying implies a power imbalance and such a face-to-face meeting can reinforce the roles.
  • Don't belittle your child for not fighting back and don't tell him to stoop to the tactics of the bullies.  Talk to him about taking the high road, reassure him that his responses to the abuse are supported and that you are proud of him for being so strong.  Don't tell him to fight back (physically).  For one thing, you're telling him that what he's done so far has been wrong.  For another, you're validating the bullies' behavior by copying it.
  • Do be aware that nearly every bully sees himself as a victim.  In many years of experience as an administrator, I can't recall a single aggressor who didn't protest that he was insulted or attacked first.  Be open to the possibility that your child may not be the victim, hard as that is to swallow.
Once the bullying has been addressed and has hopefully stopped, your work is not done.  Your child may have lingering insecurities, fears, trauma or shame. Be aware of his moods and consider connecting him with a trusted counselor or well-led group at school. Involvement in extracurricular activities can help him feel he belongs also -- sports, band, drama, speech, chess club or whatever your school offers that touches his interests.  Involved kids have support groups and are less targeted.

Also consider whether the bullying could be related to something more.  Does he behave differently than his peers and do they target him for that reason?  Is he gay or perceived as gay?  Does he have Asberger's syndrome, social anxiety or depression?  Does he struggle with schoolwork at his current level of instruction?  Is he way ahead of his peers intellectually or academically?

As a parent, you will travel the emotional roller coaster from pain for your child to frustration at the situation and perhaps anger.  Keep in mind though that you must be his supporter, reminding him of his strengths and (if he has not reacted poorly) your pride in how he has managed the problem so far.