Bullying: How to Identify the Signs and Help our Kids

Published on: May 06, 2019

What is bullying, what are the signs and what should I do if I suspect my child is being bullied? Madiha draws on her background in psychology and counseling, as well as her experience with her own daughter, to explain. By Madiha Anas As a person with obsessive-compulsive personality patterns, any time I embarked on a new journey, whether it was selecting disciplines at my various schools, shopping or taking a medicine, I relied on literary research to make informed choices. I over planned and read for my pregnancy too, but soon discovered that some things just happen and no book can actually prepare you for them.
With no absolute answers, at times we mess up.
Since then, motherhood has taught me, on repeat, the humility that I needed. Indeed, there is only so much planning we can do before we have to accept that we are vulnerable and imperfect. Children come without a user’s manual and with unbelievable intricacies and an extreme dependency on their parents. When we protect them, we ask ourselves if we are overdoing it. When we let them face the sun, we wonder if we are putting them in harm’s way. With no absolute answers, at times we mess up. And just like that, I messed up. It all began when we ignored my 9-year-old’s daily complaints that some girls at her school were ganging up on her and that no one was standing up for her. Against my better judgment, I treated it as “girls and their dramas” and kept telling my daughter just to avoid them. The complaints turned into tantrums and an outright refusal to go to school. Again, I dismissed this as normal acting out / childish behavior. As a counselor-in-training, this was a significant error on my part. I work with teenagers who suffer from eating disorders, depression and self-mutilating behavior, often as a result of traumatic relational experiences at school. Yet somehow a protective part of my mind failed to see that my 9-year-old daughter was going through something similar. Since we often associate “bullying” with harm inflicted on an individual because of a known or perceived “defect” (meaning they are of a different race, differently abled etc.), we overlook the fact that children who otherwise appear “normal” can also become targets of bullying simply because of some children’s need to create a power imbalance.
We cannot assume that they possess the heroic powers to fight for themselves when they clearly do not have the tools.
Incidentally, I would understand all of this better the day I randomly walked into a situation at school and saw first hand how everything my daughter had been complaining about was so real! I intervened and later discussed everything with my daughter’s teachers. I quickly learned that, like us, her otherwise well-intentioned teachers had also treated events at school as “girls being girls”. As in most such cases, the mob behavior had occurred during recess and at times when fewer adults were watching. The important discourse here is that, even though we know that nobody emerges from childhood completely unharmed, a family’s principal duty is to protect each of its members, mentally, physically and emotionally. We must not ask our children to accept emotional abuse from their peers as if it is an unpreventable natural disaster. Moreover, we cannot assume that they possess the heroic powers to fight for themselves when they clearly do not have the tools. As with any training, first we must model for them how to defend and protect ourselves. I have used this experience to help parents understand what bullying is. Even though some children are at greater risk of being bullied (because they are overweight or underweight, perceived to be weak, perceived to have low self-esteem and/or few friends etc.), any child can become isolated and find themself a target. Unlike my daughter, many children will not go home and tell their parents that they are being bullied. It is therefore imperative that we, as parents, look out for subtle signs.
Listen to your child and give weight to their emotions.
Signs of bullying include:
  • unexplained or poorly explained injuries;
  • loss of personal belongings;
  • frequent reports of bodily pain (headaches, stomachaches, overall feeling of being tired etc.);
  • difficulty sleeping;
  • changes in eating habits that do not appear related to growth spurts;
  • resistance to go to school.
If you see any of these signs, in any combination, it is time to ask questions. Bullies take advantage of brief encounters at school when adults are not watching. Because of this, your child’s teacher may not even be aware that bullying is taking place. Encourage your child’s school to talk to the children about kindness, consequences and how to apologize in a constructive manner, by pairing words with actions to make things right. Lastly, listen to your child and give weight to their emotions, something I failed completely to do in this instance. Since my intervention, I have watched the signs of anxiety and the daily resistance to go to school disappear almost magically from my daughter’s behavior and witnessed a return of normalcy in our home and daily life.  

About the Author

Madiha is currently working towards a Master of Education in Counseling from the University of Houston. She also holds a master’s degree in psychology. Before moving to the US with her husband and deciding to start a family, she taught psychology at a renowned university in Pakistan. She is an avid reader and an author and has a great interest in literature. She also loves doing crafts and other creative arts with her two daughters.  
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