Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley on how you can spot signs of bullying in kids
As a parent, it is our worst nightmare.
Finding out that your child is being bullied. Or feeling like this might be the case, but not really knowing, because your child isn't telling you. The finding out part, unfortunately in many cases, only happens when the bullying has been going on for some time.
I am myself on the cusp of those years where all these things suddenly can become an issue.
My little girl is nine, and although at the moment, the teen years still seem far away, I still feel like a whole new set of worries are creeping up. And a major one being the issue of bullying.
At the moment, she is part of an amazing class where they all get on, and are genuinely good friends. Most weeks, I have a frequent stream of these kids in my house and in my car, ferrying them back and forth between activities and birthday parties, and not once have I ever heard any of them speak of other classmates behind their back or ever saying a bad word about any of their friends. And it warms my heart. My little girl is part of a class and group of friends where they all really like and care about each other, and my hope and wish for her future is that that will continue forever.
However, this might not always be the case, and as she gets older, and gets her hands her own phone (which is still, by the way, years off), I am acutely aware how online bullying can happen, and suddenly, she might be interacting with and "making friends with" children and teenagers who I have not met and do not know – and this is where you, as a parent, start to lose your sense of control a little.
Being the parent of a tween or teen is a little terrifying. There is so much uncharted territory. And so many questions you might have that your tween or teen mightn't be offering up answers to.
Signs of bullying
If you are worried about bullying – wondering whether your child might be a victim of bullying, there are some signs to look out for, says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. We recently caught up with O’Malley, who is also an author of several books on the topic, to get the lowdown on how parents can be more aware and tuned into how to spot signs of bullying.
"Yes, there are absolutely things you can be on the lookout for if you suspect something is up with your child," O’Malley explains. "Sometimes, these signs come up rather suddenly, and you might notice them more because your child suddenly changes their behaviour. Other times, the signs creep up slowly, just like bullying itself."
Often, O’Malley explains, it doesn't start with full-on bullying, but will be something that creeps up, starting with remarks, mean comments and maybe exclusion.
"It can be really damaging psychologically, because things change so little by little, that it could lead a child to start questioning themselves as to whether they are imagining things or if this is really happening."
Other signs to look out for:
1. School refusal
If your child suddenly doesn't want to go to school, that can be a red flag, says O’Malley. Sometimes they don't come straight out and say that they don't want to go to school, but rather will tell you they don't feel well, their tummy hurts, they head hurts or they just feel unwell.
2. Damage to property
If you suddenly notice that some of your child's belongings go missing or come back from school broken, such as school bags, pencils or clothing, this should jolt you into asking some questions as to how this happened.
3. Behavioural changes
If your child suddenly changes their demeanour, and gets angrier, or suddenly seems more anxious or wary, this could be a sign something is troubling them.
Some children can become very hard on themselves and self-deprecating — which can be a sign that they are simply repeating what is being said to them by the bullies. Some children who are bullied can also suddenly start second-guessing their every move, and start feeling like they are not good enough or smart enough.
5. Worried about their looks or their clothing
If suddenly your child starts saying there is something wrong with their clothing or runners or school bag or anything else about their looks or what they wear, be aware that this could come from something having been said to them about this, and it might be time to start asking some questions.
What can YOU do?
If you worry your child might be bullied, it is only natural to feel a little helpless and frightened, says O'Malley. But there are things you can do – and while it is really important that the school is alerted, you, as a parent, will play an important part too.
"You are home, their safe space," she explains. "So make sure they know they can come to you with anything, and that you will be there for them."
And don't hesitate involving the school – they should and need to know straight away if bullying is happening.
All schools in Ireland today have anti-bullying policies in place, this is required by the Department of Education, and the outline of these should be easily accessible to parents, for instance on the school website.