The B Word, Part 1: Where’s the line between normal kid drama and bullying?

Raising Kids |

Parents often wonder: what’s the difference between ‘bullying’ and ‘normal schoolyard tiffs’?

It’s normal for children to not always get along. It’s not uncommon to see small conflicts in a classroom or within friendships. There will be times when your child may feel excluded, or be the recipient of an unkind word. These types of minor events we would classify as ‘typical kid stuff’. Bullying, however, is distinctive in that it is systematic, repeated targeting of a particular child by the same person or group of people. A child may be regularly excluded from games, be last to be chosen for teams or activities, and/or receive ongoing verbal attacks that can even escalate into physical violence or aggression.

Sometimes, this targeting will come from a person or people outside of the child’s friendship group. But bullying often originates within a friendship circle, in the form of ‘frenemies’, or toxic relationships.

Bullying can be:

-A systematic pattern of targeting behaviour that tends to escalate over time

-Alpha dog behaviour to jockey for position in the social hierarchy, minimizing the status of the victim to elevate the status of the perpetrator(s). This goes beyond one-off spells of moodiness or the occasional misbehaviour.

– Bullying can be exacted through:

  • Words (insults, mocking, goading and in older children and teens can be more subtle, manipulative criticism, judgment, hostility etc)
  • Actions (including eye rolling, snickering, excluding),
  • Physical Aggression (hitting or knocking over their things)
  • Online (taunting, aggression, teasing; ‘trolling’ the child’s posts, profile, DMs, photos and so on.)

Bullying is unsafe and it will not go away on its own.

Never take a ‘wait and see’ approach if your child is being bullied. Bullying should be dealt with immediately so it does not get worse. Persistent bullying in childhood can lead to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Regressed behaviours
  • Aggression
  • Self Harming behaviours
  • Suicide
  • Poor academic performance
  • Older kids: escapist behaviours (skipping classes, alcohol use, drug use)

How will you know if your child is being bullied?

Your child may not tell you that they are being bullied. This could be because:

  • The child does not realize it,
  • They don’t have the words to explain it (young children especially),
  • Fear, shame or embarrassment may be making the child reluctant.

Watch for changes in your child.

Your child may begin to exhibit signs of depression or anxiety, such as tearfulness, withdrawal and/or not wanting to go to school. A young child may display regressive behaviours like bed wetting or thumb sucking, and may not want to be separated from you or suddenly display signs of separation anxiety, upset to be left at preschool or kindergarten.

In older children, the signs can be more subtle. If the bullying is related to image or appearance, you might notice your child asking for different items of clothing or avoiding wearing things or playing with toys that you know they loved before.

In more extreme cases, you may notice physical signs like scratches, bruises or scrapes. If your child is coming home with injuries that can’t be reasonably explained, you need to find out why right away and take immediate measures to keep your child safe. That might mean keeping your child home from school until you get to the bottom of the problem. We’ll come back to this in our next post, when we discuss strategies to manage bullying that has escalated.

Here are some more subtle symptoms you may notice, particularly in an older child:

  • Irritability 
  • Easily frustrated with family or peers
  • Withdrawing from preferred activities
  • Isolating themselves from family and friends
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Afraid to go to school or extracurricular activities
  • Newly developed social anxieties

Start a conversation with your child in order to get the facts.

It can be tricky to get the full story. Your child may not want to talk about what’s going on. But you need to know if you’re going to be able to help them. Here are some strategies to get your child to open up about their experience:

  • Read a book: Go to the library and sign out some books about bullying. Check out some of the books we recommend in the resource section of this course. Read the book to your child, pausing to ask “Has anything like that ever happened to you?” “Do you know how that feels?”
  • Take a walk: Kids may find it easier to talk about difficult things when they’re outside. When you’re walking, you’re side by side, which can make things a little more comfortable (they don’t have to look you right in the eye). You could also try starting a conversation in the car—you aren’t face to face which can relieve some of the pressure, plus your child is likely free of distractions. A captive audience, so to speak.
  • Tell a personal story: If you were ever bullied or targeted in your youth, try telling your child about it. Search their face and watch their body language to see if the story seems to be striking a chord. If they look like they’re ready to talk, pause and see if they want to say something or offer any thoughts. This could be your segue into a conversation about what they’re going through. If they still say nothing, add “If anything like that ever happens to you I’d love to know. I hope you will tell me, because I can help you.”
  • Ask a sibling: If you have another child, you might want to ask them if they know what’s going on, as they may have seen or heard something school, or their sibling may have confided in them. Tell the sibling that it is important to tell you if someone is getting hurt, or in danger of getting hurt, even if it is a ‘secret’
  • Talk to the teacher/care provider: Go to your child’s daycare provider or teacher. Explain that you’ve observed changes in your child and that you’re worried bullying may be the cause. Ask if they’ve noticed anything going on, and ask them what the school policies are and how they plan to help.

Check our blog tomorrow for The B Word, part 2: How to make bullying stop.