The start of an academic year is usually exciting for most children—new classes, new friends and new teachers—but for those who worry about bullying, it can be a recipe for a daily routine of stress and anxiety.
It is estimated that one in four kids across the U.S. are bullied. But they are often afraid or hesitant to tell anyone they are being targeted. Parents should constantly talk with their kids about their day with the hopes they will open up about any problems, but if they are still reluctant, there are some red flags to keep your eyes out for.
Red Flag #1: Aches and pains
Because school is usually the hot spot for bullying, a child's reluctance to wake up and head out to the bus in the morning could signal something is wrong. Parents should pay attention to recurring excuses to stay home, such as aches and pains, or frequent calls from the school nurse requesting an early pickup.
Headaches and stomachaches are common physical manifestations of the stress and anxiety associated with bullying. Although parents may see them as a fake ailment to get out of school, talk to them about it—it could be a true sign of bullying.
Parents should take note that Mondays, days after a long weekend or holiday breaks, are especially tough. Kids usually feel safe at home and the idea of going back to school is difficult. If a child complains of these symptoms regularly or if headaches and stomachaches don’t go away, parents should look further into what's going on.
Red Flag #2: Declining grades
We all want our child to excel academically, and naturally kids want to succeed, but grades can often suffer when a child is being bullied. High anxiety levels can interfere with children’s ability to focus and pay attention in the classroom. Depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping can all create problems with schoolwork as well. With teens, parents should check in with the school periodically to monitor attendance, as this age group is more likely to skip school or cut certain classes altogether.
Red Flag #3: Missing out on sports and activities
School sports and after-school activities are social interactions that could be the perfect storm for bullying. If children who once loved certain sports start saying they feel like they are not good enough to play, or that they were the cause of the team losing the game, this could mean they are being bullied by other team members. Children may start to withdraw from the team or lose interest in the sport or activity to avoid the social interaction.
Also, parents should take note if their once-active children are now spending more time on the computer, playing video games or texting friends instead of interacting in person. They could be isolating themselves from social activities such as sports teams or after-school activities on purpose.
If there is another adult who is close to the child, like an aunt, uncle or favorite teacher, parents can talk with that adult to suggest to the child another activity or a different team—somewhere the child can nurture other friendships while staying away from a bullying situation.
Red Flag #4: A change in eating habits
Think about all those teenage movies out there. Between flipped-over lunch trays and stolen lunch money, Hollywood has painted the picture-perfect source of bullying: the Cafeteria.
When children come home from school, parents should not only ask about their day, but who they eat lunch with and what they ate. A change in eating habits could be a big warning sign of bullying. From no one to sit with and loss of appetite to not wanting to even enter the lunch room, this could make lunchtime stressful for any child. Not eating lunch could also lead to things like weight loss, dizziness, headaches and binge eating at home—other signs to watch out for.
Children who receive free or subsidized meals could also be at risk for being bullied. Parents should speak with the school about ways for those children to not stand out in the crowd.
Red Flag #5: Unexplained injuries
Bumps and bruises are common playground injuries among grade school kids, but if children can’t remember how they got injured, switch their stories about the injury, or if the story doesn’t match up to the injury, this could be a signal that they are being bullied physically. Parents need to ask what happened and reinforce that other students should be keeping their hands to themselves.
Red Flag #6: Difficulty sleeping
If a child is nervous or anxious about what might happen the next day at school or elsewhere, he or she could have trouble falling asleep, tossing and turning during the night, leading to exhaustion from a poor night’s sleep. Nightmares and having difficulty waking up in the morning could also be warning signs that your child is getting bullied at school.
Parents, if you notice some of these warning signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child is being bullied. But it might signal that it is time to talk to your child about what it is going on at school. Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher to get an “inside” view of what is going on in the classroom. Be an active participant with school activities if you can, to meet the other children and parents in the community. Ask about your children’s friends, who they spend time with at recess or sit with on the bus, and nurture those friendships by suggesting those children come over after school or on weekends. If it comes up that your child is being bullied, reinforce that you are there to be supportive and help find solutions.
Mary V. Mason, M.D., MBA, FACP, is senior vice president for Centene Corporation and chief medical officer of Envolve. For more than 10 years, she has led the development of innovative, award-winning clinical programs that dramatically improve quality and result in lower medical costs in a managed Medicaid Population. She is also a mother of three, a clinical assistant professor of Internal Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine and an adjunct professor at the John Olin School of Business, where she teaches Health Policy. She is an attending physician in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Internal Medicine Clinic where she supervises resident physicians.