14 signs that your child is being bullied or is a bully

Is it typical adolescent behavior or a potential bullying problem? These clues may help you decipher your child’s actions.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

The profile of the adolescent bully is changing from the schoolyard thug who extorts fistfuls of lunch money to a more covert operator who avoids face-to-face confrontations in favor of phones and Facebook.

The harmful results remain the same, however. Targets of bullies can suffer from physical injuries, social exclusion, depression and, in extreme cases, self-harm and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers bullying a form of youth violence and calls “electronic aggression” an emerging public health problem. And no wonder. Adolescence is hard enough, complicated by hormones and a gauntlet of intense transformations. Throw into that the power struggles, relationship roller coasters and intimidation that are the hallmarks of bullying. Parents are left to decipher a difficult riddle: How can I tell if my child is being bullied or is being a bully? And what's just normal adolescent behavior?

--By Michael Ko for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 16 Kids on the playground (Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Complaints about headaches or stomachaches

This is the easiest way for kids to justify not going to school, says Megan O’Laughlin, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Seattle who counsels troubled teens and families. The symptoms could be real (caused by anxiety or injury) or just an excuse to avoid a potential encounter. According to the 2011 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, a joint publication by the U.S. Depts. of Justice and Education, five percent of students ages 12 through 18 reported missing a school activity or staying home because they feared being harmed by another student.

Parents should rule out legitimate medical concerns, especially if the complaints continue or if the child seems to be experiencing real pain. A trip to the doctor, O’Laughlin says, might have an added benefit: Kids who are too embarrassed to talk about bullying with their parents are sometimes willing to talk it out with a doctor.

2 of 16 Child pretending to be sick to miss school (Roland Dan/Getty Images)

Unexplainable injuries, from others or self

O'Laughlin says kids are “pretty creative” when it comes to inflicting pain, recalling an incident in which a child swung a backpack full of books at another while passing in the hall. She advises parents to look for bruises, cuts or scratches that aren’t consistent with sports or physical activity. The School Crime and Safety report says 28 percent of American adolescents were bullied in 2009. Of those, almost one-tenth said they were pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on.

Parents should also look for signs of self-harm. A 2012 study from King's College in London, published in the British Medical Journal, found that bullied children engaged in more self-destructive behavior than children who were not bullied: cutting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, head-banging walls and attempting suicide. The same study said self-harm was higher among children with complicating factors, such as family history of attempted suicide, mental health issues or physical abuse.

3 of 16 A child with a black eye from school (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Changes in attitude, behavior and achievement at school

Illogical or sudden changes related to school -- such as skipping classes, missing the bus and asking for a ride instead, walking a different route or losing interest in grades -- might be another sign. A 2010 UCLA study that appeared in the Journal of Early Adolescence asked 2,300 middle schoolers if they'd been bullied, using a 4 point scale of increasing intensity. Researchers found that a 1 point increase on that scale could result in a drastic 1.5 point decrease in GPA in one academic subject.

Natalie Stone, a middle school counselor in Moscow, Idaho, also advises parents to see if kids are meeting “typical developmental milestones” at school. For example, she says, “If everyone around them is getting their (driving) learner’s permit and your kid has no interest; if your kid doesn’t want to go to dances; if your kid is backpedaling and it’s out of character, it could be a symptom of bullying.”

4 of 16 Change in performance at school (Blend Images/Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Lost or damaged property

Lost valuables such as electronics, toys, jewelry, food and money could be associated with bullying, even though the intentional destruction of property, according to the School Crime and Safety report, is actually the least common form of bullying, behind name-calling, spreading rumors, physical harm, threats and exclusion from social activities.

But it still happens. While teens often misplace their things, the telling clue for a parent worried concerned about a potential bullying situation, O'Laughlin says, might be if the child doesn’t not know where it went, or tries to avoid talking about it. On the front lines, though, Stone thinks cases of outright theft and destruction seem to be decreasing. “It’s easier to say, so and so stole my iPhone. It’s a more traceable thing. The police can get involved,” she says. “Stealing is considered wrong. But being mean to someone is not.”

5 of 16 A kid looking sad who had something stolen (Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

Changes with friends and social circles

Watch out if your child suddenly changes social circles, stops being invited to things, or seems withdrawn from friends they used to  be close with. Bullying is often about isolating the victim. And some bullies are likely to attack relationships. “There might be a ringleader and certain social activities are being affected,” O’Laughlin says. But it’s tricky to tell, she cautions. Kids can be bullied and still have friends, and many adolescents experiment with new roles and relationships. Stone, the middle school counselor, says parents who suspect something need to “have their antennae up and pay attention to their kid’s mood when they come from a certain kid’s house or a certain activity.”

One other thing parents might look out for is if other adults in the same school, class or program are talking about bullying. It might signal a lack of supervision or a bully who is getting away with something.

6 of 16 A child looking sad on the playground (Marcin Rozpedowski/Getty Images)

Changes in sleeping or eating habits

If a kid is seriously being targeted by a bully, their “nervous system is in overdrive,” says O’Laughlin, the social worker. “They’re in the fight-or-flight response mode. They’re in a stressed-out state.” And that could affect basic bodily functions like sleeping and eating.

Children might avoid the lunchroom during the school day, then come home ravenous and binge. That could lead to stomach cramps. Other clues might be evidence of eating disorders or a large amount of short-term weight gain or loss, caused by stress. Anxiety can also keep children up at night or cause bad dreams.

7 of 16 A child who doesn't want to eat (Lynn Koenig/Getty Images)

Reluctance/avoidance/inability to talk about it

The School Crime and Safety report found that students who were bullied notified an adult of the situation only 36 percent of the time. Perhaps predictably, adults become involved less and less as the child gets older. Girls tend to report bullying more than boys do.

Kids might not want the “tattletale” label or they might fear further backlash from the bully. Maybe the bullying is too humiliating or painful or painful to talk about, such as an embarrassing picture or rumor being sent to classmates’ cellphones. Or it could simply be a matter of the child not understanding that what’s happening is wrong. O’Laughlin works with parents who wonder why their teens can’t just open up and talk about it. “Where some kids are at developmentally, you might have to give them some space to process it,” she says. “They might need some education from the adults around them.”

8 of 16 Children don't want to talk to parents (Mark Bowden/Getty Images)

Expressing no interest in anything

Teenagers can be impulsive. It’s not uncommon for them to shift from interest to interest and social group to social group. It’s also quite normal for teenagers to express dramatic feelings of displeasure or disinterest.

However, one specific pattern to look for might be if the child turns from one interest to no interest to general displeasure or apathy toward anything and everything. It is a big red flag if the child seems to be abandoning an activity they used to enjoy. “That’s something to be concerned about,” O’Laughlin says. “That’s a hallmark of depressive disorders.”

9 of 16 A young boy uninterested in being a superhero (Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

Intense feelings of hopelessness, shame and depression

Teenagers are trying out independence, and might want to handle bullying on their own. “They might feel like they’ve tried everything and nothing’s going to change,” O’Laughlin says. At that point, the more intense, darker feelings make sense, she says, and it’s not out of the question for really destructive behaviors to begin. 

“Research strongly supports the view that all forms of bullying and peer victimization are clear risk factors for depression and suicidal thinking,” Richard Lieberman and Katherine Cowan wrote in “Bullying and Youth Suicide,” a 2011 report created in collaboration with the National Association of School Psychologists. “Certain populations of students are especially vulnerable to developing suicidal ideation and behaviors as a result of bullying: students who are cyberbullied; students with disabilities and mental health problems; and students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning.”

10 of 16 A kid being singled out (Digital Vision/Getty Images)