By Allison Wedell Schumacher
“Mommy, do you think Alex will like this dress?”
It seemed an odd question—my four-year-old daughter had yet to show interest in anyone’s opinion about her clothes (including mine). Then again, she had been talking about this Alex quite a bit—I gathered he was a new friend in her preschool class.
“You should wear that dress because you like it. Why does it matter what Alex thinks of it?” I asked her as we finished getting ready for school.
“Because he keeps saying my clothes are ugly.”
And all the pieces fell into place: Yes, she’d been talking about Alex a lot. But she had also been taking longer and longer to pick out her clothes in the morning and had even started asking to stay home from school.
The fact was my young child didn’t have the vocabulary to tell me what was happening to her. She couldn’t tell me she was being bullied, because she didn’t know what bullying was.
For the record, the key identifiers of bullying are an imbalance of power (the child who bullies may be older or bigger, for example), its one-sided nature (two children fighting over who gets to use the ball at recess is not bullying; one child snatching the ball from the other and refusing to give it back is), and, usually, repetition. Bullying can be relational (excluding, name-calling, or threatening) or physical (pushing, hitting, or kicking).
My daughter’s situation fit the definition of bullying exactly. Alex was bigger and older than she was, it was definitely one-sided, and apparently it had been happening for a few weeks. And although he never bullied her physically, she eventually told me that he had threatened to—at one point they had both been standing at the top of the slide, and Alex told her he was going to push her off.
Even if she had been able to identify Alex’s behavior as bullying, though, my daughter might not have told me. Kids often don’t report bullying for a variety of reasons. They may think an adult will not be willing or able to do anything about it, for example, or they may have been threatened with retaliation if they “tattle.”
That’s why it’s so important to be able to identify signs that your child may be being bullied. In my daughter’s case, the two biggest were talking about Alex a lot (a sign I misinterpreted as friendship) and not wanting to go to school.
But there are others too. You might see your child expressing more negative emotions—sadness or anger, for example—and she may start acting out, misbehaving in ways she hadn’t before. Changes in appetite or sleep patterns can also be an indicator that something is wrong at school. Younger children may show regressive behavior, such as bed-wetting or baby talk. Your child might also try out the bullying behavior they’ve experienced by bullying their siblings or other children—there’s a surprising amount of overlap in the populations of kids who bully and kids who are bullied.
Of course, these could also be signs of something else entirely. So if you see any of these behaviors, it’s a good reminder to ask your child questions. Talking to your child’s teacher or other caregivers about behaviors they may have seen and what they might mean may also help.
Because, ultimately, it’s about keeping the lines of communication open. Kids may get tired of you asking them about their day every day (trust me—mine is 11 now, and although I haven’t yet received a full-on eye roll from her, I know it’s only a matter of time). But if they know they can talk to you about the little things (“The class hamster has a new wheel!”), they’ll also know they can talk to you about the big things. Like bullying.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.