Childhood Bullying: Know the Signs & How to Talk to Your Child

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
03/27/20  4:52 PM PST

Once upon a time, bullying looked and felt a bit differently than it does now. If you want to get all traditional, it was about taking someone’s lunch money, punching or hitting, or threatening to beat up another person. Today, bullying includes exclusion of a person from a peer group, it includes texting, Snap Chats, postings on Instagram, or even Facebook. What we are seeing is peers posting pictures of time spent with another peer or group of peers, to which a particular person or group was not invited. Modern-day bullying also includes posting mean messages that are geared at someone’s appearance, number of friendships, without even including the person’s name.

With social media, bullying can be indirect and not as easy to detect because no one person’s name is indicated. Instead, it’s subtle and indirect making it difficult for the adolescents who are sensitive and tend to personalize.

Signs of a Child Who is Being Bullied

What are some signs to you as a parent, educator, or Principal that a child is being bullied? What are those red flags? The warning signs? Sometimes, it’s not that obvious which makes it harder to pick up on.

Nonetheless, here are a few signs that something isn’t right:

  • Anxiety about going to school
  • Withdrawing and losing interest from social situations
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increase in appetite (child may be self-soothing)
  • Increased agitation
  • Talking back
  • Sleeping more
  • Sleeping less; insomnia

Some kids will express their frustration, and some won’t. You may notice that your child has lost their enthusiasm or passion for a sport or activity. For others, it just may look like your child is being defiant, and your natural tendency may be to argue and give consequences for the extra lip that you’re getting. They may pick fights with siblings more often or express their dissatisfaction with their clothes, shoes, hair, teachers, school schedule, and/or anything else.

This may be your child’s way of asking for help indirectly. He is behaving differently to let you know that something is going on, but can’t say this directly to you.

Please Ask Me

When you notice a change in your child’s behavior, take a moment to pause and note what is happening. Every child’s behavior is a form of communication because your son or daughter can’t find the words to express what is happening. Instead of getting stuck on the behavior, look beyond it and ask the questions. Your child may be begging you, “please ask me”. They may be giving you signals because they are embarrassed to tell you directly and would like for you to pick up the signal.

Despite the desire for you to ask, don’t be surprised if you face some resistance or get a “nothing.” Don’t stop here. Say something like, “You seem different lately and I can’t put my finger on it. I’m here to listen when you are ready.” Open the door, make the invitation, and let it be. Your child will come to you when she’s ready.

In the meantime, here are some questions to ask on a somewhat regular basis so that you remain engaged in your child’s world:

  • Who are you sitting with at lunch?
  • How is (insert your child’s peer’s name here)? What’s new with (your child’s peer)? I haven’t seen (name) in a while.
  • Whose been hanging out with who lately?
  • Who are you hanging out with lately?

Staying in Their Loop

I’ve noticed that since my son started middle school, I am less in tune with who his friends are and their latest trends and interests. This is the time when it’s most important to know what’s going on with your child and his friends.

Here are a few ways for you to stay engaged:

  • Volunteer to pick up or drop off your child and her friends. Listen to their conversations in the car; after a few minutes of you driving quietly, they forget that you’re there and they will speak openly and freely. This also gives you a great seat to watch the dynamics of the people in your car.
  • Encourage your child to invite their friends over. Offer them a place in your house with pseudo privacy where you can still hear within earshot. Listen to the conversations and watch the dynamics between your child and her peers.
  • Become your child’s ‘friend’ on social media and log on often enough to see what your child is posting
  • If there is a parent portal for your child’s homework and grades, check often to see how your child is keeping up with assignments. Any missing assignments? How are grades on quizzes and tests? Is their inconsistency? This will also cue you in to your child’s world and areas of struggle before they become too problematic

As our children turn into adolescents, their world becomes more complicated socially, academically and emotionally. Their growing bodies and changing neurochemistry complicate everything, everyday, all the time. Be patient with your teen (their attitudes can be ferocious!) and keep an eye on her behaviors and interactions with you at home, first and foremost.

Dr. Liz Matheis


Dr. Liz Matheis is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and certified School Psychologist who specializes in working with children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Learning Disabilities, and behavioral struggles. She is also mom to three children, one with special needs. Her practice, Psychological and Education Consulting, is located in Livingston, New Jersey.

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