Children won’t always tell you when they are being bullied, teased, or picked on at school. There are several reasons for this.
• Teasing and bullying evokes the feeling of shame in the recipient, and the instinctive behavior of shame is to hide and keep a low profile. The child may not want to talk about it or even think about it. So they avoid mentioning it.
• There may be a culture in the school, the family, or the neighborhood that leads the child to believe that telling parents or teachers about their problems is weaker than taking care of it themselves. “Tattling” is often discouraged by parents when it is a sibling rivalry issue, but this can become confused with talking to parents or teachers about a real problem. When the problem is more teasing than bullying, there is likely to be more of a taboo on complaining about it. The cultural belief is that you should be tough enough to stand a little teasing. But teasing can be a painful problem and can sometimes border on emotional abuse.
• Bullies sometimes try to compel secrecy with threats. This is also a common strategy of sexual abusers. A child can fear that the bully will find out if he talks about it and retaliate.
• If parents are busy or stressed out, the child may not feel like bothering you with their problems.
So other than observing the teasing or bullying taking place or hearing about it from others, how else would you know? What signs should you look for?
• A shamed or defeated child shows the classic posture of shame: bowed, cowed, and avoiding eye contact. He or she may look worried or troubled.
• A child may make up excuses not to go to school or to an activity where the teasing or bullying is taking place.
• An older sibling may be more likely to pick on a younger sibling at home if he or she is being picked on at school.
• A child may be reluctant to take things to school that might be taken by a bully.
• An older child may try to take some kind of weapon to school to try to defend him or herself.
The observant parent will notice these signs and ask about them in a gentle, non confrontational way. “You look like you are feeling sad or bothered by something. Can you tell me what you are feeling?” Ask about feelings first, and only later about causes.
Resist the temptation to jump to the rescue of your child, and instead be interested in what they have to say about their feelings and their experiences. If it feels like pulling teeth, one approach is to talk about your own problems as a child and how they made you feel. You can talk about how bad it felt when you struck out, or didn’t know the answer when the teacher called on you, or when a friend laughed at you, or a bully took your lunch money. If you are willing to talk about your feelings and bad experiences you survived, it will make it easier for your child to talk about theirs. And then you can move on to problem solving.