How To Spot Signs of Bullying In Children

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January 14, 2021 / By thadmin2

What is Bullying?

Traditionally, bullying refers to the unwanted and negative actions of intentionally and repeatedly hurting and coercing someone who has difficulty in defending themselves (Olwen, 1993). As society becomes more educated on the topic of bullying, we have grown to understand that bullying encompasses more than just the use of physical superiority. Since then, bullying is often categorised into three distinct types (Woods & Wolke, 2004):

  • Verbal: Verbal bullying refers to any form of bullying conducted by the use of one’s voice, which commonly include acts such as constant teasing, name calling, taunting, and even verbal threats.
  • Relational: Relational bullying denotes any bullying that is done with the intent to hurt somebody’s reputation or social standing, and include behaviours such as spreading gossip and engaging in other forms of public humiliation, shaming and social exclusion.
  • Physical: Physical bullying entails the use of force in order to hurt or damage an individual or their possessions, such as stealing, hitting and kicking.

While the physical effects of verbal and social bullying are seemingly less severe than that of physical bullying, all forms of bullying can potentially open the door to a myriad of other adverse consequences – such as emotional and psychological trauma, where its effects may persist into adulthood (Drydakis, 2014). Furthermore, the prolonged exposure to stress hormone cortisol, from bullying, can alter parts of the brain structure critical for emotional regulation, such as the amygdala and hippocampus (Haribeygi et al., 2017). For young children and adolescents, these negative effects are more problematic and detrimental considering that the body’s system for handling stress is particularly sensitive during this period of development (Rivara and Le Menestrel, 2016).


The Magnitude of Bullying in Singapore


In a global study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015, Singapore was found to have the third highest rate of bullying in the world, following closely behind Latvia and New Zealand respectively. More than 5000 students from Singapore were asked to report the frequency of their exposure to verbal, physical and relational bullying across a four-point scale, ranging from “never or almost never” to “once a week or more” (OECD, 2017). The categories of bullying examined in the study includes: Being left out, made fun of, threatened, property taken by others, being hit, and having rumours spread about them. The countries were then ranked according to an index based on an aggregate of the responses, and 14.5 per cent of our students reported being bullied by their peers frequently, compared with the OECD average of 8.9 per cent.

Children and youth may engage in bullying for a variety of reasons: Peer pressure, the manifestation of popularity, and the seeking of pleasure or power (Thornberg & Delby, 2018). Regardless of the cause, bullying has serious consequences for both the bully and the victim. Adolescents who bully or are bullied are more likely to show symptoms of depression and anxiety, have low self-esteem, feel lonely, change their eating patterns, and lose interest in activities (Haynie et al., 2001; Kochel et al., 2012). Therefore, parents and educators should aim to and play a crucial role in creating a climate of support and empathy both in and outside of schools (Espelage et al., 2013; Johnson, 2009).


Bullying: Under the Radar

According to the U.S. 2018 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 80% of the cases of bullying were unreported. This statistic may seem surprising at first, however, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the victim, we can quickly understand why so many cases go unreported.


  • Weakness

Given that bullying is fundamentally a systemic abuse of power and centers on making one feel less powerful than the other, victims of bullying typically perceive themselves as powerless, especially in relation to the bully (Woods & Wolke, 2004). Keeping to themselves and attempting to tackle it on their own may allow individuals to feel a little more in control. This could also prevent others from perceiving the victim as weak, serving as a coping mechanism for preserving their pride.


  • Retaliation

In addition to the feelings of weakness and helplessness, children and teens may also potentially fear that the bully will retaliate and increase the intensity of bullying if they were reported. This was supported by the results of an online survey among 7,347 students in the United Kingdom (UK), where the most common reason to not report the bullying was the fear of the bullying getting worse, with 38 per cent of respondents (Clark, 2019).


  • Rejection/Isolation

Students who are frequently bullied may feel constantly insecure and on guard, and have clear difficulties finding their place at school (Rivara & Le Menestrel, 2016). They tend to feel unaccepted and isolated and, as a result, are often withdrawn. As a way to reduce their exposure to bullies, they often forego making friends or miss out on taking chances that could help them become better integrated with their schoolmates (Juvonen & Graham, 2014).


How to spot the signs of bullying

As the effects of bullying can be extremely damaging to the long-term growth and development of a child, it is important to identify the potential signs of bullying and take appropriate action to prevent these acts of bullying. Below are some of the telltale signs we can look out for in our children.


  • Physical signs

Acts of physical bullying may be the most obvious to identify – some physical signs we can look out for include cuts or bruises, missing belongings or damaged belongings. Frequently coming home hungry could also be a warning sign (NCAB, n.d.). These signs are relatively easy to look out for and can serve as good indicators that your child is being bullied.


  • Emotional and behavioural signs

Other more subtle signs include abrupt or sudden changes in your child’s behaviour and emotional expressions. These signs can manifest in the forms of increased aggression at home, withdrawal from affection, frequent mood swings, decline in grades, school refusal and avoidance of social interactions.


  • Other signs of bullying

The way your child interacts with other children may serve as an indicator as to whether bullying is taking place. Being afraid to speak up or withdrawal from group settings may possibly indicate that bullying is happening at school or within their peer group.


What can we do as parents if we spot signs of bullying in our children?

  • Be present

This may seem simple and intuitive, however, many of us struggle to spend sufficient time with our children. Amidst our hectic lifestyle, we may sometimes neglect the finer details. It is important to remind ourselves that paying attention and being present with our children can do wonders for maintaining their mental health and support. Stable emotional support from parents – including listening, offering praise, affection, trust and respect – is particularly important for adolescent victims of bullying (Amato, 1994; Leadbeater, Hoglund, & Woods, 2003). Research has shown that caring parents can reduce the stress and pain of students who have been bullied (Rivara & Le Menestrel, 2016).


  • Be inquisitive

Aforementioned, children are unlikely to report cases of bullying due to a variety of reasons. By asking them questions, it may help them to open up on potential troubles they may have. Some potential questions we can ask include questions about their friends or school. Being present helps build the rapport between you and your child, in order for you to understand your child better without causing your child to feel as though they are being interrogated. Furthermore, a stronger bond between you and your child will most likely lead to them feeling more comfortable with opening up to you and answering your questions.


  • Be a role model

Being aware of how we behave around our children and making sure that we do not display undesirable behaviours of bullying – such as making fun of others, not only shapes their learning and development through observation and imitation, but also conveys the message to them that they can trust and be themselves around us.


  • Roleplay

As our child’s role model, we have the responsibility to educate and guide our child in navigating and responding appropriately to different problems in their lives. It can be useful to go through various simulations of potential bullying situations which your child may possibly face. Parents can ask their children how they would react in these situations, and provide them with some viable solutions or courses of action while correcting any maladaptive methods of coping or reacting. It would also be beneficial if you referenced a similar situation from a TV show or a movie that your child likes and talk about what was done well and what could have been done better, so that they are able to visualize and apply the appropriate strategies correctly!

If you find that your child has trouble coping with the effects of bullying, it can be useful to seek professional help. Here at Thrive Psychology clinic, we offer various services that can target common problems found in today’s children and youth. Our goal is to get an accurate read on your child’s experiences so that we can put together a comprehensive treatment plan that targets their unique needs. We are committed to helping children and adolescents thrive. If you would like to find out more about behavioural treatments or would like to arrange for a consultation, do contact us and we would be happy to assist you!

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