Your child would tell you if he's being bullied, right? Maybe not. "It's painful to say, 'I'm being targeted,'" says Cynthia Lowen, producer and writer of the documentary film, , and co-author of the forthcoming book . While there's more bullying awareness than ever (who hasn't heard about the bullied bus matron?), children still fear their parents' response to the harassment can make the situation worse, says Lowen. Another reason kids may keep this info to themselves: "They may worry that admitting they're victims will disappoint their parents," says Jerry Weichman, PhD, a licensed psychologist specializing in teens and tweens at California's Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, CA, and author of . That's why it's important to know how to spot the signs of bullying, which aren't as obvious as you'd think. Here are some surprising red flags to look for.
1. Sharing bullying euphemisms
When you ask your child about his day, and he says there's "drama" at school or kids were "messing around," it could be code for "I'm being bullied," explains Cindy Miller, a New Jersey–based licensed school social worker, psychotherapist and Lowen's co-author on The Essential Guide to Bullying. If you hear that language often, ask for specifics, she suggests. For instance: "When you say 'messing around,' did anyone get physical with you? Did someone spread a rumor about you or call you a name? How did you feel when the 'drama' occurred?"
If your child still doesn't open up, tell him the difference between reporting and tattling. "Reporting is stating that someone's hurting you and you're trying to get help. Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble," says Miller. This way, he knows there's nothing wrong about giving facts.
2. Coming home hungry
Before you assume your little luncher is simply sick of PB&J, consider what else might be going on in the cafeteria. Perhaps another student is taking his food. Or maybe your child is giving away items voluntarily to become better-liked—or avoiding eating because he fears being ridiculed about his weight or what he's eating, says Miller. Again, asking direct questions in a non-threatening way here is key, says Lowen. Try: "Who did you sit with at lunch today? Did you like your food? What did you and your friends talk about?"
3. Coming home from school late
You may think he's hanging out with friends, but he may be taking a longer route home or skipping the bus to avoid bullies, says Miller. A change in after-school routine is how Tara Kennedy Kline of Shoemakersville, PA, realized something wasn't right. "He started calling me from the bus and asking me if his older buddies could come to our house after school," she says. Normally, her son was only allowed to have friends over after homework was done, and not at all if his parents weren't home. "Blatantly disregarding our rule was a red flag for us," she says. Soon after, she learned about a bullying incident that happened on the bus. So trust your instincts and dig deeper if your child does something out of character.
4. Frequently losing or damaging his things
Sure, kids can be careless and clumsy, but missing or torn/broken belongings can be signs of bullying. "Bookbags getting ripped. Someone takes something. Shoes thrown out of the window of the bus. These are all things bullied kids have told me happened to them," says Lowen. What's worse is that children are afraid to tell their parents about things like broken glasses in tough economic times, she says. Lowen also points out that some children give possessions away to win favor with the popular kids. "Parents should keep an account of what's missing and follow up on their child's excuse with other parents, teachers or school administrators," suggests Dr. Weichman. If there's a discrepancy between your child's excuse and the explanation an adult gives, your child may be covering for someone's bad behavior.
5. Becoming upset after getting a text or going online
In the age of cyber-bullying, the end of a school day doesn't always offer taunted kids a reprieve. "If a parent suspects that cyber-bullying may be going on, she should first confront her child with her concerns, but also verify with monitoring software," advises Dr. Weichman. Beyond using parental spyware, it's important to keep computers in common areas at home, such as in the kitchen or family room, says Lowen. "If your child is in his bedroom for two hours and a situation is getting larger than life, he can feel like the entire world is turning on him," she warns. And it's hard to prevent your child from responding negatively if you can't see the situation unfolding.
6. Wearing long sleeves all the time or covering up when it doesn't seem warranted
Don't shrug off your child's desire to keep covered as shyness or a fashion statement. There might be visible signs of physical bullying he's trying to conceal.And here's why: "One reaction that parents often have is, 'you have to stand up for yourself' or 'hit him back,'" says Lowen. But a child may not be capable of or willing to follow that advice, so he hides bruises and cuts rather than face his parents' judgment. If you suspect your child is hiding injuries, don't react in a shocked or confrontational manner. Phrases such as "Tell me who did this to you right now!" should be avoided, says Dr. Weichman. Instead, put on your poker face and ask what's going on that might have contributed to the injuries.
7. Disappearing friends
Most parents know who their children pal around with: who calls every night, who they join forces with for school projects, who's sleeping over. If the usual suspects are MIA, it might be more than the clique simply growing apart. "If your child's circle suddenly isn't around, ask, 'Where are your friends? What are they doing?'" suggests Lowen. When the Mishra family moved back to their old neighborhood in North Carolina, their teen daughter was excited to reconnect with her grammar-school friends. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. "One former friend decided she didn't like my daughter anymore and told the host of an upcoming party that my child shouldn't be invited," says Mishra. "That was when I realized that this was not harmless jealousy but outright bullying." Mishra's daughter is now considering moving in with her grandparents in Michigan for her senior year.
8. Claiming that after-school activities were cancelled or practice ended early
Cancellations happen, but if they're happening a lot, your child may be hiding that he's dropped out of an activity because of bullying. Changes in routine and a loss of interest in favorite hobbies are usually good indicators that something's amiss. "Kids send out distress signals when they're in trouble," says Miller. It's up to you to stay attuned, and get your child to open up. And when he clues you in, keep two things in mind. "You have to believe him, and it's probably worse than he's letting on," says Lowen.
Whether or not you spot these signs in your child, start an open dialogue about bullying so he knows you can be counted on, says Dr. Weichman. "Kids need to be reassured that sharing what's going on with their parents is both safe and non-judgmental."