Until now, family members have been the most important people in your child’s life. You still matter – a lot – but by junior high, most kids look to their peers, not their parents, for social cues. It may not bother you when your son rolls his eyes at your advice or your daughter criticizes your clothes, but knowing your child is a victim of bullying can break your heart

The bad news is that when boys mistreat each other, they can get loud and physical; the good news is that for that reason, male bullying rarely goes undetected. If your son is coming home with torn clothing and unexplained bruises or refuses to go to school, he may be a victim of bullying. Most cases are less black and white. Male friendships tend to be hierarchical, with boys constantly jockeying for position. Even good friends trade put-downs and insults. “The unconscious purpose of this is boys preparing each other to be successful,” says Warren Farrell, Ph.D, author of Why Men are the Way They Are and the work in progress The Boy Crisis. “That is, in the real world, few people become successful who don’t know how to handle criticism. Boys learn, via this direct criticism, to not take themselves so seriously, or to change the behavior that is criticized.”

Girls, in contrast, are the undercover agents of junior high. Perhaps because anger and aggression are considered “unfeminine,” they tend to disguise their bullying tactics and social maneuvers. Instead of fists, girls use nasty notes, rumor-spreading and social exclusion to torment whichever peer is “out” at the moment. Worse, they often turn on their friends, and nice girls can get sucked into bullying because they’re scared to speak up and become a victim themselves. Overworked teachers tend to ignore or underestimate the power of these subtle attacks, but some girls report being shunned for months and driven to the brink of suicide by the pain.

Being bullied is humiliating, and kids may not tell their parents when they become victims. If you’re worried, talk to your children, and really listen. Don’t minimize the pain they’re feeling, and don’t push them to maintain friendships that may not be healthy. If necessary, talk with a guidance counselor who may know what’s going on. Remind your child, and yourself, that junior high won’t last forever – thank goodness.