Once viewed as an extreme case of how bullying breaks down teen girls, the “Odd Girl” persona now defines a growing number of female bullying victims. In a recent national survey of students in grades 6-10, 30% reported being the target of bullies. Of the victims reporting abuse nearly 60% said they were bullied with threatening or embarrassing words through e-mail, instant messages, web sites, chat rooms, or text messages. The rise of cyberbullying (bullying through the use of technology) now runs rampant among the teen population. Gossip once confined to notes and conversations in the halls flows freely from one friend’s phone to the next before finding its way online.

“Being bullied is not just an unpleasant rite of passage through childhood,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. “It’s a public health problem that merits attention. People who were bullied as children are more likely to suffer from depression and low self esteem, well into adulthood, and the bullies themselves are more likely to engage in criminal behavior later in life.”

Whether bullying happens in person or online, it isn’t something that parents should merely observe from the sidelines – particularly given the serious emotional and physical abuse that can occur. Here are four signs to watch out for when trying to determine if your child is being bullied:

1. Reluctance to leave home. Refusing to attend school, sports practices and other extracurricular activities may be a sign that your child is being bullied. “I mistook my daughter’s anxiety about getting ready for school in the morning for an attempt to prevent us from getting out the door.” Said Dana, a middle school parent in Denver, CO. “I later found out she had been bullied for over a month. I didn’t see it.”

2. Unexplained cuts or bruises. If your child can’t offer a reasonable explanation for the appearance of any unusual marks on her body, it’s time to investigate.

3. Increased sadness or anxiety. Adolescents tend to be moody; however, a sudden increase in crying outbursts and anxiety levels (beyond the typical teen drama) could be the result of a bully.

4. Steadily decreasing academic performance. A dip from 95% on one test to 85% on the next doesn’t warrant a full-scale investigation. But repeated low scores, missed assignments, or comments from your child’s teachers about declining performance are signals that may mean there are bullying issues at play.

Even if you suspect your child is being bullied, the question of what to do about it can be a difficult one to answer – especially if your child hesitates to communicate with you. Yet there are things you can do to unearth a problem and bring bullying to an end. Here are some action steps for parents who suspect that bullying may be going on:

  • Share observations. Sharing statements like, “You seem sad today” or “This seems like a rough week for you” may open the door to a conversation with your child.
  • Investigate. Outside of weekday mornings and evenings, a parent’s time with a child is often limited to a few quick phone calls and weekends. Sharing a conversation with adults who see your child on a regular weekly basis fills in the gaps of what you might be missing. Connecting with teachers, coaches, and mentors can be an invaluable source of information about a child’s life. If concerns arise about your child’s behavior, turn to this group of adults for insight.
  • Make contact. A casual argument between friends doesn’t call for a heated visit to the school’s front office; however, when arguments turn physical or include verbally abusive statements don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with the school counselor. Bring the evidence you have from your observations as well as any conversations with adults who regularly interact with your child.  
  • Avoid the Papparazzi. Coach your child to stay clear of impromptu cell phone camera shots. An innocent shot snapped quickly between classes can eventually find its way into a bully’s hands – becoming a target for teasing.
  • Report it. The moment you become aware of a threatening email or phone call, or see anything online referencing your child in a negative way, report it to school administrators. Contacting the school is the first step to pulling the plug on cyberbullying.

Bringing bullying to an end takes a team effort. Schools and law enforcement agencies have risen to meet the challenge of keeping kids safe, but the brunt of the burden still falls on the shoulders of victims and their families. Through a continued effort to identify and report bullying incidents, teens regain self confidence and head toward a happy and healthy future.

Additional online resources on the topic of bullying and cyberbullying:

stopcyberbullying.org - Resources and information directed at children ages 7-17. Developed by the Wired Safety organization (wiredsafety.org) the world’s largest internet safety and help group

safeyouth.org - A resource created by the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center

stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov – Audio, video and text-based resources created by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration

Additional reading on the topic of bullying among girls:

Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman

The Anti-Bullying Handbook by Keith Sullivan

Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write about Bullies, Cliques, Popularity, and Jealousy by Rachel Simmons