By Hugh C. McBride
By the end of September, the novelty of being back to school has worn off for most students -- so if you find yourself already attempting to reignite your child's academic enthusiasm, know that you're hardly alone.
In homes across the nation, parents are preparing pep talks designed to cajole, convince or (when all else fails) compel their sons and daughters to ease up on the complaining and bear down on the books.
But before you write off your child's anti-school attitude as just another instance of adolescent antagonism, make sure that you're not missing signs that may signal a more significant problem -- namely, that your child's reluctance to go to school is related to bullying or another type of peer harassment.
Bullying remains a distressingly prevalent reality in U.S. middle and high schools. The National Youth Violence Prevention Network reports that about 30 percent of students (more than 5.7 million young people) are involved in bullying -- either bullying other students, being bullied themselves, or both.
The following signs may indicate that your child is being bullied:
1. Sudden change in attitude toward school. There's a reason that "constant" is rarely (if ever) used to describe the attitudes of teens and adolescents, and as a parent you've surely experienced the speed with which a young person's tastes and preferences can change. But if your child's attitude toward school suddenly and dramatically changes for the worse, this could indicate a problem that warrants further investigation.
2. Unexplained cuts, bruises or other injuries. Kids fall down and run into things (and each other) a lot. For many young people -- especially adolescent boys -- getting through the day is a pinball-like experience in which paddles and bumpers are replaced by friends, walls and floors. But there's a difference between run-of-the-mill roughhousing and abuse. If your child starts showing up with unaccounted-for bumps and bruises -- and if no explanations are forthcoming -- these could be evidence of bullying.
3. Significant drop in grades. Imagine trying to get through your workday knowing that every 45 minutes or so you were going to have to run a gauntlet of threats, intimidating looks, physical harassment and other types of abuse. It'd be a bit difficult to focus on the task at hand, wouldn't it? Such is the experience of a student who is being bullied. As a not-so-subtle form of personal terrorism, bullying isn't about five minutes of abuse in the hallway -- it's about establishing an enduring environment of fear, regret and apprehension. And these emotions are unlikely to lead to a solid academic performance.
4. Persistent requests to stay home because of hard-to-prove illnesses such as stomach aches or headaches. Mental anguish can often manifest as physical discomfort -- stress can lead to headaches and fear can result in very real abdominal pain. When your child claims to be too sick to go to school, this may be the truth -- and it may also be a symptom of abuse-related anxiety. Your child may also claim to have what turns out to be a phantom illness in order to avoid yet another confrontation with a bully or bullies. Whether the claims of pain turn out to be legitimate or counterfeit, the underlying cause needs to be investigated.
5. Changes in eating habits or sleep patterns. As noted above, the effects of bullying don't disappear the moment the abuser is out of sight. If your child is being bullied at school, the pain and fear won't dissipate once the dismissal bell rings. In fact, for many of today's tech-savvy bullies, the end of school may signal just the start of a long night of cyber-bullying. Trauma can impact eating habits (leading to loss of appetite or food binges as a means of numbing the pain) and can disrupt sleep patterns (resulting in either insomnia or excessive sleeping).
6. Changes in social patterns, activities and friends. Adolescence is a time of change, so not every altered behavior is symptomatic of distress. But if your child has suddenly abandoned old friends, withdrawn from once-treasured activities or lost interest in hobbies that once held great significance, take the time to do a little digging. The friends may be bullying your child, or bullies may be preventing your teen from participating in certain social events, sports or activities. Again, you're not looking only for changes, but for changes that are sudden and unexplainable.
7. Mood swings, angry outbursts or other emotional changes. Yes, these can also be categorized as "typical teen behavior." But if your usually mild-mannered adolescent mysteriously transforms into a walking exposed nerve, this is a sign that something is wrong. Don't ever forget that bullying is a traumatic experience, and people respond to trauma in a variety of ways -- some of which involve the misdirected expression of repressed anger.
What You Can Do
The behaviors and experiences listed above are not definitive proof that your child is being bullied. But they should prompt you to take a closer look at what's going on with your child -- especially if you observe many or all of these signs.
Adolescents and teens who act in the ways described above may be doing so for a number of reasons. They may not like their teacher, they might be struggling with a particular subject or they may have simply forgotten to study for a test and are looking for an excuse to stay home. On the more serious side, though, they may be experimenting with alcohol or other drugs, may be suffering from anxiety or depression, or may be being bullied or otherwise abused.
The experts can educate you about many of these conditions -- but don't forget that when it comes to your child, you are the expert. When you notice out-of-character behaviors, dramatic (and unexplainable) changes or any other events that set off your parental radar, don’t dismiss your concerns without further investigation.
Talk to your child, consult with school personnel and, if necessary, make an appointment with your family physician. If bullying is the problem, you need to get involved to end the abuse before any more damage is done.