Being picked on, made fun of, or straight out bullied is traumatic in many ways—but it might also be something your girl feels uneasy telling you about. While you of course would want to support your girl in every way you can, she might worry that you’ll be disappointed in her—or even think the situation would only get worse if she asked for help. Additionally, there's a chance that she doesn't fully understand what's going on or doesn't want to be seen as overly sensitive, so she might not classify bullying behaviors as bullying—even when they clearly are. That said, she might be telling you something’s wrong in other ways. Girl Scouts Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, has identified a few things your girls might say that could indicate a bigger problem.
1. “Can you drive me? I don’t feel like taking the bus.”
Sudden and repeated avoidance of her school bus, or of going to school altogether, can be a signal that those places feel unsafe to her. Try asking, “Who do you usually sit next to on the bus?” and see what she says. Or if she’s making excuses not to go to school, you could say something like, “I heard there’s been some bullying problems in our town. Do you ever see anybody being picked on or being treated badly at school? What happens?” The key is to look for any change in behavior. If she used to be fine with the school bus (or walking to school with friends, or any other activity) and suddenly wants to avoid it altogether, that’s a sign that something might not be OK.
2. “I lost my new notebook. Can we get a new one?”
Kids forget things on the playground or simply lose them from time to time, but if your girl seems to be losing her belongings all the time (or if her school supplies or clothes are routinely getting damaged), there’s likely something else going on. Saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been losing a lot of things lately. Do you think someone at school might be taking them from you on purpose to be mean?” or “I saw your backpack had some stuff written on it. Can you tell me about it?” gives your girl a safe opening to explain the situation.
3. “I’ll tell you about my day later, Mom. I really have to go to the bathroom first.”
Does your daughter always speed for the bathroom as soon as you get home? That could be a sign that she’s been bullied in the school bathroom (away from adult supervision) and now avoids using the school restroom altogether. Tell her you’ve noticed this new habit and ask if there’s a reason why she doesn’t use the restroom at school—maybe something bad or scary that keeps her from feeling safe there.
4. “I’ve just been cold lately. I’d rather leave my sweater on.”
If your girl seems to want to cover up her arms or legs more than usual, and even in warm weather or a heated home, it could be that she’s trying to hide bruises or cuts from a bully at school. Tell her you’ve been noticing that she’s acting differently and you might mention that sometimes kids hurt one another physically – other times with words. Ask if she has ever witnessed this at school and what has happened? Has she ever experienced it? Let her know that you take both seriously and that if something like this is happening to her, you want her to come to you – to either strategize on how best to deal with it on her own or—so that you can deal with it together—perhaps by alerting a teacher or administrator. Everyone deserves to feel safe at school.
5. “Practice was cancelled again, so I’ll be home right after school.”
It’s rare for sports practice or after-school clubs to be cancelled more than one week in a row. If your girl makes excuses to not go, or otherwise seems disinterested in group activities she used to enjoy, it’s possible that she’s being bullied by another child in that group. Try asking if she still likes that activity, or if she has friends or people she spends more time with on the team. If you know for a fact that practice wasn’t cancelled, let her know that, but make sure to let her know you’re not angry at her for lying, but more concerned about why she didn’t think she could be honest with you. Dropping the team altogether or leaving the activity isn’t usually the best solution, so strategize with her (and her coach or activity leader, if necessary) to come up with alternatives.
The bottom line is to get your girl talking. Bullying can be a really tricky topic to get into, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open—and for your girl to know you love her and are there to support her, no matter what. And remember, while it’s always great to cultivate independence and assist your daughter in solving social challenges directly and independently, bullying behavior can be more than many children can handle on their own. Talk with her about your interest in alerting her teacher or an administrator at school to simply take a closer look at what’s going on, or to let them know about the situation. She needs to know you’re on her team.