How to spot signs of bullying – and how to deal with it

  • Age: 9-13 yrs
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How to spot signs of bullying – and how to deal with it

Worried that your daughter is being bullied and not sure how to tackle it? Use our practical action checklist to spot the signs of bullying and then help her beat it.

Bullies aren’t usually very original when it comes to their insults. What were the most common teases or taunts when you were young? “Four eyes”, “freckle face”, “tubby”? Chances are most of the names we remember being called as kids are related to looks.
Sadly, nothing has changed for our daughters. A recent UK Government study by Ofsted called No Place for Bullying found that today’s school students most commonly experience bullying related to appearance. In primary schools, bullies focus on actual physical aspects such as red hair, being tall or small, or “fat” or “skinny”. In secondary schools, other aspects of appearance come under attack – clothes, hairstyles and accessories that may not conform to the very latest trends.

First, we need to understand what we mean by bullying. Girls and boys disagree, fight, tease and banter with their friends. Bullying is different: it is, according to the UK Government’s Stopbullying website: “Unwanted, aggressive behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumours, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

Why bullies focus on appearance

“This is a stage when young people are discovering who they are and experimenting with how to express themselves. Appearance is a big part of that,” explains Liz Watson, head of BeatBullying, the UK’s leading bullying prevention charity. “Teenagers are exploring their identity through how they look and they’re learning how society reacts to that.”

What are the signs of bullying?

So, how can you tell if your girl is being bullied? BeatBullying recommends being aware of the following indicators of bullying:

Change in behaviour or emotional state – has she suddenly become more withdrawn or aggressive than usual?

  • Physical signs – such as cuts, bruises or damaged clothes.
  • Avoiding school – making excuses and faking illness.
  • Lack of interest – especially in the things she normally enjoys.

There are also some signs that might indicate that she’s being bullied about her looks specifically:

  • Changing the way she dresses or styling herself in more extreme ways – for example, trying to stop wearing her glasses or cutting her hair.
  • Attempting to cover up her size – like wearing baggy clothes that cover up her figure.

Of course, many of these signs are a normal part of teenage life, which makes it difficult to tell for sure unless she opens up.

Talking to your daughter about being bullied

You may be agonizing over the best way to talk to your daughter for fear of her withdrawing further. But, says Watson, it’s best to face it honestly. “You don’t have to mention bullying to start with,” she advises. “Instead, try something like: “I’m worried about you, I think you’re unhappy.””

Or you may initiate a conversation in a more neutral way by asking questions about her day including moments that she enjoyed or found troubling. For example, “What was one good thing that happened to you today? Any bad things happen? Did you sit with friends at lunch? What was your bus ride like?”

Questions such as these might help her to open up about her experiences.

It will also help if you let her know that she won’t be in trouble and that you’re there to help – but make it clear that you can only help if you know what’s happening. If she insists that nothing is going on, don’t push it. Instead, treat it as a flag to keep looking for signs.

Once the conversation has begun, take action

Dealing with bullying can take time, so be patient and understanding of what your daughter is going through. Show her you’re there to support her and reassure her that she doesn’t need to change her appearance – then you can both find a way to tackle it together.

Use the action checklist below to help you and your daughter beat bullying together.

Action checklist:
How to beat bullying

Show your daughter she’s not alone: Talk to her about your teenage experiences. Maybe you were teased about a particular feature but now recognize it’s a part of what makes you special.

Work together: Help to work out a strategy together for dealing with the bullying, but make sure you have her agreement about all the steps you plan to take.

Reassure her: First off, reassure her that there is nothing wrong with the way she looks and that you admire what makes her individual.

Explain: Help her understand the reasons why people bully others.

Make a change: If the bullying is coming from people within her immediate circle of friends, encourage her to find a new group.

Spot the patterns: Find out where and when the bullying is taking place. If she’s being bullied at certain times or places, get her to recognize this and avoid them or ask friends to accompany her during those times.

Get her to talk to a teacher: If it’s happening at school, and it doesn’t feel like something she can solve alone, help her develop the courage to talk to her teacher about it – it’s best to talk to a class teacher first and then work “up” from there if need be. Judge if and when it might help for you to get involved. It may well be better if your daughter handles it independently with your solid support in the background.

Talk to the school yourself: If she isn’t happy talking to her teacher alone, consider talking to them yourself. Most schools have an anti-bullying strategy and will know how to approach the situation.

Get help with cyberbullying: If it’s happening online there is more specific detail in dealing with cyberbullying.

Get back-up: if there is a really serious problem and talking to your daughter is difficult, then why not have a look at specific, reputable anti-bullying sites such as Stopbullying. They offer young people support from people their own age or from counselors which can help improve how she’s feeling and help her devise strategies to cope.

What next: Action steps to help

  • Keep the lines of conversation open with your daughter so she can talk about how she’s feeling. Have other girls she knows had the same experience? How did they deal with it?
  • Would it help to talk to others in her situation in an online forum like the one at BeatBullying UK?

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