The best way for parents to tackle the topic of bullying with their children is to establish open lines of communication before there's ever a problem. That way, if a child does experience bullying behavior at school, they're more likely to let someone know.
Parents should engage their children by asking specific questions. Rather than just "How was school today," try questions like "Who did you have lunch with," "Who did you play with at recess," and "What did you play?"
"Be specific about relationships and other social interactions," bullying prevention specialist Mia Doces told ABC. Doces' nonprofit organization, the Committee for Children, specializes in social-emotional learning, which includes skills like empathy, collaboration and perspective taking, and bullying prevention training for school staff and adults.
Encouraging kids to use emotional language to describe how specific interactions with peers made them feel will also give parents insight into what they are experiencing at school.
But what should parents do if they feel like their child isn't opening up?
"Some children are much less likely to divulge; or they feel ashamed or they feel embarrassed, so sometimes parents have to be a bit more investigative about it," Doces said.
While no one sign is an absolute indicator that a child is being bullied, parents can look for the following:
- Avoiding activities they used to enjoy
- Loss of friends or avoiding social situations
- Problems sleeping
- Complaining of stomachaches or headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Declining grades
- Missing or damaged clothing or belongings
- Self-destructive behaviors like running away from home
If a parent is concerned their child is experiencing bullying behavior, Doces says they should talk to their child about what's going on. Start the conversation on neutral ground -- sharing a story from your own childhood can help them open up about their own experiences.
"Talk about a time when you had to handle people being unkind to you or when you saw other kids not being kind to other people," Doces said.
You want to convey the idea that when you see or experience something, telling someone is the right thing to do.
As for what to do once your child does talk to you about being bullied, it's important to remember that there's no silver bullet or one "right" way to handle the situation.
"A lot of times, when you're aware that something's going on, a lot of people, a lot of parents, just want to jump in there and fix it, and that may not be the best solution for the child," Doces said.
Some children may want to try handling the situation on their own, either by talking to the other student or going to a teacher, while others may want more parental involvement. Be an empathetic listener and be supportive of their choices.
Try role-playing with your child to give them a chance to practice what they want to say. Even something as simple as 'Stop, I don't like that,' will be easier to say when the time comes if they've said it before.
If your child decides they want to talk to their teacher alone, encourage them to let you know how it goes, but let them know you may also follow up with their teacher.
However, if altercations become physical or dramatic, go to the school and report what's happened. Ask what their policy on bullying is and how they intend to follow up. All schools should have a written policy about how they handle bullying.
Continue to follow up with your child to make sure the issues are being addressed.
"It's what we tell the kids -- if it keeps happening, you have to keep reporting until somebody does something about it," Doces told ABC. "If you tell someone and they don't help you, you need to tell someone else."
Most importantly, make sure your child knows they have a team rooting for them and wanting things to go well for them.
For more information on bullying: