Ways to Identify and Address Bullying of Foster Children

Last updated: July 1, 2020, at 5:24 a.m. PT

Originally published: September 12, 2018, at 5:06 a.m. PT

If you were bullied or observed bullying when you were in school, you’ll recall how affecting it can be. Sadly, around 20% of children age 12 to 18 report being bullied, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics. Any child is at risk of being bullied, but foster children may be even more susceptible. Early exposure to trauma and abuse can result in lower self-esteem, shyness, or lack of social skills – all of which draw the attention of bullies who are looking for vulnerable targets. 

Besides being unpleasant and distracting, being the subject of bullying can lead to anxiety, trouble in school, eating disorders, and depression in children. It’s important to educate yourself and your foster child, to know the signs, and understand what to do if you suspect and then discover bullying.  

Ways to Prevent Bullying

Because bullying can happen anywhere, parents, school staff, and other adults in the community have a shared responsibility to help prevent it. It’s important to form strong relationships and communication channels with each other and between adults and your foster child. Discuss bullying and prevention with the adults in your foster child’s life. 

At home, create an environment in which the child feels comfortable talking to you. Engage them in general conversation about their day: what classes or teachers they like, who they like to sit with, etc. That way you’ll have consistent information about how school is going, and if bullying does start they’ll be more likely to drop a hint or bring it up with you.  

It’s a good idea to bring up bullying proactively. Educate them on what bullying is, make sure they understand it’s unacceptable and that they can always come to you for help. Encourage them to speak up if they or someone else is being bullied. 

What to Look For

Foster children may be reluctant to admit they’re being bullied, or they may go to great lengths to hide it from you. That’s why it’s important to maintain consistent communication and keep an eye out for the warning signs of bullying: 

  • Not wanting to go to school or faking sick  
  • Lost or destroyed items or clothing 
  • Unexplained injuries 
  • Lying or telling stories about missing items and injuries 
  • Declining grades 
  • Lack of or loss of friends 
  • Decrease in self esteem 
  • Change in eating habits, such as coming home from school hungry 
  • Frequent aches and pains 
  • Sleep issues, nightmares 
  • Self-destructive behavior 
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts and practicing self-harm 
  • Attempting to run away 

What to Do If You Suspect Bullying

Ask questions to learn more about the situation, and reassure the child that you support them. Observe their behavior and take any changes or warning signs seriously. You can pick them up from school and observe any concerning behavior on the playground or with other kids.  

If you identify bullying, address it as readily as possible and show them you take it seriously. Keep a record of the incidents and report it to school officials or other appropriate contacts, depending on where the abuse occurred. Work with the other adults involved to come up with actionable steps to stop the bullying and support your child.  

What Else Can I Do?

When your child is being bullied out in the world, it can leave you feeling helpless. Fortunately there are things you can do at home to help support and empower them on an ongoing basis. 

  • Ask your child if they would like to invite anyone over. This will help them build close relationships outside of school, which may decrease the bullying incidents in school.  
  • Provide them with ideas for standing up to bullying safely, like using humor to diffuse the situation and saying “stop” directly and confidently. Encourage them to walk away if those tactics don’t work, and advise them to stay near adults or groups of other kids as much as possible. 
  • Keep checking in with them often to make sure the bullying doesn’t return. Work with their teachers to reinforce the same open communication at school. 
  • Support their interest in activities or hobbies to help them boost their confidence and make friends. 
  • Be a positive role model for treating others with kindness and respect. 

There’s no cure for bullying, unfortunately, but hopefully being armed with ways to identify and address it will help ease your mind. As a parent, the best thing you can do is establish open communication with your child, listen to them, take their concerns seriously, and act quickly when issues arise.