Bullying is a massive problem that starts with toddlers and continues into workplace bullying between adults. Despite the broad range of ages that must deal with bullying, the majority of bullying takes place during a child’s school years. Middle and high schools are notorious for bullying problems. Teens and pre-teens are expected to face bullying at some point during their school years.

This expectation of bullying has permeated pop culture as well. No movie about high school is complete without the cruel clique of popular girls or mean spirited jock. Such movies, however, portray obvious and flagrant bullying such as shoving smaller students into lockers or mocking the new girl in front of the entire school. Most bullying today is far more insidious. Because most bullying today is more subtle, it is harder to stop or control, and the effects of the continuing bullying epidemic are seen in heartbreaking news stories about young suicides. But how can you tell if your child is suffering from bullying before it reaches the point of tragedy? Make sure you are aware of changes in your child’s behavior and alert for the subtle signs of bullying.

Avoiding Attention

If your child has always been quiet or shy this may not be a tip-off. If he used to love attention and now shuns the limelight, there may be something wrong. A child who is bullied wants to avoid being noticed. If the bully doesn’t see them, they are safe. If your outgoing girl seems to have suddenly become shy, a serious conversation may be in order. Don’t fall for the common euphemisms either. Few children or teens want to admit that they have been targeted by a classmate or made a victim of bullying. Your child may attempt to brush a serious problem off as “just some drama” or “just some guys being stupid.” Teenagers are especially prone to this because they don’t want to admit they can’t handle a problem at school.

Avoiding attention can also take the form of wanting to drop out of afterschool activities. If your talented dancer wants to stop going to classes or your star soccer player wants to hang up her cleats, bullying may be the underlying reason. Talented children and teens are often targeted by bullies who are jealous of their talent, especially if those talents don’t conform to traditional gender roles. A boy who is a fabulous ballet dancer is much more likely to be bullied than if he was a star basketball player.

Self-Depreciating Behavior

No one wants their child to be a braggart. When modesty tips into self-depreciation, though, there is likely a trigger for the change. A child who suddenly doubts their talent for no apparent reason or engages in a great deal of negative self-talk may be the victim of bullying. It’s easy for a child or teen to start to second-guess their abilities when they are constantly being put down at school or at practice. A little self-doubt is normal as youth continue to encounter larger and more diverse groups of people, but those periods of uncertainty should be brief or have a clear trigger. It makes sense that she might be dealing with some doubt after losing a race for the first time in her track career. He might be struggling with calculus after years of being the “math wiz.” If she’s doubting herself for no apparent reason or his self-talk is harsh enough to make you concerned, it may be time to start looking for other subtle signs of bullying.

Self-depreciating behavior can also take the form of excessive comparison to others. A little competition between classmates is healthy, but if she insists that she’s stupid because Heather is smarter than her there may be a problem. A bully can easily put down your son by pointing out that John did better on the last test. Be on the lookout for excessive comparisons, especially if the same name comes up repeatedly.

Change in Behavior Towards You

If your independent son suddenly needs your opinion on everything or your chatty girl has stopped talking to you, they may be facing a bullying problem at school. Bullies are talented at finding even the most self-assured teen’s weak points. Sudden clinginess at home may come from a feeling of being isolated at school while withdrawing may be due to a sense of emotional pain or overwhelm.

Sudden sensitivity or defensiveness can be another sign that your child is a victim of bullying. Sudden or extreme sensitivity can be caused by bullies wearing a person down with constant criticisms. Similarly, defensiveness can come from the sense that anything and everything could be an attack. Moodiness is common in teens, but there may be a problem at school if your usually calm son is ready to pick a fight when you remind him to wash his dishes or your cheerful daughter bursts into tears when you remind her to keep her makeup off the bathroom counter.