As a parent of a young athlete, you have many responsibilities, one of which is keeping your kids safe. Among the most prevalent threats to our kids today is bullying. I know, I know. You've already watched a documentary, read the pamphlets sent home from school, and maybe even attended a school-wide assembly.
But spotting bullying in youth sports requires a keener eye than in-school bullying, both because it can involve kids and parents you barely know as well as the fact that kids tend to downplay sports bullying more than other types. Why? Because, in sports, there's that extra expectation that athletes need to be "tough" or "strong," which makes kids more reticent to communicate what's really going on. And If they're not telling you that something's wrong, how can you tell if your youth athlete is being bullied?
There are three places to look for clues so you can decide whether to relax or take action immediately. These three battlegrounds span the physical, psychological, and social domains -- and this is what to look for.
Bruises and Broken Gear - The Physical
Sometimes there are obvious physical signs your kid is being bullied, like bruises and broken gear. Of course, some injuries are just part of the game, but you can tell the difference between what's expected from playing a sport and circumstances that seem odd or unexplained. A twisted ankle on the soccer field is one thing, but a random black eye or odd bruises explained away with "It's no big deal" are something altogether different.
Is there physical damage to your kid's equipment or is it simply "missing"? How did the net rip out of his lacrosse stick...again? Where did his glove disappear to? Why is her swimsuit constantly ripping? If you start to notice this type of damage, it might be time to take a closer look at what's going on. Is a bully damaging your kid's gear? Or is your own kid performing the sabotage? Either way, something abnormal is going on and you need to find out what it is and why.
Emotional Red Lights - The Psychological
The second area to watch is the emotional state of your athlete. For example, alongside real physical injuries are the complaints about health problems you suspect aren't real but are real enough to make her want to sit out practice or even a game. Is your athlete complaining about more than the usual number of "stomachaches" and "headaches"? That's a big clue that something's not right.
What happened to your happy, outgoing child? Why is she sullen, withdrawn, and isolating? Why is she so short-tempered? In the beginning, she couldn't wait to go to practice, but now you're dragging her to the car. And after practice, she snaps at you and tells you to leave her alone. Has she ever told you practice was cancelled only to find out later it wasn't? What changed?
The Mystique of the Clique - The Social
You already know your kid is part of a complex and dynamic social network that's hard enough for your kid--much less you--to keep straight. It's an ever-changing kaleidoscope of friendships, peer pressure, cliques, and rivalries. But there are signs that something's shifted on the team.
Her soccer buddies used to be over at your house all the time chilling out and laughing, but now they all seem to congregate at someone else's house after practice--and your kid isn't invited. How come her BFF is MIA? Why do the texts and Snapchats she's receiving seem to make her particularly sullen--or throw her into a rage? When she actually answers your question, "How's it going on the team?" does she tell you there's "drama" or that her teammates are "mean girls"? And when did she start bullying her younger siblings? Is she learning how to be a bully by being bullied?
No one has the right to bully your kid and pollute her sport experience with fear and dread. It's tough to raise a happy, carefree kid much less a kid who's suffering on the physical, emotional, and social battlegrounds.
Do you see any of these warning signs in your own kid? If so, do you know what to do next? That's the topic of my next column and, in the meantime, I welcome your own input and experiences.
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