October 31, 2018
What to do when your child is the bully
BY K. LORI HANSON, PH.D.
It’s a call no parent wants to get. There’s been a bullying incident at school. Problem is, it’s your child who’s the bully.
It happens more often than you think, and to lots of “good” parents just like you. According to stopbullying.gov, one in four students has been bullied at school, with most bullying (verbal and social) occurring in middle school — and approximately 30 percent of children admit to bullying others.
So, what to do? Instead of getting defensive, which is the immediate — and natural — response for most parents, take a deep breath and get the details about exactly what transpired. If the situation happened at school, let personnel know you want to work together for a positive outcome.
The most important things to do are assess your child’s actions without rushing to judgment and focus on understanding the behavior that’s involved before deciding on appropriate consequences. Is it really bullying?
Children are intentionally cruel sometimes, lashing out with hurtful words when they’re angered, scared or feeling insecure. But that doesn’t mean they’re a bully — and it’s important to make that distinction. According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is unwanted, intensely aggressive behavior involving a real or perceived power imbalance that occurs repeatedly over time between school-age children, and it can be verbal, social, physical or a combination of all three.
Whether an isolated incident of meanness or a more serious pattern of bullying, know that the behavior can be unlearned. Start with the following:
- Get the details.
Sit down with your child and calmly ask what happened without assigning blame. Be a good listener but make sure to ask questions like “Would you want someone to do that to you?” or “Is what you did respectful?” so they can better understand how their behavior affects others. If your child tries to push the blame onto another participant (and you know this to not be true) reiterate that you aren’t interested in hearing about other kids — just what they did.
- Look for the root cause.
Just because your child did something hurtful doesn’t mean they’re “bad” or that you’re a failure as a parent (though it can absolutely feel that way). In most instances, it means your child is struggling to get something they want — attention or control, for instance — and is using bad behavior patterns to solve a problem. They may feel sad, angry, lonely or insecure. Your job is to better understand the how and why behind that reaction and brainstorm together to determine more positive ways to act. Communication with your child is key.
- Have your child make amends.
This may mean apologizing to the other child in the presence of a school guidance counselor or writing an apology letter. Encourage empathy by asking your child to imagine themselves in the victim’s shoes. One way to do this is to role-play or have them write a paragraph describing what it would feel like to be the other child. You might even ask them how they’d feel if someone did what they did to their brother or sister. When kids learn to see things from a different perspective, they are less likely to bully again.
- Follow through with punishment.
Children need to understand they are accountable for their actions. Outline and follow through with consequences for bullying behavior by eliminating something they covet, such as screen time or participation in a social outing.
- Involve the school.
If bullying incidents are happening at school — despite conversations with your child to correct them — you need to enlist the school to help keep tabs on their behavior and report back to you. At the same time, you may want to ask a teacher or a school counselor if your child is facing problems at school, such as difficulty making friends, or experiencing a problem with a specific subject. Often, kids who bully feel mistreated themselves.
- Be a role model.
Be honest with yourself and analyze any of your own behaviors that could send your child the message that it’s OK to make another person feel bad. Are you sometimes curt with salespeople? Do you gossip with friends? Kids observe what we do so you need to look deep within yourself and acknowledge any shortcomings.
- Build better skills.
Pay attention to the details of your child’s bullying behavior. Are there social or emotional skills they’re lacking that may prevent future bullying incidents like anger management and impulse control? Or is your child bullying to fit in or get attention? If so, this could be a self-esteem issue. If you do recognize a void, speak to a school counselor or other relevant professional for advice on how to fill it.
K. Lori Hanson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and chief of research, evaluation and strategic planning at The Children’s Trust, has more than 20 years’ experience assessing critical data and community research regarding the needs of children and families. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org