Bullying has become a significant problem, but it’s not a new one. About one in every three or four kids is bullied in the U.S. The fear that your child might be bullied isn’t an unfounded one, and it’s one shared among millions of parents. But there’s a flipside to the bullying debacle, a fear that might be shared but unspoken among moms and dads across the country: What if your child is the bully?
The thought of having a child who’s doing the bullying rather than the other way around might be overwhelming to consider, but it’s not something that can be ignored. Bullying must be addressed head-on and quickly. Here’s what to know about bullying so you can help your child make better choices.
Signs of Trouble
For many parents, a call from the school provides the first clue that there’s a bullying problem taking place. Other parents hear the news from another mother or father. When someone reaches out to tell you that your child is being a bully, it can come as quite a shock.
It’s better if you can spot the signs before that happens. You’ll avoid being blindsided by a phone call, and you can work to address the behavior before things get to that point.
You can get a feel for your child’s propensity for bullying behavior by watching his interactions with others. Sit back and observe when you’re at the playground or the ballfield. Does your child behave aggressively toward other kids? That could come in the form of physical intimidation, impulsive actions or mean-spirited exclusion of others. These behaviors can begin as early as the preschool years.
You may notice worrying characteristics at home as well. Signs of bullying behavior include:
- Aggressive interaction with siblings or you
- Belittling speech, angry outbursts and quick frustration
- Violence towards pets or neighborhood animals
- Reacting favorably to characters on TV, in movies or in video games that exert control or act with violence
- Attempts to bend the rules or manipulate situations, like getting out of doing chores, shirking responsibilities around the house or avoiding consequences for misbehaving
To gain more information on your kid’s attitude toward bullying, probe for details by asking questions about others at school. Ask whether other children are picked on or bullied, and check to see how your child feels about that. Bullies tend to look on kids in that situation as weak and won’t express compassion for their situation.
If these signs lead you to suspect that your child could be a bully, but you haven’t heard anything from the school, make the first move. Reach out to a teacher to ask for insight on your child’s interactions with other students. Learn more about her behavior from adults who know her outside the home as well, such as teachers at church or coaches.
Open the Lines of Communication
Once you recognize that there’s a problem, it’s time to act. Reducing bullying behavior can be a challenging process, but it always starts with clear communication. If you can get your child to talk to you about what’s going on, you can start to work through the problem.
First, identify the behavior that you’ve noticed or that someone has pointed out to you. Ask your child to share his perspective on the situation.
Next, see if you can get to the heart of the matter. Discussing the situation may be all it takes for your child to open up about the reasons behind his aggression. For example, he might share that he often feels left out and craves the attention that his actions bring. Kids might not be eloquent, but they tend to be truthful if given the chance. They’ll usually tell you how they feel if they sense they have a safe space to share.
For many children, however, it may take several discussions before you feel like you’re reaching the root of the problem or making a difference. Not only can it be hard for children to understand what’s going on inside their brains, but bullying becomes a learned behavior. Breaking the habit takes a lot of work and may require the support of a professional.
Use Consequences with Discretion
You can’t let bullying go unchecked. Respond with consequences that will discourage negative behavior and encourage positive choices. Consequences should be logical. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime.
For example, cyberbullying results in the loss of phone or internet privileges, and playground intimidation means that park trips are off the table for a set amount of time. If the video games that your kids like are promoting violence, then switch to games that support childhood development and ditch games with mature content or ones that obviously affect your child’s mood and behavior.
Focused consequences send the right message. Vague punishments – like an open-ended grounding or simply tossing all video games in the house – don’t mean as much. The goal is to explain why something is wrong so that you can redirect the behavior.
Allow your child the opportunity to earn back privileges. Never-ending consequences can lead to a defeatist attitude, and your child may give up on trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, when right choices lead to restored privileges, kids feel encouraged to make good decisions, which can develop into positive habits.
Your child should also be expected to make restitution for his behavior. This could include writing apology notes or offering a kind gesture toward someone he has wronged. You can roleplay appropriate interactions to help your child prepare to give an apology.
Note that forcing your kids to apologize when they don’t understand why something is wrong will do little to help foster positive behavior. It’s important to explain – however often it takes – why bullying behavior isn’t appropriate. When handled correctly, discipline is a form of education. You want to teach your kids the right way to approach life, not just punish them for breaking rules. This will go a lot farther in breaking bullying habits.
Carefully Evaluate Your Family Life
While many things can influence a child’s development, kids aren’t born bullies. It’s learned behavior, and it happens while young. This doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily to blame if you have a kid who bullies others, but it should push you to consider what’s happening at home.
Is there anything going on in your child’s life that might contribute to the bullying behavior? Lots of factors can make a child’s natural aggression worse, especially if that aggression isn’t addressed in the toddler years. This isn’t to say that your child is blameless if she’s a bully – kids need to take responsibility for their own actions, even as children. But it’s important to honestly evaluate any influential factors and take steps to remedy the issues that you discover.
For example, children may bully because a parent, sibling or other family figure treats them that way at home. To gain a sense of control, those children then act aggressively towards others.
Family stress can also result in bullying behavior. Fighting among parents, siblings with health or mental problems, a move or a divorce could cause a child to act out among peers. The stress might not even be current. Traumatic experience earlier in life could provoke a child to bully others now.
Your child’s personal battles may influence her behavior as well. Anxiety, depression and loneliness can all be expressed through bullying. In those cases, the cause may be your child’s brain chemistry rather than your home life. However, you may be able to make medical or lifestyle changes to help provide relief for those mental health struggles.
Bring in Others Who Can Help
If you’ve got a child who bullies, it’s time to assemble a team of helpers for support, for both your child and you. Authority figures in the bullying setting should be first on your list. Often, this will include teachers, counselors or administrators at school. The school staff will appreciate that you want to form a united front with them, and this unified approach may help your child begin to understand the gravity of the situation. The school may also be able to help you create a discipline plan, provide regular sessions with a social worker or point you toward resources in your community.
Child or adolescent therapists can also be powerful allies in helping your child overcome the urge to bully. A trained counselor serves as an outlet for your child’s feelings and can offer strategies to help him develop positive social skills. If necessary, a therapist can also address mental health issues that contribute to the behavior.
Finally, do your best to get your family on board. If each member of your family models respect, positive communication and kind behavior on a regular basis, the child who bullies will learn the right way to respond to people. Realizing that your child is a bully can be devastating, but it’s not a hopeless situation. Figure out what’s going on and take a proactive approach in addressing the problem. We’ll say it again: Bullies are made, not born. And because the behavior is learned, it can be unlearned or mitigated with appropriate action.