October is World Bullying Prevention Month — and for one out of five kids, being bullied is a problem they will face sometime during their education.
But what if your child isn’t the victim of bullying, but rather, the perpetrator of it?
While it might be scary, embarrassing, or upsetting to hear that your child is exhibiting bullying behaviors, it’s a parenting reality that many families must face.
But the term “bully” needn’t be a label your child wears for the rest of their lives, nor does it mean your child is inherently a “bad” kid. Likewise, it does not mean that you are a bad parent or that you’ve failed in some capacity.
If you suspect your child is a bully — either through your own observations, another parent’s or a teacher’s — there are healthy ways to address the issue with your child, identify the root causes and correct the behavior.
According to therapist and grief and trauma expert Beth Tyson, nobody is “all good or all bad,” and that includes children.
“Children who bully can also be kind, caring children in a different environment,” says Tyson. “Notice what they are doing when acting appropriately … Don’t gloss over the child’s aggressive behavior, but remember to notice the good in the child.”
Why do kids become bullies?
For parents of bullies, the first question they may ask themselves is, “How did my child become like this?”
After all, no one intentionally raises their kids to be aggressive or controlling. Certainly, every family wants to raise empathetic, kind and friendly children. So what causes bullying behavior to develop?
Many experts seem to agree that bullying is primarily about power — or rather, the lack thereof.
“We all have the fundamental need for power and control, which is having a say in the direction of [our lives] and the choices [we] are allowed to make,” said therapist Habiba Zaman. “When a child doesn’t feel that sense of personal power, they will take that from someone else.”
Zaman said that, for some children, a feeling of insecurity could cause their bullying behavior.
“[It could be that] the child feels inadequate and insecure about their intellectual or physical ability … Watching someone who is better than them at any activity will highlight that insecurity. With that unease, they will cope by putting other children down or finding elements about the other children to criticize … When verbal criticisms are not effective, they will often resort to physical attacks.”
Another potential cause of bullying behavior is the inability to express needs and feelings. According to psychologist Megan Rhoads, children see “acting-out behaviors” as a means of communication.
“Maybe your child is having trouble adapting to life after the pandemic, a recent divorce, loss of a loved one, moving to a new city or adjusting to going back to school in person,” said Rhoads. “Many times, children become bullies because they have not learned other ways to express their needs.”
And while it may be difficult to consider, some children who exhibit bullying behavior might be imitating behavior they witness at home.
“Kids are like sponges. They often reenact the behaviors that are modeled to them. It is possible that bullying occurs in the home either by parents or siblings,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff.
“It’s also possible that parents unintentionally make their children feel powerless or out of control in ways that motivate them to compensate by seeking power in arenas [where] they can reverse those roles.”
This might necessitate some challenging introspection for parents — and perhaps some bravery, according to Rhoads.
“Parents, please, PLEASE be brave enough to take a look at your own behaviors first and be willing to make some changes,” Rhoads said. “If your child sees you raising your voice to intimidate someone, argue with your partner in a demanding or demeaning way or even use your body to block someone’s way, they are likely doing the same behaviors at school, on the playground, etc.”
What is the first step parents should take to address bullying?
If you’re informed that your child is participating in bullying behaviors, and you’ve confirmed the details with the parties involved, the first thing you should do is sit your child down for a serious — but loving — conversation.
“In order to help your child, the child needs to have a sense that you will continue to love him no matter that they have engaged in bullying behavior,” parenting expert and writer Varda Meyers Epstein said. “Your child needs to know you’re in their corner, always.”
According to Rhoads, parents should ask their children straight-out, without judgment, if they’ve been partaking in any behaviors that could be perceived as unkind or harmful.
“If the child denies this, the parents [should then] ask the child if there are any particular behaviors that would feel hurtful to them if someone else were to do it to them,” said Rhoads. “The purpose is to bring awareness to the child about the impact of their behaviors and teach them to be empathetic towards others.”
Once you’ve had this conversation with your child, experts say it’s important to let your children know there will be no more bullying. Calmly explain your expectations for the future, and put in place some reasonable consequences for their behavior. “Don’t buy the fancy phone your child begged for. Cancel delivery on the much-desired new laptop. Let the child know why,” said Epstein.
While it may be an emotionally charged situation for parents, addressing bullying — both with our children and the adults involved — is a good opportunity to model the kind of behavior we want our children to exhibit.
“When our child makes a mistake, it may feel like we as the parents are blamed, which naturally puts us in a defensive stance, but getting defensive or panicking will only make matters worse. Instead, try to keep a level head using curiosity and search for solutions with your child’s school team. This experience can allow your child to learn how you handle conflict and will be a model for navigating their disputes in the future,” said Tyson.
Once you’ve communicated with your child and other adults involved, you might also want to consider consulting professional guidance through the advice of a child psychologist or psychiatrist, who has more expertise in determining behaviors of children, according to Elizabeth Fraley, CEO of Kinder Ready, an organization that helps prepare kids for pre-K and private school.
How should parents talk to their kids about bullying and why it’s wrong?
According to therapist and mediator Rich Heller, it can be tempting for people in roles of authority to punish the bully and feel badly for the victim. “In fact, both the bully and the victim need support and encouragement in order to break the cycle,” said Heller.
The first step in supporting your child is to listen to and validate their feelings, rather than shaming them.
“Kids will be in a defensive position if you don’t validate their situation before explaining why their behavior was wrong,” said Dr. Sabrina Romanoff. “They will be much more receptive and open to hearing you if you show them that you understand where they are coming from. Once they feel you are in their corner, they will have the capacity to step into the shoes of their victim.”
Ensure that your children understand what exactly “bullying” is, as they might not understand or be aware that they’ve been using bullying behavior. Give examples of behavior and language that can hurt other people — and perhaps make it personal by sharing some of your own bad experiences of being bullied.
Once you’ve outlined bullying behavior, ask your child to reverse the roles and see how they’d feel if someone treated them that way.
“Give an example where they might want to bully and coach them through what to say differently. For example: ‘You are sitting alone on the swings during recess when a few kids you don’t usually play with come over and ask if they can use your swing. What do you do? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Can you think of any other ways you could handle this situation?'” said Tyson.
“If they can’t develop any appropriate ideas, suggest one for them and role-play the case again. The key here is to let the child solve problems if possible, giving them a sense of agency and autonomy that builds confidence. Don’t be too quick to jump in with suggestions before they have a chance to come up with one.”
Normalizing conversations about emotions and working together to address problems will help your child feel safe in approaching you with their feelings — thus potentially curbing future aggression.
“Always keep an open line of communication with your child. Let them know no matter how big the problem is, they have you day or night to share anything that is upsetting them or not feeling right,” said Elizabeth Fraley.
What measures should parents not take to correct bullying?
Threatening, yelling, shaming or name-calling will not help children correct their bullying behavior.
“Saying things like ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and ‘that is bad’ are only going to make your child feel terrible about themselves, and it could be low self-esteem or an emotional issue that is the underlying problem,” said Rhoads.
While shame might quickly change your child’s behavior in the short term, it could leave behind collateral damage that affects their mental health in the long run, according to Tyson. “Shaming your child is another form of bullying, and will only exacerbate the problem.”
Additionally, be mindful of the language you use during the conversation. According to Epstein, labels are never good.
“Don’t call the child a bully, but instead refer to ‘someone who uses bullying behavior.’ This tells the child that they won’t always be a bully. It’s not carved in stone. Behavior can be unlearned or modified. Children have a wide-open future. It’s not a fact that ‘once a bully, always a bully.’ Careful language separates the child from the child’s behavior, and may actually come as a relief,” said Epstein.
How can parents stop the bullying behavior?
Once you and your child have worked together to figure out possible causes of their bullying behavior, parents should then begin the “long and slow” process of building up your child’s self-esteem and empathy, according to therapist and mediator Rich Heller.
“Both children who are bullied and children who are bullying tend to have low self-esteem. Building up a child’s self-esteem takes time. It takes conscious effort,” said Heller.
To help your children develop empathy, teach your kids how to identify their own feelings so that they can learn to identify and value others’ feelings as well.
“Set time aside every day to talk to them about what is going on throughout their day, teach them to identify their emotions with words and be sure you speak to them in a calm, respectful manner,” said Rhoads.
Role-playing can also help kids develop empathy and to learn how to resolve conflicts without bullying. This also gives you the opportunity to model the behavior you expect from them.
“Take turns playing the victim and the bully. Teach your child how to manage angry feelings, frustration and anxiety,” said Epstein. “When your child succeeds, don’t hesitate to praise and reward their behavior. Play games with your child to show that, win or lose, it doesn’t matter: It’s how you play the game. Empathize with your child when they lose, offer praise when they win. Encourage the child to do the same for you.”
Be sure to take the lessons out of the house and into the world so they can see the real-life impact of kindness.
“Provide a model for your child, engaging in acts of kindness, respect and compassion. Ask your child if they noticed the smile on the neighbor’s face when you did him a kindness. Ask the child how they think the neighbor felt,” said Epstein.
And when it comes to punishment for kids exhibiting bullying behavior, Tyson said that parents must maintain reasonable and age-appropriate consequences.
“Make sure there is an end in sight to the punishment. If you revoke a privilege indefinitely, the child will likely decide, ‘What’s the point of trying?’ Keep consequences reasonable, and the child is more motivated to change,” said Tyson.
Tyson added that consequences should be relevant to the bullying behavior your child exhibited. If the child participated in cyber-bullying, put forth a temporary loss of screen time; if the aggression was in person, remove certain social activities for a time.
For children impacted by trauma, Tyson said, consider adding on a punishment, rather than taking something away. “Often children who have been abused and neglected have already lost so much. Taking things away can be a trigger. For example, you could add on consequences, like community service or volunteering, instead of triggering the loss.”
Once your child has regained their privileges, work together in coming up with a way to make things right. According to Child Mind Institute, your kids can do this by apologizing in a letter, baking cookies for their class or interacting with a peer they previously excluded or mistreated.
What long-term steps should parents take to end bullying behavior?
Once you address the bullying behavior with your kids, continue to monitor the situation closely. Check in with teachers and other adults to see if your child’s behavior has improved. Openly praise your kids if they get a good report.
If your child’s bullying behavior has taken place online, and is thus harder for teachers or other adults to observe, let your child know you’ll be checking their account to make sure they’re using social media in a kind and positive way.
Additionally, continue to check in with your kids’ emotions and remain invested in their daily lives. By having a consistently present and positive force in their lives, your kids will feel loved and supported, which will bolster their self-esteem.
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