What To Do When Your Child Is the Bully
Having your child be accused of bullying feels both hurtful and frightening. Here are steps you can take to work through this challenge successfully.
We all hope to raise thoughtful, warm children who bring nothing but sunshine to everyone who encounters them. The reality, though, is that kids make poor choices as they go through the challenging act of growing up, and it’s inevitable that we’ll face moments when our child has harmed someone else. It may even occur that our child will do so repeatedly, resulting in the dreaded label “bully.”
First, know that you’re not alone. Secondly, know that there are steps you can take to work beyond bullying:
Signs that a child is bullying
If your child is bullying others, you will most likely be alerted to it by teachers or the parents. Other signs of bullying may include:
- Making fun of others or talking about other kids in a negative and aggressive way
- Excluding children from play and social activities
- Having items like toys, money or personal belongings that don’t belong to him/ her
- Being obsessed with popularity and social status
- Showing lack of empathy
While these signs don’t definitely mean your child is bullying, if you notice them, it’s worth talking to your child’s teacher to see if they’ve been any problems at school.
6 ways to manage when your child is a bully
#1 Manage Your Shame Spiral
Hearing that our child has been acting as a bully unleashes massive feelings of not being “good enough” as a parent. We might think, “Where did I go wrong?” “What is wrong with me that my kid is acting this way?” and/or “What a crummy parent I must be to have let this happen.”
When we feel unworthy, we’re experiencing shame. As Brene Brown, Ph.D., explores in her research and books like Rising Strong, shame is a destructive emotion that makes us act in unhealthy ways, such as lashing out, which might be at our child, the accuser(s) and/or school administrators; overconsuming food, alcohol, or drugs; and/or overspending, among other destructive behaviors.
Whatever our particular reaction to shame may be, it’s not productive for addressing the issue at hand: an accusation of bullying. Therefore we need to take self-care measures before taking any actions. Brown offers three steps to shame resilience, which is bouncing back from feelings of unworthiness:
- “Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.” In other words, what would you tell a loved one who was dealing with hearing that her child has been bullying another child? Would you call her a bad parent? Would you blame her? Never. Save some compassion for yourself. Every child makes poor decisions, and this can be an intense learning opportunity for your child to become more responsible going forward.
- “Reach out to someone you trust.”Shame wants us to stay quiet. The more we keep our shameful emotions hidden, the more shame flourishes. Therefore, it’s key to have even just one person to whom you can say anything without fearing that they’ll disconnect from you.
- “Tell your story.”Finally, tell the trusted person exactly what your child is accused of doing, how you’re feeling about the incidents, and what your fears and concerns are about next steps. The more you speak your truth, the more well equipped you’ll be to support your child through the process of moving beyond bullying.
#2 Understand What Bullying Is
The first step in any process is gaining knowledge. Therefore, once you’ve spoken your shame and feel centered again, it’s time to do some learning.
We tend to throw the word “bully” around to describe any harmful act. While no destructive act should be overlooked, genuine bullying occurs when there is a series of repeated attacks by one person on another. These attacks may be physical, verbal or emotional, and may occur in person or online (i.e., cyberbullying).
The relentless, ongoing nature of bullying typically causes more harm than one-off confrontations because the victim begins to feel constantly afraid. This is especially the case with cyberbullying since the victim isn’t even safe at home. In addition, during cyberbullying the attacks are usually highly public and can be made by anonymous individuals. Due to this combination of factors, teens rate cyberbullying as more harmful than traditional in-person bullying.
#3 Talk to your child
Find a time to sit down with your child to discuss the incident/s in way that’s calm and doesn’t impose any blame on them. It’s important however that they understand that bullying behavior is not ok.
- Talk to your child what bullying is. Discuss with your child about what he/she’s doing and why he/she might be doing it. Listen intently and try to avoid blame.
- Help your child to understand how their behavior may affects others
#4 Make Amends
As you’re coming to better understand bullying, it’s important to reach out and make amends to the victim(s) and their families. While you personally did not enact the hurt, it’s our responsibility as parents to acknowledge and address the pain.
At some point, when all adults involved deem it to be safe to do so, your child should also atone for his or her actions. In order to build empathy and prosocial thinking, the form of expression for the apology should be chosen by your child; it shouldn’t be scripted for them. You can help elicit their response by asking questions such as:
- What do you think (the victim) is feeling right now? Why is he/she feeling that way?
- How would you feel if (the incidents) had happened to you?
- What might make you feel better if this had happened to you?
#5 Identify Root Causes
All behaviors have a function. Therefore, children who bully do so for a reason, which might include:
- To gain attention and/or status. Depending on the social norms of the school, bullying can be a very effective way to get people to notice you and even, often out of fear, to give you the rewards that come with high status. Schools that create a social climate that discourage bullying are more likely to undermine this reason for bullying.
- While they adjust to changing circumstances.Change is a major source of stress in anyone’s life. Children and teens are already experiencing plenty of physiological changes as they grow, in combination with normative changes like getting new teachers and classmates annually, adjusting to new school buildings every few years, and navigating the on-off schedule of the academic year. Throw in other possible changes like moving between houses, divorce, death of loved ones, and a child can easily become overwhelmed. Some children externalize that stress, lashing out in obvious or subtle ways, sometimes leading to bullying.
- Because they’re being bullied, at school and/or home.Bully-victims are individuals who are caught in a cycle of lashing out and being bullied, often without a clear indication of which started first.
- To avoid being bullied. Some children join in on the bullying to avoid being bullied themselves.
- Due to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, impulsivity issues, and/or other mental health concerns. Children who bully are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, impulsivity (including ADHD) and other mental health issues than children who do not bully. Bullying can be a genuine call for help from a child who cannot organize themselves to call out in any other way.
Often there are a combination of reasons for bullying behavior. For instance, a child who has underlying anxiety may respond to changing circumstances by bullying, whereas a child who is not anxious might handle the same circumstances without any fallout.
#6 Be and Remain Proactive
Once you’ve identified the root causes for your child, you can take action:
- Encourage school administrators to implement anti-bullying programming in your child’s school. The most effective programs are those that change the culture within the school, promoting prosocial behavior and encouraging students to speak out against acts of bullying.
- Seek professional support. Children who are bullying will likely need professional help to deal with their feelings of shame, sadness, powerlessness and/or rage, and to find healthy outlets for these very normal emotions. You can get the ball rolling on supporting your child in this way by contacting your school’s social work team and/or your child’s pediatrician. Help your child recognize that this is by no means a punishment but rather an opportunity for caring for oneself that is healthy for any of us to engage in.
- Schedule in plenty of opportunities for positive attention. Life is busy and while we all hope we provide plenty of attention to our kids, the reality is that often we give the most attention when our child is being the most disruptive. Instead we can regularly create times to be with our child one-on-one, even if it’s simply reading together in the evenings. Providing attention can’t just fall on us as the parents, though; that would be unsustainable. Therefore, encourage your child’s involvement in activities at which they excel or are at least highly engaged. Through these activities, they will gain positive attention from others that may fill any need for attention that bullying was providing.
Changing a pattern of bullying isn’t a one-time intervention; doing so requires ongoing maintenance and proactivity. That’s true of parenting in general, though, and any relationship we value.
More on Bullying
Not all unkindness is bullying. Teacher and Writer, Braden Bell, discusses why we need to teach kids to differentiate in his article on What parents need to know about bullying.
Can you bully-proof your child? Unfortunately, no. But, there are ways to empower them against it. See how in our article on 11 ways to empower your child against bullying.