When Your Kid Is the Bully: What to Do

It usually starts with a phone call from the school: Your child’s in trouble for bullying. “Ninety-nine percent of parents will say, ‘No way, not my kid’ and get defensive,” says Jennifer Cannon, a family therapist in Newport Beach, California. “But every kid is capable of bullying, even the kid you think is an angel.” So why do kids bully? Ronald Mah, a family therapist in San Leandro, California and author of Getting Beyond Bullying and Exclusion PreK-5, describes two distinct reasons why kids bully. “One reason is when popular and powerful children use bullying to maintain their power and popularity. The other reason is when children who experience a sense of deprivation feel entitled to bully other kids; that is, ‘I’ve been dealt a bad hand, so the rules don’t apply to me.’ or ‘I’ve been picked on, so I’ll get to them before they get to me.’” Kids also observe examples of bullying behavior every day through media, politics, TV reality shows, other kids at school, and even family dynamics. They may not understand that such behaviors are not acceptable anywhere.

Just take a deep breath, gather details about what exactly transpired, and let the school know that you want to work together for a positive outcome. At the same time, make sure that your child is treated fairly regarding school discipline. For example, new federal data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined much more frequently and more harshly, with suspensions as early as preschool. Assess your child’s actions without rushing to judgment and focus on understanding the behavior that’s involved before deciding on the appropriate consequences. The good news is that kids can unlearn bullying behaviors, and you can help them change their ways.

What to Do If Your Child Is Bullying Others

Acknowledge the Behavior

Sit down with your child, speak in a calm, firm tone, and ask him what happened and why he behaved a certain way. Be a good listener and avoid blame. Kids need to understand that it’s okay to admit they made a mistake. Ask questions to help him understand how his behavior affects others:

“Is what you did respectful? Did it hurt someone? Would you want someone to do that to you?” Emphasize fair treatment of all people by saying, “We don’t behave that way in this family because we respect other people, and we don’t want other people to treat us that way,” suggests Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato and author of Working With Parents of Bullies and Victims.

Focus on Consequences

Help your child understand that she is accountable for her actions. “Outline and follow through with consequences for bullying behavior. Write them out, review them once a week, and enforce them,” Cannon advises. Depending on the circumstances, you can eliminate something your child cherishes so the consequence will be significant, such taking away your child’s cell phone, eliminating or reducing TV or video game time, or preventing participation in a social outing. Or, better yet, turn the bullying incident into a teachable moment by discussing positive ways your child can handle future situations that lead to good consequences. Have your child write a paragraph describing what it would feel like to be in the other child’s shoes or write an apology letter.

Be Proactive About Working With the School

“School personnel works best when they see that parents sincerely want to improve the situation. Don’t feel you’ll be judged as a bad parent. It’s hard raising kids, and it’s not a failure to ask for help,” Roberts says. So don’t be afraid to work with the school to help your child learn behaviors that are constructive. Start with your child’s teacher and then meet with the principal, counselor, school resource officer, or district staff to come up with a plan to help your child stop bullying. Ask if counseling or other community resources are available to help your child. Stay in close touch with the school to see if your child’s behavior improves.

Build Social and Emotional Skills

Empower your child to build her skills for resolving conflicts and handling tough situations. Social and emotional learning includes self-awareness, self-management, resilience, social agility, and responsible decision-making. Look for after-school programs and extracurricular activities that can provide new settings to develop ways to build positive relationships. Improving these skills now, while your child is in elementary school, will be a lifelong gift.

Suzanne Peck is filmmaker and author of STAND TALL: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent Bullying, www.corwin.com/standtall. She has decades of experience as a teacher, trainer, and mom.

The 4 Common Types of Bullying

Identify which kind of bullying your child may be experiencing.

by Suzanne Peck

Bullying is defined as mean, hurtful behavior that occurs repeatedly in a relationship with an imbalance of power or strength. It takes many forms — verbal, physical, relational, and cyberbullying. Although schools are doing more to deal with bullying, parents are still the key to empowering kids to prevent and stop it. Here are tips on how to deal with the four common types of bullying.

Verbal Bullying

What It Is: Verbal bullying, or bullying with cruel spoken words, involves ongoing name-calling, threatening, and making disrespectful comments about someone’s attributes (appearance, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.).

Example: When a child says to another child, “You’re really, really fat, and so is your mom.”

How to Spot the Signs: Children may withdraw, become moody, or show a change in appetite. They may tell you something hurtful that someone said about them and ask you if you think it’s true.

What to Do: First, teach your kids about respect. Through your own behavior, reinforce how everyone deserves to be treated well — thank teachers, praise friends, be kind to store employees. Stress self-respect, and help your kids to appreciate their strengths. “The best protection parents can offer is to foster their child’s confidence and independence and to be willing to take action when needed,” says Shane Jimerson, Ph.D., a school psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Discuss and practice safe, constructive ways your child can respond to a bully. Brainstorm key phrases to say in a firm but not antagonistic tone, such as “That wasn’t nice,” “Leave me alone,” or “Back off.”

Physical Bullying

What It Is: Physical bullying, or bullying with aggressive physical intimidation, involves repeated hitting, kicking, tripping, blocking, pushing, and touching in unwanted and inappropriate ways.

Example: A child gets his pants pulled down on the playground at lunchtime.

How to Spot the Signs: Many children don’t tell their parents when it happens, so watch for possible warning signs like unexplained cuts, scratches or bruises, missing or damaged clothes, or frequent complaints of headaches and stomachaches.

What to Do: If you suspect your child is being physically bullied, start a casual conversation — ask what’s going on at school, during lunch or recess, or on the way home. Based on the responses, ask if anyone’s been mean to her. Try to keep your emotions in check. Emphasize the value of open, ongoing communication with you and with teachers or school counselors. Document the dates and times of bullying incidents, the responses from people involved, and the actions that have been taken. Do not contact the parents of the bully (or bullies) to resolve matters on your own. If your child continues to be physically hurt, and you need additional assistance beyond the school, contact local law enforcement. There are local, state, and federal anti-bullying and harassment laws that require prompt corrective action.

Relational Bullying

What It Is: Relational bullying, or bullying with exclusionary tactics, involves deliberately preventing someone from joining or being part of a group, whether it’s at a lunch table, game, sport, or social activity.

Example: A group of girls in dance class keeps talking about a weekend sleepover and sharing pictures, treating the one uninvited child as if she were invisible.

How to Spot the Signs: Watch for mood changes, withdrawal from peer groups, and a shift toward being alone more than usual. Girls are more likely than boys to experience social exclusion, nonverbal, or emotional intimidation. The pain can be as strong as physical bullying and last even longer.

What to Do: Make it a nightly routine to talk with your kids about how their day went, advises Jennifer Cannon, a family therapist in Newport Beach, California. Help them find things that make them happy, point out their positive qualities, and make sure they know there are people who love and care about them. Focus on developing their talents and interests in music, arts, athletics, reading, and after-school activities so your kids build relationships outside of school.

Cyberbullying

What It Is: Cyberbullying, or bullying in cyberspace, involves haranguing someone by spreading mean words, lies, and false rumors through e-mails, text messages, and social media posts. Sexist, racist, and homophobic messages create a hostile atmosphere, even when not directly targeting your child.

Example: When someone tweets or posts, “Kayden is a total loser. Why is anyone hanging out withhim? He’s so gay.”

How to Spot the Signs: Watch to see if your child spends more time online (visiting social media pages or texting) but appears to be sad and anxious afterward. Even though she’s reading painful things on her computer, tablet, or phone, this may be her only social outlet. Also take note if she has trouble sleeping, begs to stay home from school, or withdraws from activities she once loved.

What to Do: Mean messages can be distributed anonymously and quickly, leading to 24/7 cyberbullying, so first establish household rules for Internet safety. Agree on age-appropriate time limits. Know the popular and potentially abusive sites, apps, and digital devices before your kids use them. Let your kids know you will be monitoring their online activities. Tell them that if they experience cyberbullying, they shouldn’t engage, respond, or forward it. Instead, they should inform you so you can print out the offending messages, including the dates and times of when they were received. Report cyberbullying to the school and to the online service provider. If the cyberbullying escalates to include threats and sexually explicit messages, also contact local law enforcement.

If your child does approach you about being bullied or about someone else being bullied, be supportive, praise her courage for telling you, and gather information (without getting angry or accusatory). Emphasize the difference between being a tattletale who is just trying to get someone in trouble and talking to an adult who can help. Always take action with bullying, especially if it becomes severe or persistent, by contacting your child’s teacher or principal first to monitor the situation until it stops. Visit stopbullying.gov for more information.

Suzanne Peck is filmmaker and author of STAND TALL: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *