How did my kid become a bully and what can I do about it?
So, it turns out your sweet bundle of joy is not so sweet to everyone. Perhaps you’ve suspected this, but have chosen to chalk it up to his forceful personality or have taken a kids will be kids attitude. Maybe you have convinced yourself it was innocent because she didn’t mean it or there were extenuating circumstances. The fact that most of us are aware that bullying happens, often with dire consequences, doesn’t make it any easier to admit that our own child is culpable or to know how to respond when we find out.
Why do kids bully?
There is no single reason. Several years ago, in a segment of a national radio news show discussing this topic, the host asked people who had been bullies to call in. While admittedly a very small sample, the listeners who called illustrated some important points.
The first caller, Laurel, shared how, in third grade, her friend simply began to “rub her the wrong way.” One day they were great friends, and the next, Laurel began avoiding the girl and making fun of her. She went on to join a clique of popular girls and the girl she bullied moved away. Later in life, she realized that she had become a mean person, but couldn’t trace it back to anything other than a single day when her attitude changed for no apparent reason.
Tony explained that he had been badly bullied in middle school. By ninth grade, as he gained a small measure of popularity, he became the bully. “The moment that I felt like I had that power over someone else, I took it and went with it,” he said.
Matthew shared that he got others to be the bullies for him. He recognized that, physically, he was the type that would be an easy target, but he knew how to talk to kids. He identified boys who were bigger, but had low self esteem and could be manipulated. He would help them out in school and build them up, so they would protect him by going after kids he didn’t like. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong because they were just sticking up for their friend.
A listener emailed that he became a bully after years of physical abuse by his father and psychological and physical abuse by his classmates. He took out his frustrations on the first person he found who was weaker than he was. He’s regretful of that behavior, but he shared his anger at the school system that was “blind to my plight.” (Talk of the Nation, 2010).
These examples show that bullying behavior can happen as a defense against bullying or as retaliation for bullying. It may also occur when kids are unable to express feelings of anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, or overwhelm, in a constructive way. Though each case is a little different, they demonstrate a need to be in control, even at the expense of someone else.
What you can do
Here are some recommendations from experts to keep in mind if you learn that your child is bullying someone, or to prevent bullying behavior before it happens:
- Rosalind Wiseman, well known author and educator on bullying and violence prevention, points out that bullies often think they’re right and will find ways to justify their actions. She advises parents to hold their child accountable, even if he or she feels provoked. There are likely multiple sides to the story, and she recommends asking the child if any part of what is being said is true. This opens up the conversation, removes the need for the child to be on the defensive, and helps the parent get a more complete picture of what happened. It also makes it easier for the child to accept responsibility for his/her actions, which is a necessary step in preventing future bullying. (Levy, Wiseman; n.d.)
- Psychologist Joel Haber, PhD., advises parents to encourage empathy with the victim. After you hear your child’s version of events, encourage him/her to see the situation from the other child’s perspective. (Sizer, Haber; n.d.)
- Ben Leichtling, PhD., author of several books on bullying, suggests getting to the root cause of the bullying behavior and then brainstorming with your child more positive ways to act. (Sizer, Leichtling; n.d.)
- Barbara Coloroso, author of “The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander,” says to be honest with yourself about your own behaviors that may be modeling bullying. Any behaviors you engage in that make someone else feel small, such as being curt, gossiping and spreading rumors, or rolling your eyes when you disagree with someone, signal to your child that this is acceptable. (Sizer, Coloroso; n.d.)
Wiseman further advises that when you get the dreaded call from your child’s school or the parent of the victim, to take a breath. Give yourself a moment to process what is happening and be receptive to the information. Thank the person for alerting you, and acknowledge that it is a difficult call for them to make. Assure the person calling that you will address the matter with your child, and then follow up if you need more information or to share what you are doing to correct the situation. If the other parent is distraught and yells or talks fast, assure him or her that you want to hear what they are saying, but that it is difficult when they are speaking that way.
Conan, N. (2010) Former Bullies Share What Motivated Behavior. Talk of the Nation. Retrieved on October 25, 2015, from: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125065190
Levy, D. (n.d.) (Gulp!) What to do When Your Child is the Bully. Care.com. Retrieved on October 25, 2015, from: https://www.care.com/a/gulp-what-to-do-when-your-child-is-the-bully-1108170408
Sizer, B.B. (n.d.) What to Do When Your Child is a Bully. PBS.com. Retrieved on October 25, 2015, from: https://www.pbs.org/parents/education/going-to-school/social/what-to-do-when-your-child-is-a-bully/