Parents whose children are the victims of bullies have a lot of resources available to help them navigate helping their children. In contrast, the parents who find that it's their children who are the bullies may not know where to turn for guidance.
There is a logical reason for this, says Melinda Wenner Moyer, science and parenting journalist and author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. “Parents have blinders on when it comes to their own kids” and may be in denial that their children are malicious or have tendencies that could result in bullying behavior, says Moyer.
Titania Jordan, Bark Technologies’s chief parenting officer and author of Parenting in a Tech World, also notes that while “bullying isn’t new ... the ways in which children bully have expanded since [they] were kids,” including cyberbullying.
That means a lot of parents don’t know what to do when they notice concerning behavior in their children and are often caught off-guard when they get a call telling them their child was the aggressor in a situation that left another child with hurt feelings — or worse.
When a parent finds out their child may be a bully, emotions run high and many parents may be in denial. However, Kristen C. Eccleston, a consultant for Weinfeld Education Group, says it’s important to “approach the issue head-on” and “focus on how you can help your child work through whatever is bothering them rather than dismissing or becoming defensive about the issue.”
What is bullying?
Not every interaction between children that goes awry is bullying. How parents react may vary based on whether their child is truly engaged in bullying.
According to adolescent and child psychiatrist Dr. Larry Mitnaul, "bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior, typically among school-aged children. Typically, there is a perceived power imbalance and the aggressive behaviors tend to be repeated over time.”
Harm could be as simple as hurt feelings, and a power imbalance could involve anything from a noticeable difference in size to different social status. If a child is “mean to a kid once” or a child is having a problem with a friend, it’s probably not bullying, adds Moyer — “it’s just life." While bullying does need to be addressed, Moyer cautions parents not to jump in every time a child has a problem with a friend. By doing so, she cautions, parents may prevent children from developing social skills they will need “to deal with different social situations throughout their whole lives.”
Not all bullies are mean
Some children set out to hurt someone’s feelings and know exactly what they are doing. However, very often a child who engages in bullying behavior “doesn’t necessarily know what they are doing is harmful,” says Moyer. It’s important to know the difference. Moyer notes, for example, that children often do or say things they think are funny and are surprised when someone winds up with hurt feelings. This is because many children haven’t yet developed a “theory of mind,” which allows them to “put themselves in other people's shoes to know [what] is hurtful,” Moyer explains. She adds that this is an “advanced skill” that children develop over time, often with guidance from their parents and other adults in their lives.
Are there signs a child will be a bully?
Ideally parents would be tuned into signs their child might turn into a bully and stop the behavior before it starts. However, Moyer says it can be “hard to tell” which kids are prone to bullying behavior. Eccleston advises parents to pay attention to whether their child has “bad behavior and see no issues with their actions,” if they “are intolerant of peers with differences” and if they are “aggressive towards their siblings … or other family members.”
When looking for signs of bullying, Jordan stresses that parents need to observe not only how children interact with peers in real life, but how they act online as well. “There are active ways [of bullying online] — things like aggressive and taunting texts, emails, chats and comments. And then there are passive ways, like posting a mean photo or a screenshot on Snapchat, for instance, that can be seen by hundreds of other kids in a matter of minutes.”
Moyer recommends that parents pay attention to whether their children have a hard time taking the perspective of someone else in other situations. If they do, they might inadvertently wind up bullying others because they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Parents can help children practice perspective-taking by asking questions like, “If Charlie said this to you how do you think you would feel?” They can also talk with their children about a time their feelings were hurt by someone else and consider what the other person could have done differently, recommends Moyer.
While every situation is different, Jordan notes that “the root causes behind bullying … are essentially the same. Kids may not be getting enough attention, they may have been bullied themselves or they may feel powerless. Some bullies may learn this behavior by watching a parent engage in it.”
Knowing how to address the situation requires an understanding of the cause. Usually the best place to start is by talking to your child.
What to do when someone says your child is a bully
One of the worst calls a parent can get is from a school administrator or another caregiver telling them that their child has bullied someone else. Moyer says that “total denial” is a natural reaction, as is the desire to immediately commit to punishing the child. According to Moyer, it’s best to “take a deep breath,” and get more information before deciding what to do next. “Don’t make a judgment at that moment if your child is innocent or guilty,” and focus on getting more information, recommends Moyer.
She advises trying to get more details and understand what happened from the perspective of the person sharing the information and thanking them for letting you know. If a school administrator or coach is making the call, ask them if there are any related rules or policies you can share with your child so that you can explain which rule they broke and what consequences they may face. Since it can be hard to stay calm when getting this type of call, Moyer says it’s OK to tell the person on the other end of the line that “this is hard to hear,” let them know that you will talk to your child about the incident and tell them that you will get back to them. Moyer cautions against speaking for your child before checking in with them first, even if it’s just to say they are sorry.
How to talk to your child about a bullying incident
If your child has engaged in bullying behavior, Moyer says to start a conversation and go in with curiosity. “Ask your child to recount what happened,” she says, and ask a lot of follow-up questions. Adds Jordan: "These types of discussions aren’t always easy, but they’re very important."
“Let the child have a say” without making them feel judged or shamed, says Moyer, adding that if a child feels that way chances are high they will “shut down” and not want to talk at all. They also won’t be in a good frame of mind to listen. Instead, Moyer recommends using the incident as an opportunity to “bridge the gap in perspective taking” by encouraging your child to see how what they said or did could be hurtful to someone else, even if they didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Moyer thinks that parents should keep in mind that social skills are “complex and nuanced'' and that parents should not assume that a child had “the baseline of knowledge” to know that what they did or said “was inappropriate.” Parents usually know their children well enough to tell if their child really understands why their behavior was hurtful. If that is the case, the child probably already feels bad enough about what happened. In these cases, there is no need “to push it further,” says Moyer.
When are consequences necessary?
“Punishment is about learning,” says Moyer. If you don’t get through to a child by talking to them, if a child engages in bullying behavior repeatedly or the behavior is particularly egregious, consequences may be warranted. However, there are different approaches a parent can take.
Sometimes a punishment that is directly related to the bullying behavior is appropriate. For example, if a child says something mean repeatedly on the soccer field, the child might be forced to sit out the next game. If the bullying is online, discipline may involve limiting access to social media sites the child was using to engage in cyberbullying. Sometimes reparations may be more appropriate, such as writing an apology note or doing something kind for the child that was harmed, Moyers says.
When to seek outside help
If parents aren’t sure what to do, Mitnaul suggests reaching out to a child’s pediatrician, teacher, principal, counselor or family physician, in addition to trusted friends and family members, to discuss strategies. “If the behaviors worsen, despite these efforts then it is reasonable to consider a comprehensive evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or mental health professional,” he says. Some children who engage in bullying" may also be struggling with a mental disorder, and identifying it early can play an important part in turning around the behavior,” Mitnaul explains.
Eccleston adds that “If your child is purposefully trying to make another child feel bad, then chances are there is a more significant issue at hand.” She explains that “most children who purposefully bully are often dealing with feelings and issues that are contributing to them feeling bad about themselves." If a child is struggling to deal with these types of “big feelings,” says Eccleston, they may need professional help.
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