What to Do if Your Teen Is a Bully

Kelsey Sheehy

No parent wants to be called into the principal's office.

The meetings rarely bear good news and instead alert parents to a problem with their teen.

"Your son is failing math." "Your daughter is skipping school." Neither is pleasant to hear, but in most cases, parents know how to proceed.

But one disciplinary problem can be particularly hard for parents to process: bullying.

This is especially true when their child isn't the victim, but the culprit, says Julie Hertzog, director of Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center, which founded National Bullying Prevention Month, held annually each October.

"Their gut reaction is, 'My child wouldn't do that,'" says Hertzog. "That's a common reaction for parents, and it's a very natural reaction to have."

[Find out how parents may teach teens to bully.]

Nearly 40 percent of middle school administrators and 20 percent at the high school level report bullying taking place on a daily or weekly basis, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Discovering your high schooler is the one doing the bullying can trigger a range of emotions - anger, guilt, fear - so parents need to tackle these before having a serious talk with their teen.

"I think it's always important, as parents, we sort of process our emotions before we have these conversations," she says.

With their own emotions in check, parents should sit down with their teen to get to the root of the behavior. The reason for the bullying may surprise them.

In many cases, kids who bully are bullied themselves, Hertzog says.

"We hear a lot where kids have been getting bullied for a while and they get to the point where they lash out physically," she says. "It's easy to look at that child as being the one with the bad behavior in the situation, when actually there are other dynamics going on."

[Learn how to spot, and stop, bullying.]

Other times students simply don't know they were bullying, she adds.

"They'll think it's just joking around, and they don't realize they've crossed the line," Hertzog says.

Disabilities can also be behind bullying behavior, experts say. Learning or behavior disorders can cause teens to act out, either due to frustration or simply because they don't know another way to express themselves.

After parents get to the heart of the behavior, they need to set clear expectations for how their teen should behave. Those expectations should include a strategy for how to react when they are frustrated or feel like they might lash out, Hertzog says.

"You may be surprised to hear this is happening with your child, but it's about a behavior and behavior can change," she says. "Parents are in the best position to change how their child reacts to other kids."