When Your Child Bullies: 8 Steps Parents Can Take

By Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein, LMSW, author of Stand Up to Bullying! 

When Your Child Bullies: 8 Steps Parents Can TakeBullying reports may be something we read about in the newspaper, see online, or view on television. It can seem miles away from home, so it’s not unusual for parents to be shocked when someone tells them their child is bullying.

It’s not that uncommon; 30 percent of children admit to bullying. Research shows they’re not only hurting others, but themselves as well. Those who bully experience school problems and exhibit higher rates of criminality, violence, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, depression, and suicide. It’s in parents’ and children’s best interests to stop bullying.

What are some red flags that indicate a child is bullying? Kids who abuse others may be aggressive or easily frustrated, and they tend to ignore rules. They want to control and dominate others. They have little empathy, which explains why they enjoy hurting people. Kids who mistreat others may have a sense of entitlement and do not accept responsibility for their actions. They hang out with others who bully. If kids have extra money or possessions that aren’t theirs, it could have been obtained from bullying. In the younger grades, those who bully may be well-liked—but popularity decreases as children get older.

The majority of children who hurt others have been abused themselves. They often come from authoritarian households where the parents accept and even encourage aggression. Supervision is minimal or nonexistent.

If your child bullies, you can prevent future instances of antisocial behavior. These eight steps can lead to healthy changes and end bullying:

1. Investigate the bullying. What happened? Talk to your child and the person reporting the incident. Examine the facts to determine if it was a legitimate case of bullying. If it was, do not accept excuses. “I was just joking,” “I didn’t mean anything by it,” and “Everyone was doing it,” are not acceptable reasons for hurting someone. If you deny bullying or do not take the reports seriously, you are enabling antisocial behavior.

2. Search out the reasons behind the bullying. All behavior is motivated. Is your child succumbing to peer pressure? Does your child fear being bullied if she refuses to go along? Is the bullying a way of seeking attention or control? Or praise and acceptance? Ignorance of differences or lack of empathy can be the reason behind bullying. Is anything bothering your child? Did a social limitation or disability provoke the abuse? Work on the relevant issue with your child. If you need additional help, ask a teacher or counselor for assistance.

3. Probe deeper. Ask your child the following questions:

  • Can you describe what you did? Why did you do it?
  • How do you think it affected the other person?
  • What goals did you achieve?
  • Is there a better way to meet those goals?
  • What will happen the next time you’re in the same situation?

4. Discuss what bullying is. Let your child know that all forms of bullying are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Perhaps your child doesn’t realize that certain actions are bullying. Explain the different types of bullying: physical (hitting, touching, hair pulling, blocking paths, staring down); verbal (cruel comments, mimicking, mocking, hurtful jokes, threatening, whispering behind someone’s back); relational (exclusion, ignoring, breaking confidences, scapegoating, sabotaging relationships); and cyberbullying (using the Internet or cell phones to make harassing comments, post humiliating pictures, impersonate others, spread personal information without permission, exclude others, stalk).

5. Consider your own actions. Parents are children’s most influential role models. Do you belittle cashiers at the supermarket who are slow ringing up your order? Do you spread rumors? Do you use physical measures when punishing your children? Or, do you stand up for people who are bullied? Do you correct racist, homophobic, and other hurtful statements? Do you encourage kindness?

6. Teach your children about empathy. Many children who bully lack empathy. Sometimes, those who go along with the group don’t realize the harm they are doing. Empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they feel. How can you teach this? When you see bullying in a television show, movie, newspaper or magazine article, or online, share it with your child. Ask:

  • How do you think the bullied person felt? Why?
  • How would you feel if you were bullied? Why?
  • What would you want others to do if you were bullied?
  • Why do you think the person bullied? Is it a good reason?
  • If you were there, what would you do? Why?

Role-play together. Put your child into the bullied role to see how it feels to be abused. Also, role-play different bullying situations so your child can learn appropriate responses.

7. Hold your children accountable for their actions. Responsibility can come in the form of a verbal apology, a sincere letter, or the repair, replacement, or return of possessions. Other types of formative consequences include writing a paper about bullying and its effects on others, leading a class discussion on bullying, reading a book on the subject, or creating anti-bullying posters.

8. Watch for cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is just as painful as offline bullying, perhaps more so. Make sure your children understand that online bullying will not be allowed. To prevent problems, monitor your child’s computer, cell phone, and other electronic activity. Place any family computer in a room where you can keep tabs on usage. Ask for passwords, and develop an Internet safety contract with your child. Withdraw privileges for infractions.

Babies do not come out of the womb bullying. It is a learned behavior, and as such, it can be unlearned. Parents are children’s best teachers, and your efforts in creating socially responsible human beings will be rewarded many times over.

Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein, LMSW, is an anti-bullying advocate, social worker, PhyllisKaufmanGoodsteinPix2ForFreeSpiritwriter, and magician. She lives in Long Island, New York, with her husband Arnie, sons Eric and Steven, and dogs Bandit and Chewy. Phyllis is the author of How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools and 200+ Ready-to-Use Reproducible Activity Sheets That Help Educators Take a Bite Out of Bullying, and the coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying!

Stand Up to BullyingPhyllis is the coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying! Upstanders to the Rescue!

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