Unlearning: Three Steps to Changing Bullying Behavior

By Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of  End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools

Unlearning: Three Steps to Changing Bullying BehaviorDear Dr. Borba:
My son’s teacher says he bullies a classmate by saying cruel, hurtful things. He denies being mean and says the other kid is just a “wimp” and deserves it. My husband says this is just a phase and a “boy thing.” Do I believe my husband or the teacher?

My answer: Take the teacher’s word and work with her to develop a plan to stop your child’s mean behavior. Bullying should never be considered “just a phase.” The consequences of letting aggressive behaviors go unheeded are disastrous to your child’s character, conscience, and empathy. The good news is, because bullying is a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned. Here are three steps to changing bullying behavior adapted from my book The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect.

Step One: Create a Plan to Change the Bullying Behavior

  • Uncover the cause. Your role is to try to discover what might be triggering this behavior. Set up a conference with your child’s teacher and gather facts. Where and when did the incident happen? What started it? Which kids were involved? How frequently does this behavior happen? Were there any adult witnesses? Did your child ask for help? These details will help you piece together what is going on to help prevent a reoccurrence of the bullying behavior. You may need to talk to witnesses to help you get the most accurate picture.
  • Review your expectations. Don’t expect your one-time lecture to make a lasting change on your child’s behavior. Be vigilant! Continue to review your expectations with your child that bullying is not acceptable in your family or in society and that he will be held accountable. Let your child know you will supervise him with other kids when you’re around and that you will check on his actions outside your home.
  • Step in ASAP. The minute you see or hear that your child is involved in a bullying-like behavior, step in. Stay calm so as not to escalate the situation. Remove your child from the situation immediately (or as soon as is convenient). Then sit down with your child, and in a serious and firm tone, call the behavior what it is—bullying—describe the action, and explain why it is wrong. Your child should also be required to try to make amends for the hurt he caused.

Step Two: Help Your Child Learn Healthy, New Behaviors
One big part of helping your child is figuring out why she is resorting to bullying behavior and teaching her new habits to replace inappropriate ones. Here are a few:

  • Teach friendship skills. If you suspect your child is bullying because she doesn’t know how to make or keep friends, then watch her a bit closer (without her knowing you are doing so) to identify the particular friendship skills she needs to learn. For instance: how to start a conversation, lose gracefully, ask permission, or solve problems peacefully. Then target one new skill at a time and teach your child the new strategy. Practice it until your child can use it alone.
  • Check for aggressive “friends.” If your child is involved with other kids who enjoy exerting their physical or emotional power, then wean your child away and find her a new set of friends. Don’t let her associate with kids who abuse others. In the meantime, pursue other social avenues for your child to find and make new friends, such as a church group, Boys’ & Girls’ Club, scouting troop, or sports team.
  • Nurture empathy. If your child doesn’t recognize or even care that her behavior is causing another child distress, boost her empathy. Read books or watch movies that showcase compassion, such as Dumbo, The Velveteen Rabbit, Stone Fox, Charlotte’s Web, The Hundred Dresses, The Secret Garden, or The Diary of Anne Frank. Talk about feelings and point out the emotions of people in distress. Acknowledge your child’s kind acts so she’ll be more likely to repeat them: “That was so kind of you to tell Peter you’re sorry his grandpa is ill. It really made him feel better.” Consider doing community service as a family. Food drives, picking up trash in the park, painting battered women’s shelters, serving meals at homeless shelters, or delivering meals to sick and elderly folks who are housebound are just a few options.
  • Find healthy ways to reroute aggression. Does your child have a surplus of energy that often leads to acting out? Offer a positive alternative to channel this aggression, such as karate, boxing, swimming, track, weight lifting, soccer, football, or marching band. But find a physical outlet for your kid to direct her strength and be praised for her effort. Also, make sure you teach strategies to help your child control her anger. Ask the school counselor for ideas.
  • Seek professional help. If your child’s bullying does not gradually improve—or increases—request a meeting with the school psychologist for a more thorough behavior and psychological evaluation. If you can’t find this kind of help at your school, seek a trained mental health professional in the community.

Step Three: Don’t Give Up!
The key to changing any behavior—especially an aggressive one—is not to give up. An effective behavior plan tailored to your child’s specific needs is crucial. And so is a positive attitude. This note I received from a mom proves it is doable: “It took a while for me to acknowledge that my child was bullying,” she wrote, “but when I realized that Jacob was causing other children pain, that was my Enough! moment. Once he knew I wasn’t going to allow him to get away with his meanness, he started turning the corner and taking responsibility for his actions.”

It’s not easy to hear negative things about your child, but don’t dismiss or excuse any report that your child is bullying or using aggressive behavior. No matter their age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention.

michele-borbaMichele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting, child, and bullying prevention expert. She appears frequently in national media, including on the Today show, Dr. Phil, Dateline, Anderson Cooper, and Dr. Drew, and in TIME, Washington Post, Newsweek, People, The New York Times, and many others. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has presented workshops and keynote addresses throughout the world and has served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and organizations including the Pentagon, who hired Borba to work on eighteen U.S. Army bases to train educators and counselors on bullying prevention. She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career of working with over 1 million parents and educators worldwide.

Her proposal “Ending School Violence and Bullying” (SB1667) was signed into California law in 2002. She was awarded the 2016 National Child Safety Award by the Child Safety Network. She lives in Palm Springs, California.

Follow Michele on Twitter @micheleborba. Or visit her website at micheleborba.com

EndPeerCrueltyBuildEmpathyMichele Borba is the author of End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools


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