What if my Child is the Bully?
Bullying has terrible effects on the victims involved, but one of the toughest things to hear from your child’s school is that your own child is the bully. What can you do to help your child?
Start by taking a deeper look at the reasons for their behaviour.
(Let’s assume here that there has been no misunderstanding and this is not just a one-off mean incident or disagreement.)
There are many reasons a child might bully others:
- Peer pressure – where another child is the ‘chief bully’ and your child feels they must join in to maintain the friendship and be accepted.
- Unhealthy self-preservation – your child might have been a victim of bullying themselves and decides to choose to be a bully in an unhealthy form of self-preservation. Or your child may fear the bully turning on them, so join in the bullying behaviour to direct attention away from themselves.
- Poor anger management skills – e.g. when your child hasn’t learned to control their emotions well and chooses a few of the same people to take their anger out on, when things don’t go their way (using either verbal or physical aggression to deal with conflict).
- Poor impulse control – e.g. might regularly lash out at the same kids in sport and games and is often an arrogant winner or a sore loser.
- For social status (and power) – some children use fear or intimidation to try to be the most popular in an unhealthy peer group.
- Something they have learned in the family, through observing the way a parent or older sibling treats family members or work colleagues. (Note: this is often assumed to be the main issue behind bullying, but is certainly not always the case. I have seen children in stable families who choose to engage in bullying behaviour for a period of time. Simplistically blaming parenting can lead adults to overlook underlying issues in the child. Which is why we must look into the many areas.)
What can you do?
- Stay calm and take time to process the information yourself.
- Address the bullying behaviour directly. Explain the facts of what you have been told. Express that hurting another person is never okay, and that hurting is not part of your family values. This demonstrates your awareness of the situation and that bullying is not acceptable in your family.
- Avoid shaming your child and look for a pattern. Communicate that they can talk to you about their own insecurities and fears. Take time to find out the underlying need for their behaviour (as above).
- Don’t make excuses for your child’s behaviour. Remind your child that bullying is a choice and they can choose to stop. Talk about the different forms of bullying (emotional, physical and psychological, and be sure to include the online forms).
- Talk about the effects on the victim/s. Help your child to acknowledge their responsibility and recognise exactly what it is they have done or caused. Where appropriate, help your child draft an apology to the victim. (Be aware that some children might not be good at taking responsibility for their own actions and initially blame others for their behaviour.)
- Set age-appropriate consequences for their behaviour, support the school’s plan for consequences and check in regularly to track your child’s progress.
- If your child is both a bully and a victim, help them make a decision to stop their own behaviour but develop skills to deal with being bullied themselves. (Ask who they might talk to at school and home, if they are being bullied.)
- Be a role model. Over the next few months, talk often about healthy friendships and what being a good friend looks like (use books, movies and stories to help you).
- Help your child to develop new skills and explore hanging out with new groups that might improve their sense of worth and develop healthy social skills (e.g. sport, arts, activities, community youth groups, family friends etc).
- Approach a counsellor for help in teaching your child to practice new social and emotional skills.
Part of this article first appeared here, where Collett is the resident psychologist for Mums At the Table TV and Magazine.