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  • Writer's pictureDr. Luisa Bryce

My kid is a bully…. Now what?

Last month’s blog post focused on helping your child weather the social and emotional tolls of being bullied. This month’s focus is on kids who engage in bullying others.

The big question involves why kids bully. It’s easy for kids of all types to get caught up in bullying. Nice kids bully. Intelligent kids bully. Kids who have been bullied sometimes bully others. Kids who bully others are often searching for affirmation in the form of power, dominance and control- all things children tend to lack just by nature of being a kid. When kids bully others, it can also positively reinforce their social status or help them gain popularity. Other kids may perceive bullying as dominant and socially “cool”. Just as there is no single factor putting your child at risk for bullying, there is no single factor putting your child at risk for bullying others. Children who bully tend to experience internal struggles, such as depression, low self-esteem, feelings of social inadequacy, or academic and learning problems. They may have friends or older siblings who bully, and they tend to view aggression as socially acceptable. They may also be seeking attention. Kids who bully turn these internal feelings outward in order to cope and distract from their own issues. For example, it’s a lot easier for a kiddo who doesn’t understand math to repeatedly call the child sitting next to him “smartie pants” or “nerd” in front of the class so that his own learning struggles are not discovered by his peers.

Shock and denial are common reactions of parents who learn their child is bullying others. Many parents simply don’t witness verbal or physical aggression at home so it’s hard to imagine your child behaving so differently at school. However, kids are typically more secure and comfortable at home; they know they are in a loving, accepting environment without social influences, such as peer pressure and social contagion. Thus, children may cope in an entirely different manner at home versus school. Parents can be on the lookout for some typical behaviors which often accompany bullying:

  1. Your kiddo tends to be relational aggressive (either physically or emotionally)

  2. Your child has friends or older siblings who bully others

  3. Your kiddo is frequently in trouble at school for peer conflict

  4. Your kiddo has a tough time taking responsibility for wrongdoings and tends to blame others for his or her mistakes

  5. Your child has new unexplainable toys or clothing items or extra money

If you suspect your child may be bullying others, try to have an open, nondiscriminatory, conversation. Often times talking while engaged in some sort of activity (a walk, swinging, a game of catch) is helpful in getting kids to open up, as long as they feel comfortable that other people aren’t listening in. Use open-ended questions and statements that focus on your observations, such as “Hey, I’ve been noticing you seem angrier lately. What’s going on that I might be able to help you with?” Rather than saying something such as, “Hey, your attitude has been unacceptable lately. Why are you so mad?” Try to focus on your kiddo’s feelings in order to get to the bottom of the reason he or she is engaging in bullying behavior.

If you know your child has bullied a peer, focus on the following helpful tips:

Respond with Calm

Sure, you may be livid when learning of your child’s actions, but it won’t help to yell, scream, and model verbal aggression. Instead, respond calmly and focus on what emotions and events contributed to your kiddo’s actions.

Check Your Own Behavior

How do you and your family handle conflict at home? Is there name calling, aggression, or social exclusion occurring within the family? If so, talk about family social interactions together. Make a commitment to stop the bullying behavior and agree as a family that bullying of any sort is not tolerated. Create a visual list of family rules together and stick to it. Perhaps implement a fine jar and impose a small monetary fine or chore when family members slip up.

Require a Repair

Instead of simply insisting your child apologize for bullying, help your kiddo think of a meaningful way to show he or she is sorry. Attempt to make the repair fit the crime. For example, if your kiddo stole another child’s lunch, have him or her pack a deluxe lunch or bake cookies for the child. If your kiddo broke another kid’s crayons, have him or her buy a new and better box to replace the broken crayons. The repair should go above and beyond the transgression. After your child completes the repair, praise positive behavior and your kiddo know how proud you are.

Teach and Model Responsibility for Actions

Let your child know that feeling angry, sad, or frustrated- with other children, with oneself, or with life in general is always okay, but that negatively acting out on these emotions is never acceptable. Help your child think about effective ways for coping with difficult emotions and conflict resolution. Work on not blaming others and instead use “I messages” (“I feel ______ (emotion word) when you ______ (action word). Please stop. “). Seek the support of a school counselor, social skills group, or mental health professional if you feel the problem’s too big for you to handle.

Appreciate Differences

Work on empathy with your kiddo. Encourage your child to put him or herself in the other person’s shoes on a daily basis so it becomes a habit. Model doing this yourself and have discussions about this. Teach your child that different is good and help him or her to appreciate the unique aspects of peers who may look, act, think, or feel differently than your kiddo.

Finally, if you find out your kiddo has been a bully. Don’t beat yourself up and blame yourself. Focus on helping your child understand his or her emotions and behavior.

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