Much of what is written about bullying focuses on what to do if your child is a victim. Little is written on what to do if your child is actually a bully. When parents find out their child has been bullying others, I have witnessed them initially respond in a variety of different ways: utter shame and guilt, tempered anger, quiet embarrassment or denial and defensiveness.
Neither response is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and frankly, I would never want to be in that position. We want our children to be viewed in the best light possible. Being labeled a bully can inadvertently foster a social role/expectation among a child’s peer group and school community, thus perpetuating the bullying cycle.
The first step to stop bullying is having child’s community at large – parents, school staff and most importantly peers – respond to it when it’s happening.
It’s important that if you find out your child has been bullying to neither over react or under react. But you must react and respond.
If you are contacted by someone from you’re child’s school take in what you are being told before you start to react. Ask questions with the intent to understand what happened and why the school deemed it necessary to intervene and inform you. School teachers and administrators have a difficult time discerning between a situational, one-off interpersonal conflict between two students and a conflict indicative of an ongoing bullying relationship. Furthermore, conflicts between students are not nearly as cut-and-dry as bully against victim. We’ve known that students who bully are more likely to have been bullied themselves.
Speak to your child about what has happened. Again, I implore parents to ask questions with the intent to understand the incident as opposed to interrogating, shaming and humiliating their child. This doesn’t mean a parent shouldn’t be assertive, quite the contrary. On a few occasions when I have been involved in meetings with parents, school officials and a student who bullied, the parent(s) have erupted in anger towards their child, feeling ashamed and infuriated with their behavior. My focus then shifts towards helping the parent manage their feelings, not addressing what the child has done and what the school and parent think should be done to discourage this behavior.
It’s imperative that when speaking with your child you are clear that their behavior is unacceptable even if your child was victimized at one point. If their bullying is retaliatory or reactive after being bullied, devise ways with your child that empower and protect them instead of becoming bullies. See this earlier post with some tips.
It’s important to take a moment to reflect on your home life and how it could be contributing to your child’s behavior.
- Are you and your partner going through a rough time and is your child a witness to it?
- Have you and your partner divorced recently? Is your child unhappy with the custody arrangement?
- Have there been major changes in the home/family such as a death, illness, or move? Birth of a new child?
- Are you or your partner particularly stressed right now?
- What are the expectations are you putting on your child? Are they focused on external achievement? If so, what message is that sending the child?
Once we can evaluate how a child’s home life contributes, then we can take the means to change it. This can be particularly difficult for a parent, no one wants to feel like they caused this but please note there is not one cause for bullying. Bullying is a sophisticated interpersonal power dynamic. A child’s home life is one piece in puzzle.
Some parents cannot fathom their child would bully another child. It’s understandably difficult, especially if you have not witnessed the behavior yourself at home. Try to take in all the information and realize that bullying is a learned behavior and it can be un-learned. It takes parents, schools and students to make that happen.
Young girl with attitude photo available from Shutterstock.