(Gulp!): What to do When Your Child is the Bully
Deb Levy, Contributor
Articles> (Gulp!): What to do When Your Child is the Bully
girl being bullied on bus

No one said raising kids would be easy. But nothing cuts to the core of a parent's insecurity greater than when our mini-me's behave in a way we find reprehensible. It's incredibly hard to admit that our child might be a bully; it raises fear, anxiety, insecurity and even defensiveness. Our children, after all, are but a reflection of who we are as parents, right?
The fact is, it's a long and bumpy road to adulthood. Conflicts will arise, and children will have to navigate their way through various protocols and peer interactions that maybe they haven't encountered before. All without the aid of maturity and social skill proficiency. And as they enter the elementary school years and beyond, kids have unsupervised time with other kids -- as they should -- and parents are not around to witness, let alone monitor, their child's behavior.
Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized author and educator of children and teens. She wrote Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that inspired the movie Mean Girls, and developed a bullying curriculum used nationwide by teachers and administrators. She urges parents to understand the following:

  • Roles change. Today the bully. Tomorrow, the bullied. Children are not fixed in their roles. Depending on the situation, children can just as easily be the bully as they can the target.
  • They have a private life. Parents must assume and accept that they won't know everything that goes on with their child.
  • Kids have 2 sides. Children will act differently at home than they will at school. Your 7th grade son who kisses you goodnight before grabbing his stuffed animal will never show that side of himself to his friends.
  • You're still a good parent. There are many reasons why parents aren't aware of their child's inappropriate behavior, and it's not because the parent is irresponsible.

After the Dreaded Call
So what should you do if you get a call from the school, or another parent, informing you that your child has mistreated a peer? Rosalind offers this advice:

  • Breathe. Take a deep breath and be receptive to what you may hear.
  • Be grateful you've been alerted. Thank the parent or teacher for informing you and acknowledge how difficult it was for them to make the call.
  • Take a moment. Accept that you may need time to process what you heard.
  • Make a pledge. Assure the parent or school that you will talk with your child.
  • Take their info. Follow up if you need to get further understanding, or to discuss what you are doing to address the problem.

There may be times when the parent of the victim is so upset or wrought with anger that they approach the parent of the bully by yelling or talking fast. Rosalind advises parents on the receiving end to say, "I really want to hear what you are telling me, but I can't hear you when you talk like that."
"Successful bullies have strong verbal and social skills," says Rosalind. "They can read other children very well. If they feel they're going to get in trouble for what they did, they will often go home and tell their parents a skewed version of what happened at school that will justify their actions." But Rosalind cautions parents to remember there is always another side.
"Parents must hold their child accountable," she urges, "even if the child feels he was provoked. Ask your child if any part of what the school or other parent said is true." Why?

  • It prevents putting your child in a position to lie. You are saying to your child, "Okay, there's a lot about your story that I believe, but is there anything about the other side of the story that has merit?"
  • This allows you to get as much of the story as possible while also getting your child to try and see things from another point of view
  • The accused child may be so focused on defending his innocence or justifying his actions, he may gloss over the other party's side, or minimize the impact of his behavior
  • The child must accept responsibility for his or her role in the situation

Carrie Paul, a former guidance counselor in a New York City elementary school, agrees that parents must open the lines of communication with their children and has this to add:

  • Parents should try to find the source of their child's anger. Is something happening at school? At home? In the case of repeated incidents, are there impulse control or anger management issues?
  • Parents should work to instill empathy and help the child understand the power of words and actions. Ask the child ?How would you feel if someone did this to you? How would you feel if someone treated your sister this way?'
  • Role play so that the child can learn the appropriate way to deal with a situation.

"I firmly believe that all schools should not only have an anti-bullying policy, but enforce it," Paul says. "This way, when an incident happens at school, the school doles out the consequences." This helps deflate the anger that the bully may feel towards the target, since the rules are the same to anyone who breaks them. Parents should then support the school's policy.

What Not to Do
What should parents not do when confronted with the news that their child acted in an unsavory manner?

  • Don't look for someone to blame. As in: "She didn't learn that at home. It must be when she spent time with her cousins!"
  • Don't justify the behavior by saying, "Well, this happened to my child so he was just acting in response.' Remember the saying ?two wrongs don't make a right?"
  • Don't say, "I know my child and she would never do that!" You don't necessarily know who she is on the playground or at a slumber party.

Bully Prevention
Can parents do anything to prevent their children from becoming bullies? Rosalind says no. "Kids are messy. We're all messy. Kids can be brutal. You can't send your child to a school that won't have bullying. You can't control external factors."
But, Rosalind believes we can control the safety and dignity of our own family units. How? "By creating a respectful home where the parents don't demean each other; by choosing for our own friends people who treat others with dignity; by looking inward and seeing what expressions of anger we may or may not be modeling."
And ultimately, we must realize that life is a learning process. Our children are relatively new at it, and they can't learn without making mistakes. It's how we help them deal with those mistakes that matter.

Check out Sheila's Blog Post on Fighting Bullies Peacefully for more tips
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(13) Comments
Rebecca R.
Rebecca R.
If you notice that your child is being bullied, try talking with them or having them talk to a therapist. It's not always so easy to talk to our parents about things that are upsetting us, and a therapist is a safe, private alternative. Also go to your school district and make them aware of the issue and that you are not going to go away. Most schools have a zero tolerance policy, few enforce it. If your child is being the bully, a therapist may be able to help there as well. There may be hidden issues your child isn't comfortable with discussing with you. Either way, the more outlets and options your children have, hopefully it will be a start in changing the behavior.
November 22, 2014 at 12:02 AM
Concerned Grandma
Concerned Grandma
My grandson has been bullying his sister for several years. He kicks her, pinches her, pulls her hair, has cracked her across the chest with a bat and most recently punched her in the breast. These are only the things I know about. When I speak out, my daughters family backs away from me. I'm in another state. I've tried to get my daughter to take a stand. My grandson is 10, but very large and muscular. My grand daughter is only 13, petite and seems to be afraid to speak up. He is not disciplined for doing these things. His father says, "I told her not to pick on him because someday he'd be bigger than she is." This is atrocious to me. I can't sleep at night afraid of what he might do to my grand daughter, knowing that he has free reign apparently to do as he pleases to her.
July 18, 2014 at 10:39 AM
young mom needs help
young mom needs help
My almost five year old is being a bully on the bus. We believe it.may be because of jelousy the young girl she is picking on gets put on and taken off the bus by her mom which i cannot do for my daughter at this time. I dont believe my daughter has anger problems or amything like that just the jelousy issue that im not sure how to approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated i want to get a handle on this before something bad happen
July 11, 2014 at 7:49 PM
Michelle - The time for talking has ended. You need to start considering getting your kid psychiatric help. As in seriously, get him in with a child psychologist, talk to his doctor, and get him help. If you have tried literally anything else, try this. He may have something like Bipolar Disorder or even be a Paranoid Schizophrenic. Do not go on the defensive and claim it to be untrue, do not make excuses for him. If your kid is the bully, he could bully someone to suicide.

Or grow up to be the kind of man that prays on people who are weaker to rape and kill them.

Think about it this way: Imagine him in your arms as a baby...Then imagine him as an adult and going down an alley with a knife with intent to kill. Remember...The monsters we see in the news, the teenagers who bully others into suicide, or the kids who pick on kids to a point where even eight year olds have hung themselves have parents.

Do you WANT your kid to be like that? To be either a predator who makes the news for his kill number or to make the news because he pushed a kid to kill themselves? Do you WANT him to wind up a monster?

Then get him help.

Psychiatric help, not hugs and rainbows and constant discipline. He needs help, he might even need medication. Most of my bullies have had mental disorders, and I'm positive one in particular who is a 22 year old who has been stalking me online since I was fourteen have issues. The 22 year old in particular has made my online life a living hell whenever she's had the chance and even went as far as to try to turn my friends against me because I said a few things I had apologized for. She kept digging it back up to show it to everyone to make me look like a monster. She went as far as to wait until I was talking to someone to attempt to make me look bad publicly on a livestreaming session by yelling at me for grieving and provoking me.

Your son has potential to be the kid who stands up for everyone...Or the kid who turns into the psycho.

Take your pick. Because you brought him into this world, therefor he is YOUR problem. Make sure he's not a danger to the people around him.

Get him help, get him evaluated...Heck maybe the mere scare of possibly being 'crazy' might set him straight. But do not use: "Mental hospital." as a threat if he does have a problem.
March 1, 2014 at 5:06 AM
Just had a lengthy conversation with my children's bus driver last night about my son's bullying behavior. I was looking for curriculum, a video series that might help reinforce what we try to teach at home -- about the Golden Rule, empathy, building friendships, respect.

I'm thinking about using a punch card system -- if he's well-behaved, his card gets a punch (which I provide the driver), and he gets a reward (30 mins tv time or some such thing), if no punch, then on restriction. He does a lot of little things -- out of seat, can't keep hands to himself, says rude things, and has poked kids. No one wants to sit by him. He is 10 yrs old, adopted, with ADHD and mood disorder. Meds and behavior therapy can only do so much...

This article defines the problem, but I could use concrete programs that might help. Any suggestions?
September 17, 2013 at 7:12 AM
I just received a call from school that my son has been bullying an other girl in his class room I did notice a different behavior at home he has come more aggressive and I don't know why now that the principal call me today I don't know what to do I feel like is my fault because it makes me think that he is doing this to get attention since I don't spend to much time with him I feel so bad I am just like any other mom that doesn't want to hear that your child is doing something bad help please I don't know what to do in this situation I'm lost and I would like to do the right thing without hurting my son or someone else
August 14, 2013 at 2:10 PM
My 8yr old daughter has been both physically and emotionally bullied by another girl at school. I rang the parent and tried to resolve it. I couldn't have been more friendly. It continued so I informed the school who disciplined the child. Now the mother has run down my 8yr old daughter to the other parents and told her daughter that she is in trouble because "Natasha's mummy is unkind and a troublemaker". The bully has been nicer but now I actually feel intimidated by her mother. Absolutely no accountability for her daughter's behaviour at all.
May 9, 2013 at 12:51 PM
in pain
in pain
we have a 10 yr old adopted son, we are dealing with bully issues. He only does it when he thinks he can hide it. He was on the bus and beat up a very small boy, but the camera caught him. He enjoyed doing this, he was not mad or angry, he was smiling the whole time...HELP
November 4, 2012 at 5:08 PM
Lizia W.
Lizia W.
Very good information
May 24, 2012 at 9:18 AM
Julie B.
Julie B.
I wonder how much of this they learn from all of the battles in video games.
My son loves to play battle games on the computer. Since I don't allow any games where there is a person shooting, stabbing, or killing another person,
he will choose a cactus shooting an object. I just wonder if this might be skewing their view about death.
April 18, 2012 at 2:53 AM
I have a concern of my 9 year old son being a bully to his younger siblings as well as to others.He started off as just being bossy and for many years we have tried to let him know that he is not the boss and that is Mommy and Daddy's job. We have role played, grounded, and written sentences that include the definition of what a bully is. We have also discussed how this would make him feel if he was the one always bullied. He has told us that the reason he is mean to his brother and sister is because they annoy him. I understand sibling rivalry, but it is going way too far and I'm afraid that it will soon become dangerous. He has even gone as far as to tell someone on his bus that he is going to kill them. This is not heresay but witnessed and reported by the bus driver. I feel as thoiugh I am losing control of my son and want to rectify this situation and have no idea what to do. We have a good home life. My husband and I do not argue or fight ever. We communicate about everything to ensure that everyone in the household understands whatever may come our way in life. I try to give my kiddos all equal attention and have fun with them. What else can I do before seaking outside help from a counselor?
February 8, 2012 at 7:32 AM
Mary O.
Mary O.
Sometimes kids bully others in response to pressure from other bullies to gang-up on the victim or to take his turn being the bully. (This is more likely to happen among older children. You didn't mention the age of your child.) An indirect variant of this is that the "newer" bully may admire the other one and want to emulate him/her.

Almost always a contributing motive for bullying is anger, fear, or a combination of these. A good preventive measure is to try to keep the bully from being alone with other kids for an extended time. This will get very frustrating. When your child complains about the "short-leash", remind him that the restriction is because of the way he has recently behaved when his time with others was not supervised. At the time of his complaint he may provide new information about the context of the incident. The restriction will result in the bully feeling protected, though he probably won't say so.

Another possibility is for the bully and the victim to be put into an adult-supervised confrontation where they are coached into a respectful but honest exchange about what they feel. It is best if the coach can be someone other than the parents of either child, but with the parents present as silent observers.
January 29, 2012 at 9:06 PM
Michelle N.
Michelle N.
Sadly, lately I have been the parent of a bully. I have yet to figure out exactly what to do to make the situation stop- my husband and I have punished our son in a variety of ways, we have talked to him until we are blue in the face- with role playing and the idea of how would our son feel if his younger siblings were being bullied, and we have taken away many of his favorite things. I would certainly appreciate any insight from parents that have gone through this on what worked for them to make it stop. Also ways to help feel less like the social piranha as the parent of the bully. It definitely makes your feel defensive especially when there are accusations from others.
The only good thing that has come from our current experience is that we now have a lot more insight into bullying behaviors and the other parents of bullies. Despite common misconceptions, my husband and I are not mean spirited people, we do not let our son "get away with anything", we do not try to "friend" our son instead of parent, we are not abusive, we are not going through turmoil in the home, we are not passive, we are not aggressive, we are not bullies ourselves. I only say this as I have heard all of these things and more over the past 6 months from other albeit well meaning people who have no clue what it is like to be the parent on this end. We are just as shocked and frustrated and dismayed as the parents of the kids being bullied. And if we are able to determine anything as to why our son has been acting like a bully it is because he is suffering from a very deflated self esteem. His being labeled a bully does not help at all in stopping the behavior- it has only served to make him feel worse about himself. We are simply trying to determine now how much of this is a stage, do we need professional help, or will our continual talks, punishments, etc do anything towards making this stop at some point in the near future? I suppose only time will tell.
September 15, 2011 at 11:59 PM

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