No parent wants to hear that his or her child is a bully — the mean girl or boy who picks on others, spreads nasty rumors or even physically harms a classmate.
“It’s a hard thing for parents to accept or recognize,” says Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention in Buffalo.
However, if you take steps to understand your child’s behavior and address his or her reasons for bullying, it may help you stop the inappropriate conduct. After you learn about your child’s bullying (likely from the school or another parent), pause and take a deep breath, Nickerson says.
“Most parents’ first inclination is probably to either deny, or blame others,” Nickerson says. “Or to yell at the child and implement a strict punishment.”
But none of these reactions are likely to resolve the issue. Listen to your child about his or her behavior, but don’t let him or her get away with excuses. Consider the context: Is your child going along with the crowd? Does he or she have an underlying bias toward certain groups? Has your child been bullied in the past? Learning the answers to these questions will help you understand your child’s actions and come up with a plan to change that behavior, Nickerson says.
But that doesn’t mean the child shouldn’t face consequences.
“Parents need to send a firm message that ‘I’m with you, but this behavior is not acceptable,’” Nickerson says.
Consider taking away a privilege. If the incident occurred during sports practice, insist to the coach that your child sits out the next big game.
Saying sorry shouldn’t be forced, either, Nickerson says; but if a child can recognize his or her mistake and apologize to the victim, both sides benefit.
You should also reach out to the school or a behavioral or mental health professional for help. Most communities have resources for families. Choose a professional who works with children and adolescents. Instead of talk therapy, work with the specialist on teaching your child the skills that are needed to stop the inappropriate behavior.
What causes kids to bully in the first place?
“There’s no one answer,” Nickerson says. “It’s a combination of factors.”
Some warning signs include lacking empathy, craving power and control, displaying poor sportsmanship, using derogatory terms, acting aggressively toward siblings, defying teachers and engaging in risky behavior.
None of these signs, however, necessarily means your child is a bully. Some bullies are socially adjusted, well-liked “popular” kids who use their influence in a negative way. Peer culture can lead to bullying, as well, if that behavior is considered “cool.”
Home life is another big influence. Children who witness abuse or violence learn those negative behaviors. Children are also more likely to bully if they don’t have adequate supervision and lack consequences for their actions. Even the school’s culture and climate, along with the surrounding community, play a role in a youth's behavior.
“We have to consider what kids are exposed to in terms of role models, the media and the kinds of violence happening in their communities,” Nickerson says.