Parents often worry that their child will be bullied. But what if it’s your child who’s accused of being the bully?
When parents first hear that their child may have bullied another, they often respond with defensiveness: “He would never do that!” Or, “The other kid must have done something to provoke mine.”
“It’s instinctive to take our kid’s side, but all children make less-than-kind choices,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, the NJ-based psychologist behind the Great Courses video series Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.
“It’s not helpful to refer to children as ‘bullies,’ as if it’s their permanent, unchangeable nature,” says Stuart Green, director of the NJ Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. Engaging in bullying activity doesn’t make a child a bully. But even in isolated incidents, the behavior does need to be addressed.
Why do kids bully?
Children, particularly young children, may engage in bullying simply because their empathy skills aren’t fully developed. They may not realize the impact their words or actions have on another child and need a parent’s assistance in understanding that.
“Other children may have trouble managing their frustration and anger and may lash out impulsively,” notes Kennedy-Moore. She advises helping these kids find ways to calm themselves and identify and avoid trigger situations.
Kennedy-Moore explains that another group of children who often engage in bullying fall into a group called bistrategic controllers: “These kids really like to be leaders,” she says. “They’re very good at strategically doling out kindness and meanness to increase their own social power.” Such kids need clear limits to redirect their desire to lead in a positive way.
Next page: How to work with the school when your child's accused of bullying and prevent bullying in the first place
How to talk to your kids about bullying
When you first hear the accusation that your child has engaged in bullying behavior, Kennedy-Moore recommends saying “Tell me what you’ve seen” and taking notes. Thank the individual for bringing the encounter to your attention and say you will speak with your child. This approach gives you time to think more clearly and to get your child’s side of the story before responding.
Calmly ask your child to describe what happened. Let her know that this is a serious situation and you won’t tolerate the behavior. Help her understand how her words or actions hurt another person and how the circumstance could have been handled differently. Work together to figure out how your child can make amends, and set a consequence appropriate to the act. For instance, if she cyberbullied a peer via social media, removing Internet privileges is an appropriate consequence.
Work with the school's bullying policy
State laws in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania require all schools to develop anti-bullying policies that are either posted on district websites or distributed in student handbooks. Familiarize yourself with your district’s policy. A school’s anti-bullying program should be helpful for all students, including those who have engaged in bullying.
At Garnet Valley School District in Delaware Co., PA, all students from Kindergarten through 12th grade take part in the widely implemented Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. They attend assemblies and class meetings during which they learn about bullying and talk about ways to improve their school’s atmosphere. If, despite such preemptive actions, a student still engages in bullying, he faces negative consequences — but he’ll also receive support to change his behavior for the better.
“We try to identify the child’s strengths and ways they can achieve attention and leadership roles in positive ways,” says Carolyn Falcone, student assistance coordinator. High school students who once engaged in bullying have gone on to lead class meetings about bullying or have become Climate Keepers — kids who talk with elementary and middle schoolers about bullying. Actions such as these have proved it’s possible to replace bullying with productive behavior.
Susan S. Stopper writes frequently for MetroKids.