What to Do If Your Child is a Bully
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
If you are informed that your child is bullying a classmate, take this information seriously. Do not dismiss this concern because you believe this is just kids being kids. Children who bully are prone to problems in later years. Here are some steps that you might take:
Meet with the principal or teacher. In addition to getting their observations, you may also want to speak to other staff who observed your child such as playground and cafeteria aides or the bus driver. The more information you can get about your child’s behavior, the better able you are to figure out what he did and why he did it.
Take a hard line on bullying. If you conclude after talking with school staff that your child has been bullying a classmate, speak with your child. Convey to him in no uncertain terms that bullying in any form is unacceptable and must stop immediately. In talking with him, you might label his behavior as bullying so that he understands that his behavior is distinct from fooling around. Tell him that you will be in frequent contact with the school about his behavior and take seriously any further reports that he is hurting or causing distress to other children.
Try to understand your child’s behavior and respond accordingly. Children bully for a reason, whether to gain peer approval, to exert power over them, to punish a child, or to vent frustration with problems at home or in school. You need to try to get to the source of what motivated your child’s behavior. In addition to asking him the obvious question, namely, “why did you behave that way?”, you might also ask whether he felt someone had done something to him or whether something was upsetting him. The behavior of bullies is often fueled by social misperceptions.
If you can identify the emotional source of your child’s behavior, try to address it in such a way that he does not feel the need to bully. You might suggest to him how he might have handled the situation differently without resorting to verbal or physical aggression, and how he might handle social situations in the future. You might even role-play if he is receptive. Also try to promote your child’s empathy by helping him understand how a child who was bullied might feel. Consider telling him that his behavior will cause other children to avoid him out of fear.
If the bullying continues, arrange a consequence that is in proportion to the severity of his actions, but do not humiliate or embarrass him. Also do not use physical discipline as this reinforces the message that “might is right.”
Work with the school to modify his behavior. The school may want to take some disciplinary measures. If these consequences seem reasonable and calculated to deter future behavior rather than just punish your child, let your child know that you agree with the school’s discipline. If your child’s behavior was an expression of anger, you might ask if the school has a place he can go or a person he can see when he is angry and prone to lash out at a peer. Also encourage his teacher to find ways to reward or praise your child when he engages in appropriate school behavior, particularly acts of kindness or helpfulness towards his peers. You may even want to set up a behavior modification system in which your child can earn material rewards for kind or helpful behavior either at home or in school.
Monitor your child’s media exposure. Pay attention to the television shows he watches and the video and computer games he plays and do not hesitate to limit his exposure to media violence. Research indicates that viewing violent programs or playing violent games can actually give rise to aggressive behavior.
Pay close attention to your child’s social behavior. Take note of whom he spends time with, where he goes and what he does. Set reasonable curfews and restrict him from places, activities and children that you perceive to be bad influences and may be contributing to his bullying behavior.
If your child continues to bully despite efforts to modify his behavior, seek help from a counselor. You might discuss the problem with the school psychologist or seek help from a mental health professional. Your community may have a mental health center that provides counseling services at relatively low cost.