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What to do if your child is a bully

Main Line Health October 29, 2018 Child and Adolescent Health

What to do when your child is the bully

You may find it hard to believe that your child is bullying others. But when you get a call from another parent or from the school, it’s important to listen with an open mind about what’s going on. Every child is capable of bullying, yet there are some factors that might be causing your child to act this way, including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • A major life change at home
  • Feeling insecure at home, perhaps witnessing bullying behavior in parents or being the victim of bullying by a sibling
  • Having special needs that affect the child’s ability to understand cause and effect or realize that words and behaviors can hurt others
  • Not feeling acknowledged or receiving sufficient attention at home and being disruptive or mean in order to command attention and control

“Each situation is different,” says Meine James, MSW, LSW, a program therapist at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health. “But in my experience many bullies have experienced emotional, verbal or physical abuse or have witnessed violence within their family system and/or friend group. Some have low self-esteem and view bullying as a way to feel powerful or better than. While others simply don’t know that their behavior qualifies as bullying (mostly when it’s verbal).”

How to deal with your child being a bully

There are many reasons a child might participate in bullying but the good news is that you can help your child change the behavior and teach empathy and consideration. Here’s how to deal with your child being a bully:

  1. Listen carefully. Give your child a chance to explain everything that happened. Listen without judgment or anger and resist the urge to shame your child for being unkind. This is a teachable moment where your kid gets to know that you’re there for them no matter what, and that you want to help them become the best person they can be.
  2. Teach empathy. A lesson for kids and parents is to imagine being in another’s shoes, to feel what they must feel and to internalize the emotions of another person. You can ask questions like, what do you think that child was going through when you did that? Can you imagine how that child felt when they went home after school that day? Even if another child “provoked” a reaction, help your own child understand why that kid might have behaved in such a way.
  3. Allow room for redemption. Explain that everyone behaves badly sometimes, saying or doing things they regret or feel sorry about. Demonstrate how to make amends, say sorry, say how much you understand how another person must have felt when you did such-and-such. Your child can learn to do the same thing or write a letter of apology to the wronged child.
  4. Help them self-correct. Have your child imagine the same scenario in the future. Ask them what ways they could do or say things differently and even consider what the outcome could be if they behaved in a positive, friendly way. Encourage kids to be leaders and to have courage to protect and defend kids who are picked on, and to speak up to an adult when they know someone’s being mistreated—without worry of being a tattletale.
  5. Look for opportunities to praise. Parents are so busy and family life becomes routine. You may be missing opportunities to praise your child for acts of kindness or speaking kindly to others. Positive reinforcement lets them know what behavior is admirable and praiseworthy.

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help—from teachers, from school counselors, or a child psychologist. Having a child who bullies is not necessarily a reflection of you or your ability to parent. What matters is that your child feels loved and supported and knows there are adults they can trust and depend on to guide them through childhood.

“Where parents and teachers sometimes fall short is when they fail to consider that bullying could be the child’s defense mechanism,” explains James. “There is often more under the surface that’s influencing the child’s behavior. It’s so important to be open and willing to ask the child: ‘Why?’ and to be prepared to hear the answer.”

New anti-bullying campaigns focus on power of kindness

While many kids have been on the receiving end of cruelty from other kids at some point, children don’t always perceive themselves as being participants in the mean game. In fact, two out of three teens say they’ve experienced bullying but don’t think they contribute to the problem.

In time for National Bullying Prevention Month in October, several new ad campaigns geared to kids and teens put the focus on the power of a kind word or action and give kids tools and language for a variety of situations they might find themselves in.

Cartoon Network’s “Stop Bullying: Speak Up” campaign is geared to younger children and features a number of lively cartoon ads narrated by kids, telling stories about their own experiences and challenging moments, and how they ultimately resolved the situation. The Ad Council has a series of PSA’s for teens themed “Because of You,” emphasizing outcomes such as feeling included, happy and safe, because “you” said or did something kind.

Rather than just speaking to the issue of bullying—a concept that most kids perceive as a problem but a word they don’t necessarily apply to themselves in moments of mean-spiritedness or teasing of other kids—the ads give young people access to empowering ways of practicing kindness.

“Kids become much more resilient when they’re able to overcome something like bullying, when they’re able to advocate for their needs and have confidence to stand up for themselves,” adds James. “And when they overcome it themselves, they’re more likely to step in when they see it happen to someone else.”

If your son or daughter needs help but you aren’t sure where to turn, Mirmont Outpatient Centers can help. With locations in Broomall and Exton, Mirmont Outpatient Centers provide therapeutic programming for individuals 14 years of age and older, for both mental health and substance use disorders. To speak to someone about a potential evaluation or admission, call us at 1.888.CARE.898 (227.3898).