WHEN YOUR CHILD IS THE BULLY
When you get a phone call from the school regarding bullying, our usual parental response is concern that our child was bullied and hurt. However, when you are the parent of the child who engaged in the bullying behavior, the emotional reaction can be denial, shock, despair, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, and self-blame. Let’s start with a definition of bullying. Bullying involves an unbalanced relationship between two people involving a pattern of intent to hurt through aggressive (physical and/or emotional) behavior.
Children are not small adults. They are still in the process (as are some adults) of learning all the verbal and nonverbal subtleties of human communication. Young children are not yet able to engage in abstract reasoning, meaning that their communication and understanding is still very concrete. It is still challenging for them to put themselves in another’s place and truly feel empathy. The first thing we need to do as the parent is to look at the history of our child. Have they been on the receiving end of bullying behavior, possibly by an older child or even an older sibling? Are they having trouble socially, making friends? Do they feel like part of the group or do they feel isolated? Has something happened in their life that confused them or lead to feelings of anger? Are they imitating some behaviors they have observed in life or on TV or other social media?
Whatever may be contributing to their behavior, remember that your child is not a small adult and they are learning to navigate the social world and will make mistakes. That being said, you do need to talk to them about their behavior. If your child totally denies their behavior, let your child know that you believe a lot of their version, but does the other child have some credibility in what they are saying. If your child can acknowledge that the other child may also be telling the truth from their point of view, than accountability and compassion can be part of your conversation. As your child tells their story, have them also tell the story through the other child’s perspective and see that child’s point of view. If your child is in defensive mode, this may be a very hard step for them. Help them put themselves in the other child’s place by asking them how they might feel or react if someone treated them the way they treated the other child. If they have a younger sibling ask them how they would feel if someone mistreated their younger brother or sister. Older siblings tend to be protective of younger siblings in situations outside the family.
Help your child own their behavior and take responsibility for their actions. Let them know that you love them and everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn. However, teach them that it is important to not keep making the same mistakes over and over as that will develop into a pattern of behavior, which is much more difficult to control and change.
As we mentioned earlier, it is important to talk to your child about how they perceive themselves socially. If they feel they need to bully in order to not be bullied, you may need to conference with their teacher and guidance counselor. Help them build up their self-esteem so the words and actions of some of their peers are not so damaging. If they are not already in an after school activity, that can often help as they feel they have a home base of friends. Teach them how to make friends and if you feel they are not receptive or your interventions are not working, take them to a child psychologist for some professional intervention and social skills training.
Most importantly, if your child has bullied someone, it does not mean that you are a bad parent. Children are brutal as they navigate the social waters of their age group. Most children will grow out of this behavior and will look back on their bullying behavior with regret. We want to make that experience is as short term as possible for them. For those children that do not outgrow bullying, there are most likely other issues that need to be addressed and as a parent, you can only work with what you have. Patience, love, support, structure and boundaries are typically the keys to successfully raising children, along with acceptance that our children are not perfect.
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