Nothing stirs the heart of a parent more than bullying. I don’t think there is a week that goes by without a story in the media about a child being bullied.
I sat with another parent in pain, just this week. She told me about her daughter’s anguish at being bullied. The mother found out about it one night, when she and her partner heard their daughter quietly sobbing after lights out. In desperation, her daughter finally asked her dad, “What would you do if someone threw stuff at you everyday?” Her daughter had endured days of having bottles, pebbles and other paraphernalia thrown at her during break times. There was the usual ringleader, the sidekicks and the bystanders.
Bullying has terrible effects on the victims involved, but one of the toughest things to process, as a parent, is the question, “What if my child is the bully?” What happens when you get a call from your child’s school and hear the words, “I’m afraid that your child has been bullying someone in their class. Please could you come in for a meeting?”
Let’s assume that there has been no misunderstanding and this is not just a one-off mean incident, or a disagreement between friends.
The National Centre Against Bullying defines bullying as follows:
- Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.
- Bullying can happen in person or online, via various digital platforms and devices and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert). Bullying behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time (for example, through sharing of digital records).
- Bullying of any form or for any reason can have immediate, medium and long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders.
- Single incidents and conflict or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.
Take a Deeper Look at the Reasons for Bullying
There are many reasons a child might bully others. Here are some of them:
- Peer pressure – This may occur where another child is the ‘chief bully’ and your child feels they must join in to maintain the friendship and be accepted.
- Unhealthy self-preservation – Your teen might have been a victim of bullying themselves and decides to become a bully in an unhealthy form of self-preservation. Or your teen may fear the bully turning on them, so joins in the bullying behaviour to direct attention away from themselves.
- Poor anger management skills – If your teen hasn’t learned to control their emotions well they may chooses a few of the same people to take their anger out on, when things don’t go their way (using either verbal or physical aggression to deal with conflict).
- Poor impulse control – Your child may regularly lash out at the same kids in sport and games and might be an arrogant winner or a sore loser.
- A desire for social status (and power) – Some young people use fear or intimidation to try to be the most popular in an unhealthy peer group.
- Poor self-worth – This is often at work when we see a young person pulling others down, out of envy or unhealthy comparison/ competition.
- Lacking empathy – Your child may lack empathy for others who are different to themselves.
- Learned habit – A child or teen’s bullying may be something they have learned in the family, through observing the way a parent or older sibling treats family members or work colleagues. (Note: this is often assumed to be the main issue behind bullying, but is certainly not always the case. I have seen children in stable families who choose to engage in bullying behaviour for a period of time. Simplistically blaming parenting can lead adults to overlook underlying issues in the child, which is why we must look into the many areas.)
- A combination of factors – Your child may be experiencing a combination of any of the above influencing them to become a bully.
Helping Your Child or Teen Behave in Healthier Ways
Parents may feel powerless when they learn their child has been bullying others, but there are many practical steps you can take that will make a difference:
- Don’t react – Stay calm and take time to process the information yourself.
- Respond proactively – Address the bullying behaviour directly. Explain the facts of what you have been told. Express that hurting another person is never okay, and that hurting is not part of your family values. This demonstrates your awareness of the situation and that bullying is not acceptable in your family.
- Avoid shaming – Instead of shaming your child, look for a pattern and the reasons for their behaviour. Communicate that they can talk to you about their own insecurities and fears. Take time to find out the underlying need that is at work behind their behaviour.
- Don’t make excuses – Don’t try and justify your child or teen’s behaviour. Remind your child that bullying is a choice and that they can choose to stop. Talk about the different forms of bullying (emotional, physical and psychological), and be sure to include the online forms, making it clear that cyber bullying is not okay either.
- Talk about the effects on the victim/s – Help your child or teen to acknowledge their responsibility and recognise exactly what it is they have done or caused. Where appropriate, help your tween draft an apology to the victim. (Be aware that some children might not be good at taking responsibility for their own actions and may initially blame others for their behaviour.)
- Set age-appropriate consequences – Establish the consequences you want to put in place for their behaviour, support the school’s plan for natural consequences too, and check in regularly to track your child’s progress.
- Help them take ownership – If your teenager is both a bully and a victim, help them make a decision to stop their own behaviour, but also help them develop skills to deal with being bullied themselves. Ask them who they might be able to talk to at school and home, if they are being bullied.
- Be a role model – Over the next few months, connect with your teen and talk often about healthy friendships and what being a kind human looks like (use memes, movies and stories to help you).
- Broaden their social horizons – Help your child to develop new skills and explore hanging out with new groups that might improve their sense of worth and develop healthy social skills (e.g. sport, arts, activities, community youth groups, family friends).
- Find extra support – Obtain the assistance of a mentor, a coach or a counsellor in teaching your child to practice new social and emotional skills. Your GP or school counsellor will have the contact details of professionals in your area.
Remember to Have Compassion
Don’t forget that our teens are still works in progress – as we all are! While bullies most certainly need to face natural consequences for their choices and behaviours, we need to also provide them with support and access to tools which will help them to make healthier choices going forward. Adults who are bullies, didn’t become like that overnight.
Remember my parenting mantra: “Parent with your child’s future adult in mind.”