Every parent has a list of phone calls they don’t want to get from school.
It’s a basic list. If you’re a parent, here are the top three things we know you don’t want to hear when the phone rings and your caller ID tells you it’s the school:
- Your child is sick or has had an accident.
- They’re being disruptive or having discipline problems.
- They’re having serious academic/learning issues.
There’s another call you don’t want to get, and when you do, it typically takes you by surprise: the one where a school teacher or administrator tells you that your child is bullying other children. This call probably didn’t make your Top Three Calls You Don’t Want to Get list because you may not be able to imagine your child as the bully.
Your little ray of sunshine, being mean?
But you have to consider the possibility.
And while you do, here’s the first thing you need to understand: if your kid is engaging in bullying behavior, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid. What it means depends on the individual, but it’s important to remember, especially for children, that their behavior does not define who they are. Kids try out new behaviors almost every day. Some are positive, and some are negative. Some choices are good, and some choices are less than optimal. If you receive news that your child is engaging in bullying behavior – whether the news comes from school or another parent – it’s not the end of the world.
However, it is something you have to take seriously. And you have to do something about it.
Understand Why Kids Bully
After you accept the fact your child might indeed be bullying other kids, the next thing to do is understand why.
Kids bully for various reasons. Even children who are kind and respectful most of the time might fall into bullying behavior. The main reasons children are mean or unkind to other children are:
- They’re trying to fit in. They see another kid or group of kids being mean, making fun of classmates, and getting positive social results – so they try it out themselves, hoping to get the same result: social capital.
- They feel powerless and need help. There may be something in their social or home life that makes them feel small, insignificant, or unseen. Often bullying behavior happens when a child is trying to compensate for difficult feelings by acting out in order to get attention from an adult. They see adults react when other kids bully, so they try it out themselves, hoping for the same result: attention from the closest teacher or parent.
- They’ve been bullied themselves. This is similar, but not identical, to the bullet point above. In this case, the sense of powerlessness comes from being bullied, and the child is trying to turn the tables and re-establish their sense of worth and power by directing their frustrations at another child.
- They don’t understand the harm they’re causing. They may think they’re simply engaging in typical childhood teasing, roughhousing, or joking around. Kids give each other grief all the time. Adults do it, too: pointed sarcasm is common currency in our culture, across almost all age groups. However, kids tend not to know exactly where the line between comedy and cruelty is, and when that line is crossed, they often don’t understand it can cause real harm to the person on the receiving end.
- They may have emotional regulation issues, issues related to empathy and compassion, or impulse control issues. In some cases, bullying can be an early symptom of a developing mental health disorder. A child may be experiencing ideas and emotions they’re not equipped to deal with, and their frustration may cause them to lash out at others in order to relieve their own discomfort.
We want to reiterate something, here: none of the reasons above speak to the underlying goodness or fundamental character of your child. Nor do they speak to the relative merits of your parenting skills or techniques. These things happen. And they can happen to anyone. If and when you find out your child is acting like a bully, you have to let go of judgment – of your kid and of yourself – and take practical steps to nip the behavior in the bud.
What to Do if Your Kid is Bullying
There are several practical things you can do if you discover your child is bullying others. All of them require two things of you. First, acknowledge, accept, and engage. Second, leave your emotions out of it. Look at bullying as a behavior that needs to be modified with the input of you, the school, possibly other parents, and your child. Your emotional input is not going to help. Your rational, adult decision-making and problem-solving skills, however, will help. Be ready to face facts and take action.
Here’s what you can do if you find out your kid is acting like a bully:
- Communicate. Open and honest communication first, last, and always. Communicate with the teacher, school representative, or parent who calls you. Listen objectively and get the facts. Then talk with your child about what you’ve heard. Listen to what they have to say, first without judging, scolding, or trying to solve the situation: just listen.
- Reassure. Remind your kid that you’re on their side, no matter what. That doesn’t mean you’re on their side about the bullying itself. Rather, it means your kid needs to understand you love them unconditionally, but you don’t love this specific behavior one bit. It’s unacceptable and must stop.
- Find the Cause. Get past the superficial circumstances and try to unearth what’s going on with your kid. They may be seeking attention from you or their teachers. They may be trying to fit in with a group of peers. Also, they could be handling uncomfortable emotions in and non-productive way. Validate their emotions and brainstorm alternative coping strategies for getting attention, fitting in with peers, or processing feelings.
- Develop an Action Plan. Talk to you child about consequences or outcomes if they continue with the bullying behavior. Do your best to state facts, rather than threaten punishments. Let them know that if they continue bullying, then it will result in specific things: they may lose screen time, social time, or other privileges. Always follow through on outcomes, and always provide a path back to balance. Meaning that if you restrict something as a result of continued bullying, your child needs to know they can restore that something by not continuing the bullying behavior.
- Teach Social and Emotional Skills. It’s likely you’ve been doing this all along. It’s part of parenting. But more and more scientific evidence shows how important basic social and emotional skills are to the overall development of a child. In the case of bullying, focus on empathy, compassion, and understanding how their actions affect others. If you discover your child is having serious problems handling emotions like anger or experiencing difficulty controlling harmful impulses, then you should seek professional help from a licensed and credentialed child psychologist or psychiatrist. They can help you determine if a mental health disorder is at the root of your child’s behavior, and if that’s the case, they can offer your child the help they need.
Bullying: The Big Picture
Children are not born as bullies. It’s a learned behavior. It’s also a behavior that can be unlearned. Bullying comes in many forms: it can be direct (face-to-face), indirect (spreading rumors), physical (pushing, hitting, etc.), verbal (name calling, etc.), or relational (intentional exclusion and/or shaming). The hardest thing for a parent to face is that their child may have picked up one or more of these bullying behaviors at home. They may have been bullied by older siblings. They may have been bullied by uncles, aunts, or cousins.
And brace yourself: they may even have been bullied by you, or witnessed you engaging in bullying behavior.
What this means is that you have to check yourself and make sure you’re modeling the kind of behavior you want to see in your child. Ask yourself serious questions and be brutally honest. When you’re angry, do you raise your voice, slap your palm on the table, or slam doors? If so, that means you’re teaching your child that’s an okay way to express emotions. Do you gossip about neighbors, or use derogatory language toward or about others in front of your child?
If so, that means you’re teaching your child that’s acceptable behavior. We’re not saying you do these things, and if you do, we’re not saying you’re a bad person. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has areas in which they can grow. What we’re asking that you take a thorough self-inventory. Make sure you’re not unintentionally modeling behavior you don’t want to see in your children. Your own behavior is the easiest cause to rule out. Once you check yourself, you can move on to the other possible reasons your child may be engaging in bullying behavior. Once you identify the root cause, you can take appropriate action, create a teachable moment, and help your child find alternative ways of expressing their emotions.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.