by Kathleen Welch-Torres, Ph.D.

“Very few children bully, threaten or assault another child unless they themselves are struggling.”

School bullying has received a lot of attention in the past few years. That is great, because it sends the message that bullying behavior will not be tolerated in schools, emboldens children to seek help from responsible adults, and reminds victims that they are not alone. While information to assist victims of bullying and their parents is now commonplace, the child engaging in bullying behavior is often ignored. That’s probably true in part because it is easier to empathize with a victim of bullying than the one doing the bullying. But, very few children bully, threaten or assault another child unless they themselves are struggling. There are numerous root causes of bullying behavior, including:

  • Trauma at home, or strained relationships with parents
  • Anxiety or anger about their own poor school performance (which could be due to a learning difference)
  • Peer pressure, or wanting to “fit in” with other kids who are bullying
  • Not understanding how their behavior affects other children
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
  • Having been a victim of abusive or bullying behavior themselves, either at home or at school

Bullying behavior can come from living with some of the most difficult circumstances a child can face. And, bullying during the teen years can also be a predictor of mental health and behavior problems in the future, including criminal behavior. So clearly, it’s time to focus attention on interventions for those who bully others.

The good news is, parents who catch their children’s bullying behavior early can often intervene. Even when bullying behavior is severe and happens in spite of parental intervention, treatment from a mental health provider can be very effective. Young people who bully can change their behavior, and they and their whole families can become resilient. The earlier intervention takes place, the better a child’s chances are of overcoming bullying behavior and resolving underlying issues.

If you discover your child is bullying other children – due to a phone call from a teacher, discovering it on social media, or hearing about it some other way – know you are not alone, and that there are things you can do.

“The good news is, parents who catch their children’s bullying behavior early can often intervene.”

CFGC’S TOP TIPS

LISTEN

If you become aware that your child is bullying others, ask him or her to tell you what has happened and why. Any course of action you choose to take will be more effective if you first understand the circumstances from your child’s point of view. And, they will be more open and truthful with you if they know you are willing to hear their side of the story. In many cases, you can address and resolve what caused the incident in the first place. You could say, “I got a call from your school today, and your teacher said you were bullying another student. I am troubled by this, and I’d like to hear what happened from you.”

TALK

In an ideal world, parents talk to their children about bullying before an incident takes place. But, in reality, this is often not the case. After a bullying incident, it’s not too late to have an impact on your child’s future behavior. Have a conversation about appropriate ways to interact with friends, respectful ways to resolve conflict, and healthy outlets for anger or disappointment. Also, let your child know that you have clear expectation about appropriate ways of treating others, and you will not tolerate bullying, threats or violence toward other children or adults.

PROMOTE EMPATHY

A child who is acting out by bullying may not fully comprehend his or her impact on others – especially younger children. You can help them build empathy and compassion by asking them to consider what it feels like to be bullied. For example, if your child has been saying cruel things and excluding a classmate, ask your child if he or she can remember a time when they felt left out or embarrassed by someone else. Then explain, “That is the same feeling your classmate is feeling because of your behavior towards them.”

CREATE LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES

Bullying is a behavior that should have consequences for children. But, those consequences will be much more effective if they make sense. For example, if your child has been bullying or physically fighting at the park after school, it makes sense if they are not allowed to play there for a while and must come home and do chores instead. Or, a teen who is cyberbullying could lose the privilege of using their smart phone for a period of time.

REPAIR THE DAMAGE

Apologies have tremendous power to heal – both for children who bully and their victims. When you and your child are calm, have a conversation about accepting responsibility for mistakes, and ways to say “I’m sorry.” Your child can repair the damage by talking to the child they hurt in person, or in writing. They can also reach out by being kind toward the child they bullied, by including a child who they previously left out, or making a small gesture like baking cookies for them. Although it may be difficult for your child at first, these types of repairs can be surprisingly satisfying. In fact, in some cases, your child and their former victims come out of bad situations as friends.

STAY ON TOP OF THE SITUATION, AND ASK FOR HELP

Once your child has been involved in bullying behavior, keep an eye out for repeated incidences. If your child is repeatedly bullying others, it is a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional to get help in changing your child’s behavior. But, you do not need to wait for repeated bullying incidences to reach out. You are never alone. If your child has trouble telling you why they bully others and they show signs of depression, academic struggles or anxiety, or if you are concerned that trauma or behaviors that are occurring in your home may be at the root of their bullying behavior, contact a mental health professional. Interpersonal conflicts can be challenging at any age. Your child and your whole family deserves to have the skills they need to get through tough times and thrive.

Know you are not alone, and that there are things you can do.