What You Can Do if Your Kid is a Bully

1. First response

Imagine a situation.

A teacher or another child’s parent has approached you saying that your kid bullies someone.

Your first reaction would be probably disbelief.

Your kid could never do that, didn’t you teach her better?

This is all just a misunderstanding, some childhood conflict – that’s all.

Then, you start being defensive.

There must a good reason;

your child must have been provoked.

Then, there comes disappointment.

You feel like your kid let you down.

Finally, you feel that you let your kid down.

What did you do wrong?

Now, take a deep breath and try to keep your cool.

“Bully” is a very unpleasant label, but it does not mean that your child is a wicked tormentor, spoiled beyond help.

Children tend to mirror the world around them.

They see examples of bullying at school, in movies, and sometimes even at home.

Try to find out, what caused your child to behave this way.

It there a pattern or is the incident only one off?

To do that you must first ask your child to describe the situation in her own words. 

Make her take accountability for her actions, without pushing the blame on someone else instead.

Help your child understand that she bullies.

This may be a problem.

Often children (and grown-ups for that matter) have a stereotyped idea of what bullying is and do not identify themselves as bullies.

Instead, they say they were “having fun”, “fooling around”, “only joking” or even “tried to teach them a lesson”.

To illustrate, let me cite here two episodes with my daughter when she displayed bullying behavior. 

2. Case study

First time… Well, that was hilarious and sad at the same time.

She picked on the boy she fancied (she was 5 at the time).

She wanted him to notice her and was full of indignation that he would not, so she did her best.

“Best” meaning tripping, knocking juice boxes out of his hands, and putting her chewing gum into his hair.

When we spoke about it, it turned out that she kind of knew that sharing treats with him and inviting him to play together would be the best solution.

Only she was too shy and too afraid he would laugh at her.

Hence, she sought his attention in alternative ways.

It was relatively easy for me to make her see she was wrong, and get her into making amends with the boy.

Another time she and the group of her friends were giving the new girl a silent treatment and were playing mean tricks on her, secretly peppering her things with crayon cuttings and watering her sneakers.

It turned out that the new girl did not quite comply with their “code of honor”. 

Whenever a conflict of interests occurred, she would say: “I’ll tell miss M!” as the final argument, so eventually they decided that she was a “rat”.

That was the exact word my daughter used (her dad watches way too much of film noir).

Some occurrences confirmed that the girl did “tattle” on any little occasion, willing reporting who told what and who went where. 

They started bullying the girl, as a way of showing her that her behavior is unacceptable.

They saw themselves as a secret society upholding justice.

It took me some time and all my power of persuasion to show the other side of the story because when I asked her to put herself in the new girl’s shoes, she would retort, “I am not a snitch, I am not like her at all”. 

3. Cartoonish Villains

My daughter and the other kids had clearly seen something like this in media.

Too often cartoons and movies show how a bully eventually gets to taste his own medicine and ends up humiliated.

Moreover, a bully is always a bad guy/mean girl. 

Not someone who behaves wrongly and makes a mistake.

Bullies in media are irreformable tormenters.

They are mean and cruel because they like to see other people suffer.

Just think of Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, Regina George from Mean Girls, Johnny from The Karate Kid or even Tom from Tom and Jerry.

Soul-crushing villains.

Pure evil. 

So, when they get it, in the end, we are supposed to feel some perverse pleasure.

That sends a dubious and dangerous message, that it is okay to turn the tables on the bully and bully them in return.

You know – karma.

Perhaps, the only recent media exception I can think of is Harry Potter series, where classic baddies as we see them in the first book/film (Snape and the Malfoys) gain dimensions as the plot unfolds and end up as people in a difficult situation, who have made some bad decisions in life. 

Now there’s time for some action

In real life, bullies come in all shapes and sizes, victims of bullying become bullies themselves when they find an opportunity to vent out their frustration.

Because bullying is contagious, it corrupts victims as well as the bullies, causing life-long psychological issues.

Bullying is not a football field with two sides and a clear line in between.

It is more of a continuum: there are bullies, those who encourage them, those who tolerate bullying, those who disapprove, yet do nothing, and those who stand up and defend. 

Children can find themselves in any place along the line in various situations.

Here is what you can do to move them closer to the “defender” end: 

1.Try to show your kid that bullying is unacceptable behavior, but not an identity – theirs or anyone else’s.

This will make it easier for your child to admit they did something wrong. 

2.Make it clear you will not tolerate bullying.

Establish rules and stick to them, be consistent with your punishment.

If your child breaks the rules – she pays the price (i.e.

loses some privileges, such as screen time or participation in social events). 

3.Cultivate emotional intelligence.

Often children bully because they cannot process negative emotions, so they just pass them on.

Encourage your child to share their feelings.

If your little one seems moody, ask her what she feels: anger, frustration, disappointment?

Why?

Keeping a diary is a good way for a child to understand her feelings better. 

 4.Be a good example.

Show your children how to treat others with respect, even if you disagree with them.

The way you handle conflicts and speak of others determines the worldview of your children.

If grown-ups steep to gossip, eye-rolling, and name-calling, children see it as a norm. 

5.Nurture empathy.

Explain that one must never find satisfaction in making someone feel small.

It does not matter if one likes or dislikes this person for whatever reasons.

Try to role-play different situations with your child as a victim, a bystander, or a bully.

Encourage your child when she shows kindness and sympathy.

When your watch a movie or a cartoon that touches bullying topics, ask your child with whom she sympathizes and why.

What would she do in a situation like that? 

6.Also, monitor your child’s relationships with siblings, friends, and playmates.

Point out what is acceptable and what is not, before the situation gets out of hands. 

Social media monitoring for parents is also a solution, as you can see your kid cyberbullying someone, too. 

 It takes some time to change a behavior.

Just be patient and show your love and support, as your child learns new ways of handling her emotions and resolving conflicts.