What You Can Do If Your Child Is a Bully

Parents get blamed for all sorts of things.

The last thing I want to do is add additional guilt to parenting, an experience that — as the overwhelming majority of parents put it — is the hardest job they’ve ever had.

At the same time, the child’s family of origin provides her primary environment; it is composed of the key players responsible for teaching and shaping behaviors (though often incidentally).

So, is it possible parents are teaching behavior at home that encourages bullying? Yes.

Here’s what you can do to prevent your child from engaging in bullying behavior:

Take an Honest Inventory

Put defensiveness aside, and note how you communicate with others. Use these questions to guide your reflection:

  • How do you act when you’re angry?
  • How are tension and conflict handled in your home?
  • Do you often label others in front of your children?
  • Do you take responsibility for your words and behavior?
  • Do you make excuses?
  • Do you become physically or verbally aggressive toward yourself or others?
  • Do you talk to your children about their classmates in a overly negative way?
  • Do you gossip to your spouse, your friends, or your family members?
  • Do you gossip about people who do things in strange or different way?

Chances are, you do at least some of these things. While it’s an admirable goal to eradicate every negative behavior, that is also not realistic. Being honest with yourself and acknowledging your own behavior is, however, a significant step.

Model the Appropriate Behavior at Home

If you are gossiping, name-calling, labeling, or acting aggressively at home, it is likely that your child is aware of these behaviors — and that she is more likely to choose them herself. Here are ways you can modify behaviors that might be influencing your child.

Initiate Positive Conversations

Gossiping about or labeling others is an especially insidious behavior that often has a dual purpose. Gossiping can provide a release valve for negative feelings about an absent third party. At the same time, gossiping can also help create feelings of closeness in a relationship, largely because it gives the conversationalists something to join together on.

Even so, it is more effective, sustainable, and consequence-free to focus on building a person-to-person relationship rather than one based on gossip. To that end, keep the conversation focused on your own thoughts, ideas, and experiences — as well as those of the person you’re speaking to.

Communicate Effectively

Model using kind and assertive language. Use “I” statements (rather than “you” statements) to communicate thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Make your comments about how you are personally affected rather than about judgments of another’s behavior. For example, “I feel frustrated that you left your dishes in the sink because I spent the day cleaning the kitchen” provides more information than, “You are making a mess.”

Exercise Healthy Anger Management

Let your child know that getting angry is normal. While it is OK to feel angry, it is not OK to be cruel or abusive to another person or yourself. Verbalize when you are angry in a modulated tone. Take it one step further by letting your child know what you are going to do to handle your anger effectively. For example, you might say something like: “I’m really angry right now. I am going to take a five-minute break.”

Take Responsibility for Your Actions

Accept the fact that adults are as capable of making mistakes as children. Model how to take responsibility by apologizing, admitting when you are wrong, and appropriately accepting consequences. This is not undermining your authority as an adult. Instead, it is teaching your child that everyone makes mistakes, and that it’s important to acknowledge and learn from them.

Put Limits on Electronics

This is an example of what parents may not be doing that is contributing to bullying behaviors. Bullying statistics report that one in 10 teenagers has engaged in text bullying. Due to convenience and purported anonymity, text bullying and cyberbullying are more common than face-to-face bullying. While many minors believe that their messages are anonymous, electronic messages can be traced, and the minor who is bullying could potentially face criminal charges. Even if a bullying text were to remain anonymous, it would likely have a detrimental effect on the recipient. Here are a few things that you can do to ensure that your child does not engage in cyberbullying:

  • Let your child know that time spent on electronics is a privilege, not an entitlement. Limit her time on electronics.

  • Make a verbal or written contract with your child stating that mean messages will not be tolerated, and that phone/computer privileges are contingent on appropriate cell phone/computer use.

  • Let your child know that she is not to respond if someone sends her a mean message. Instead, she should alert you or another trusted adult.

  • Let your child know that her phone is her private property, and that she is not permitted to let peers use her phone except in emergencies.

  • Do not let your child sleep near a device that is connected to the Internet. In my own clinical experience, I have found that about nine out of 10 incidents of cyberbullying occur after 10 p.m.

  • Let your child know that you will be checking in on her social media activity.

Focus on Thoughts

This may seem obvious, but it is worth articulating: Asking your child about how she feels shows her that you care about her feelings. Identifying feelings, moreover, is one step toward developing emotional intelligence. By thinking analytically about her feelings — and about how her thoughts inform her feelings — your child will sharpen her emotional intelligence. This process will also serve to discourage her from getting “stuck” in her feelings.

Because it is easier to change thoughts than feelings, concentrate on learning your child’s thinking patterns. In a nonjudgmental way (using a calm voice and nonthreatening body language), ask your child what made her decide to say mean things, or push, shove, or gossip about another kid. Ask her what she thinks about bullies in general. Try to stick to lots of open-ended questions (as opposed to yes/no questions) to explore her thinking.

Let Your Child Know the Consequences of Her Actions

Consider a household consequence for bullying behaviors. Remind your child of consequences for bullying behaviors at school. In addition, gently inform your child of the incidental consequence of her behavior. Let her know that bullying could deter peers from wanting to spend time around her.

When All Else Fails, Get Professional Help

Therapists specializing in child and adolescent mental health can assist in ironing out ineffective behavior patterns and unhelpful family dynamics. Call your insurance company or look on its website to find providers who are available in your area.

Bullying happens, and not just in childhood. Children who are prone to aggressive behaviors need to be gently informed that there can be serious consequences to their actions, that their words and behavior have power, and that they must use that power responsibly. To these ends, children need to learn pragmatic language skills to communicate effectively and assertively.

Most importantly, they need to see their most trusted authority figures modeling these skills, too.

Sources:

Bowen, M.D., M. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York, New York: Jason Aronson.

Fruzzetti Ph.D, A. (2006). Understanding Emotion in Relationships. In The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy & Validation (pp. 1–14). Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger Publications.

Rosenberg, Ph.D, M. (1999). Identifying and Expressing Feelings & Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings. In Nonviolent Communication a Language of Compassion. DelMar, California: PuddleDancer Press.

Text Bullying. (2013, January 1). Retrieved January 5, 2015, from Bullying Statistics.