Learning that your child is being bullied is a heart-breaking experience for any parent. But the parents of bullies – and bullies themselves – also need support and help. We spoke to a child therapist to find out what you should do if you learn that your child is a bully, or how you can prevent them from turning to bullying if you’ve seen the early signs.
According to Ashley Jay, a Norwood-based educational psychologist, bullying is consistent or continuous physically or emotionally hurtful behaviour towards another child.
However, not all hurtful behaviour is bullying. “The word bully is overused, and small children will often say every time that someone is mean to them, that they were bullied,” says Ashley. “If an incident happened once and never again – even if it’s physical – that’s just someone being mean. If it happens on more than one occasion, but the child is apologetic afterwards, that’s also not bullying.”
This is not to say that negative behaviour shouldn’t be addressed – just that the level of intervention needs to be appropriate to the action.
Ashley says there is no stereotype when it comes to bullies. “Bullies come from all races, all socioeconomic statuses, all genders, religions and levels of intelligence,” she says.
This is important in understanding bullying behaviour because it shows you that bullies can come from good homes in your community. This will help you to accept that you need to address bullying behaviour in your own child, no matter what the circumstances.
Children can be involved in or respond to bullying in different ways along a spectrum:
Ashley says that it is important to identify where on the spectrum of bullying your child falls. You can even do this with a non-bullying child to encourage thinking about the issue and appropriate responses to it.
Ideally, we want all children to report or intervene against bullying, but circumstances can sometimes make the situation difficult or even dangerous for a child to handle. You don’t want your child to be an observer, encourager, bully follower or active bully, so start healthy discussions around bullying so that your child is given insight into their own behaviour.
Ashley says children can quite easily go from being a bully observer to being an active bully, so these conversations can be helpful in identifying and changing bullying behaviour early.
As a parent, you probably don’t have too much insight into the social dynamics of your child’s school day, but you will still often get told or overhear things. Ashley says it’s important to never write off actions or comments as “kids being kids”, but to always intervene or ask questions. Even laughing about something that happened that your child wasn’t involved in isn’t kind.
“Don’t ever allow cruel language or encourage your child’s sense of superiority over other children,” she says. “Teach and model empathy. Your child won’t develop empathy out of nowhere. Some children need a far more detailed explanation of why something is not OK and how it makes the other person feel.”
Ashley says that it can also be helpful to try to understand the group mentality – what types of friends your child has, are they easily influenced or are they a leader – when trying to talk to them about bullying situations. Peer pressure often plays a role in bullying.
So, you are called in by the school or confronted by the parent of a possible victim. It seems that your child has been bullying another child. What do you do?
1. Listen calmly
Try to stay calm. “It is often painful to hear that your child is the aggressor in a situation, but getting angry yourself isn’t helpful,” says Ashley. “Listen calmly to what is being said about your child’s behaviour, hear the whole story and ask questions to get clarity.”
2. Commit to following up
At this stage, Ashley recommends you commit to some sort of response. “Say you will investigate further and get back to them.” It’s best to be non-specific about your response, as you need some time to think it through and to hear your child’s version of events.
Hear your child’s side of the story before deciding on a course of action.
3. Hear your child’s side
“It’s very important to hear your child’s side of the story before deciding on a course of action,” she says. “Bear in mind that your child might be dishonest in response to being caught out – but that there might be another side to the story as well. Or there might be a hidden cause, for instance that your child is also being bullied. Bullying is often symptomatic behaviour.”
4. Explain the impact
The next step is explaining to your child the harm that they are causing, giving examples of the physical or emotional hurt that the other child might be experiencing. Help them put themselves in the child’s shoes with questions like, “How do you think Josh felt..?” Ashley suggests that you can roleplay with your child to show the impact that their behaviour has – take turns being the bully and the bullied. It’s important that the child knows that you take this behaviour seriously, and that it will not be tolerated.
5. Help your child to apologise
Now discuss making amends in some way to the child who has been harmed. Sometimes there is a practical way to make amends - if your child broke or stole something, perhaps it can be fixed or replaced. Your child will also have to apologise.
“The child then needs to show the authenticity of the apology through their changed behaviour. You need to avoid a situation where your child says they are sorry, then does the same thing later,” says Ashley. “You can give your child some guidance as to what they need to do to be kind.”
You should let the teacher and other parents know that this is going to be done. Depending on the severity of the situation, your child might need to apologise or commit to behaving better in front of the teacher as well.
6. Consider consequences
Depending on the child’s age and the nature of the bullying, you might decide that a punishment of sorts is in order. The best way to think about this, is in terms of facing the consequences of their behaviour. So, for example, if a teen has bullied another kid in a WhatsApp group, you might confiscate his or her phone for a period of time.
7. Battle bullying behaviour in future
Praise non-bullying, kind and empathetic behaviour when your child exhibits it and be aware of modelling that sort of behaviour at home. It can be helpful to verbalise your thought process behind a kind act or a way of resolving a conflict, saying something like, “Your sister had a hard day at school today, let’s make her favourite supper to cheer her up and show her we love her.”
8. Get help if the behaviour persists
If you find that despite your best efforts, your child’s bullying behaviour continues, Ashley says it would be appropriate to consider taking your child to see a therapist.
If the incident is very serious, if there are a number of children involved, or if emotions and tensions are running high, it is a good idea to get the school involved from the beginning, rather than trying to sort things out yourself or with other parents. Schools often have the experience and resources to support the kids and resolve the situation.
There are a number of underlying factors that might contribute to the bullying and addressing those can help prevent bullying in future.
An important factor to consider is whether your child’s behaviour might be due to the lack of a certain ability. “Do they have limited social skills, behavioural or learning issues? The bullying will still need to be addressed, but in conjunction with treatment for any of these other issues. Talk to your child’s teacher or a therapist to help get a sense of this,” says Ashley.
Ashley says that children who bully are quite often children who are trying to fit in, or who fear being bullied themselves. Bullying can also happen if the child has a strong personality but hasn’t developed the right coping mechanisms for integrating with their peers. It can be a sign of unexpressed anger or feeling overwhelmed about a life situation or change. “Children don’t have the same coping mechanisms for dealing with emotions as adults do,” says Ashley. They might act out aggressively.
Although an abusive home life is often assumed to be the reason for a child’s bullying, this is not necessarily the case. However, children may resort to bullying if they come from a home environment in which they do not experience a great deal of empathy from their parents or caregivers. This is why modelling appropriate behaviour – and even explaining why and how it is being done – is so important. A lack of supervision or consequence can also contribute to this type of negative behaviour.
“If you are concerned that your child is becoming a bully, consider whether they are receiving appropriate levels of parental attention or supervision, whether there is appropriate discipline in your home, and whether there are behavioural limits and consequences,” says Ashley.
She says that if you can get to the bottom of the behaviour, you might be able to head it off by addressing the cause.
Having a child who is acting up is never easy. And chances are you’ll feel guilty, angry or defensive as a result. Try to stay calm and respond appropriately, with a goal of resolving the issue rather than making it worse. Ask for the help of teachers and therapists to ensure the best outcome for your child – and the children they will come into contact with.