Imagine this scenario: The principal calls to tell you that your son has been involved in an incident of bullying at school. You are shocked and immediately think of how you will comfort your child when he comes home. To your disbelief however, the principal informs you that your son is actually the perpetrator in this situation.
What do you do now?
Why some kids bully
Students don’t simply bully other kids out of the blue, says Shawn Jeffers, Lead Trainer at the Cincinnati chapter of the national GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) anti-bullying organization. Bullies choose kids who they perceive as different in some way. “The bully will find some aspect with which to malign another student – be it physical appearance, weight, perceived sexual orientation, religion, race and so on.” Jeffers adds, “When a culture of respect has not been modeled and created for young people, then it can foster the conditions that allow for one student to pick on another student.”
He says it is important not to lump all types of bullying together, but to try to understand specifically what the bully is reacting to when picking their target. Jeffers says that oftentimes bullying is a way to feel in control of a situation or overcompensate for insecurities.
As well, a child who is a bully may see this behavior modeled at home and could be the victim of a bully within their own family. As Jeffers points out, “This might be a call for help, an indication that [the] child is hurting.”
The attitude that parents take upon learning their child has bullied others is fundamental to addressing the issue says Cobin Trout, a therapist at Compass Point Counseling Services. She says it is critical that parents really believe that the bullying has happened, that their child is responsible and to take the problem seriously. “Denying the problem and discounting the seriousness of it enables the bullying to continue.” She points to sentiments like “boys will be boys” or “bullying is just part of growing up” as unacceptable, yet commonly held beliefs that downplay the importance of the issue.
Trout says that parents who discover that their child has been involved in bullying behavior often will either blame themselves or come to the defense of their son or daughter. “Either way, parents need to hold their children responsible for their own choices,” she says. Parents must let kids know that they take bullying seriously, that the behavior will not be tolerated and that it needs to stop immediately.
Handling an incident
Parents should carefully monitor their child who has been accused of bullying after the incident to ensure this behavior has stopped. Following up with other parents, kids and school personnel will be important during this process. Trout suggests talking with the child to help them understand their behavior, why it was wrong and how the situation should have been handled differently. “This type of reflection gives the child a chance to see the incident from the victim’s perspective,” says Trout. Parents should also point out when their child is involved in positive, empathic and helpful interactions with peers.
Another strategy she suggests is having a bully become involved in positive experiences like volunteering to give them the experience of looking out for and caring about others.
Seeking professional help
Sometimes a child’s bullying behavior can indicate a serious problem that needs to be addressed with someone trained in this area. “Repeated bullying behavior can be a sign of significant emotional problems or self-esteem issues,” says Trout.
If a child repeatedly bullies, seems to enjoy hurting others, becomes more covert in the bullying activity or reports a desire to carry out hurtful or vengeful acts, contact a mental health professional for help.
As hard as it may be to accept that your child may be a bully, taking firm action to address the situation not only prevents more potential victims, but it is an act of love on your part for your own child. A child who bullies others, for whatever reason, is not coping well with the stressors in their life. Reach out to your school, a mental health provider or organizations like The National Bullying Prevention Center ,StopBullying.gov and the Mayerson Academy in Cincinnati for more information and guidance.