What If My Child Becomes The Bully?
Most parents and teachers worry about children being bullied and the devastating consequences it will have in the short and long term. A great deal of time and effort is spent in schools on preparing children for the chance that this might happen to them.
A less often discussed, and more private fear that many parents have is, “What if my child is the bully?” or “What if my child becomes a bully?” There must be more you can do than apologise and hide!
Just because your child bullies, does not mean that you are a bad parent. Bullying is a maladaptive behaviour. It can be unlearned and it can be replaced with better behaviours. However, it does need to be addressed for the wellbeing and safety of your child and others in their life.
What makes kids bully?
There is no one factor that makes kids bully and there is no one kind of child that bullies. However, there are high risk factors:
- Bullying can be a social short cut. Using force and aggression is a quick way to get what you want. If a child has not learned the social skills required to get along with others and achieve their goals, they may just resort to force. That said, some bullies have highly advanced social skills. They recognise strength and weakness in others and they know what words and actions will hurt others. They employ these skills to gain dominance and get what they want. As you can see, it’s complicated!
- Bullying happens in the home or extended family. Aggression and violence happens in families, as much as we wish it wouldn’t. If a child sees this sort of behaviour at home it becomes the norm.
- It can be an extension of what is valued in the home. Santa Maria College Psychologist Jane Carmignani says, “If parents model that you are “good” when you are in control; you are a leader when others are scared of you; you are popular when you are feared; you are popular when you are exclusive. Then children will sometimes live that out in bullying.”
- A child who has been bullied is more likely to go on to bully themselves. Let’s face it, they have learned that skill the hard way and they know it works. It is also a self-protective behaviour. If a child is bullying, they are unlikely to be bullied themselves.
- Neglect can cause bullying. Children will literally fight for attention, negative or positive. Positive attention is a natural antidote but often adults will punish bullies by withholding positive attention. The cycle continues.
- Children see a lot of bullying behaviour on television and in popular culture. When you are making a TV show for young people, apparently there are only so many sources of conflict you can use to create drama. Bullying behaviour is often the one chosen.
- Children are more likely to bully when they feel vulnerable. It can be a source of empowerment. They are make themselves feel better by manipulating relationships around them or putting others down to feel superior.
- Bullying is a way of fitting in and not being bullied yourself. Fear is a very powerful motivator. Some children will only bully as part of a group of other bullies. That might make you feel slightly better but we all know it doesn’t make it right.
- Some argue that humans are hard wired to rank and create hierarchies. Other theorists believe that some children have a need for superiority and control as part of their temperament. Nature over nurture. That doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed.
Sometimes adults encourage bullying. They think it will make kids tough and able to cope with what the world throws at them. This is a misguided view as the negative consequences of bullying for the bully can be as severe as for the victim. Mind Matters Australia says that, “Research suggests negative longer-term outcomes for those who have been bullies in adolescence. Bullies are more likely than their peers to go on to adult substance misuse, violence and abuse, or criminal behaviour. One study also found that they are also more likely to have children who behave aggressively.”
Bullying also isolates a child. They may have the pack with them at the time of conflict, but kids aren’t silly. If your child is a bully, other kids will avoid them in the long run. In school playgrounds you often see bullies sitting alone or going from social group to social group trying to stir up trouble, anything for attention. It is very sad to watch.
So what can we do to ensure that children don’t grow up to be bullies? And how can we make them unlearn bullying behaviours if they are already learning them?
- First and foremost, children need to know from a very young age exactly what bullying is. Name it and explain it. Behaviour Management Specialist, James Lehman says, “You can tell them the following (or even post these words in your house somewhere):
- A bully is somebody who forces other people to do things they don’t want to do.
- A bully is somebody who hits other people.
- A bully is someone who takes or breaks other people’s property.
- A bully is someone who calls other people names.”
We could add…
- A bully is someone who makes others feel alone
- A bully is someone who says they are your friend but then treats you meanly
- Give children a lot of positive attention and clear boundaries. Children who know they are a priority are less likely to seek attention in negative ways. That does not mean ignore your child’s negative behaviour. Kids respond to clear boundaries and predictable consequences.
- Make it very clear that bullying will not be tolerated in your family. Create that culture early.
- Develop empathy in children. Make sure you prompt them to consider how other people are feeling. Ask them to articulate how others might be feeling. It isn’t enough to simply say, “Think of others”. This can start at a really young age with questions about how pets, siblings and parents might feel. When kids are older you can broaden this questioning to friends, teachers and even strangers on the news or characters in books or on television.
- Make children accountable for their bullying. It isn’t someone else’s fault.
- Talk about alternative ways of solving social problems. When teaching I used to say to my students, “Let’s think of three ways you could have handled that situation differently.” Then insist that they are workable, kind solutions.
- Please, whatever you do, don’t look past bullying. What you ignore is what you condone. I know it is hard to pick kids up on everything they do, but with bullying it just has to be that way. Bullies feel that if significant adults say nothing about the bullying behaviour, then they have given their blessing.
- Monitor your child’s internet use and never let them use the internet in their bedrooms. As you’re aware an enormous amount of bullying happens online. It is easier to treat someone else badly when you don’t have to look them in the eye.
- Work with your school. If the school approaches you about your child’s bullying behaviour, the chances are it really is happening, even though it is the last thing you want to hear. As a teacher, I can tell you it is difficult to tell a parent their child is bullying. It wouldn’t be said lightly. If you argue with the school about the behaviour, particularly in front of your child, you are telling the child to carry on. In the long run that does your child no favours. Schools do make mistakes, but they also see your child six hours a day, five days a week. Most have an idea of what is going on.
Finally, if you are unable to address the behaviour yourself, or with the help of your school, seek counselling. A psychologist is uniquely qualified to offer your child the support, behaviour modification and guidance required to set them on a more positive path forward.
Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here.
Other useful resources
Linda Stade – Girls and Their Frenemies
Meredith & Sofie Jacob’s Mother daughter journal “ Just Between Us”
Andrew Fuller – Cyber Relationships
Maggie Dent – Radio Interview on bulling
Michael Grose – Parenting Ideas
What is Empathy? A great explanation by Brene Brown