Bullies. We’ve seen them on TV and in movies, and we’ve probably encountered a few in childhood and even in the workplace or parenting groups. They come in all shapes and sizes, from every kind of background and upbringing—even from nurturing families. But what happens when you encounter a bully under your own roof, your child?
As a parent, you’ll probably be shocked to learn your child is intentionally causing pain and humiliation to another child or children. In fact, you may be a little defensive. How is it that your child could be acting like that?
Why do children bully?
Typically, people consider bullies to be “bad people.” But one thing that this does is dismiss the fact that they are still human beings who can learn and grow—and most importantly, are capable of change. Even characters like Regina George in “Mean Girls” or Nelson from “The Simpsons” who are the archetypes of a bully have insecurities, may be hurting or are not having certain needs met at home or at school.
“Oftentimes bullying is a result of low self-esteem or learned behaviors,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “They may lack attention at home or at school or may even be bullied themselves at home by a sibling or parent.”
The good news is that all is not lost with a child who bullies. And as a parent, you can play a very important role. As hard as it may be to swallow that jagged little pill, you can help your child learn new ways to handle their feelings and conflict with others in more appropriate ways.
Dr. Adelayo shared the following tips to help change your child’s bullying behavior.
How to help a child who bullies
Take it seriously. If you hear from a teacher or parent that your child is bullying or involved in bullying type behavior, always take it seriously – this includes situations where they are involved in group bullying where they contributed to or did nothing to stop the harassment or pain of another.
“In this day and age, silence is no longer acceptable,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Young adults have killed themselves for this type of behavior. We can’t sit back and let that happen. We must stand up and speak up for others.”
Communication is key. Talk to your child and find out why they are bullying. Dr. Adelayo suggested starting with something like, “I got a call today that you were involved in some bullying. I’m really concerned. Can you tell me what happened?”
Find out the reasons. Understanding the cause can help with your intervention. Give your child space to talk and make sure they know they can be candid, even if the trigger came from your home.
“The bullying behavior could be a result of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, a result of something that is happening at home, such as a divorce or substance abuse,” Dr. Adelayo said. “It helps to find out what the root of the issue is so you can appropriately address the behavior.”
Address appropriately. Explain that your child’s behavior and actions caused harm to another person. Things like name-calling, teasing, hitting, cyberbullying or spreading rumors aren’t acceptable behavior. For younger children especially, they need to know that hurting another child isn’t acceptable. Talk to your child about the differences between what is appropriate and inappropriate.
Give consequences. If your child is engaged in cyberbullying, this may mean they lose all technology use – their phones, iPads and computers – for a period of time. For other minor offenses, it may be electronics or certain privileges for a certain time until they start showing more pro-social type behavior.
Teach pro-social behavior. Address their social skills by helping them learn essential skills, like how to have appropriate conversations with others, how to respectfully greet people they encounter (even if they aren’t friends) and work on things like self-esteem, positive coping mechanisms and what positive relationships look like. In addition, it can be helpful for your child to apologize for their actions.
Monitor their behavior. Keep an open line of communication with the school and watch for signs of bullying. This may mean following up with teachers to see how things are going and giving your child plenty of praise at home if they’re showing pro-social type behaviors at school and with others.
Consider counseling. If you feel your child could benefit from speaking with someone else, schedule an appointment with a licensed behavioral health specialist. Don’t wait for repeated patterns of bullying to occur.
“Sometimes it can be helpful for parents who feel ill-equipped or for children who don’t feel comfortable opening up to their parents,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Sometimes this method enables children to speak openly about how they are feeling without the burden of making their parents mad, sad or upset.”
To find a Banner Behavioral Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com. In addition, here are some tips to find the right therapist for you and your child.
For more information on bullying prevention, check out these additional resources: