Signs to watch for and three steps to take if you suspect your child is bullying
Here is a recent letter I received from a parent. How would you respond?
“My son’s teacher says he bullies a classmate by saying cruel things,and deliberately slamming or tripping him. He denies being mean, and says the other kid is just a “wimp” and deserves it. My husband says this is just a phase and a “boy thing.” Do I believe my husband or the teacher?”
My advice: Believe the teacher!
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is assuming that bullying will just fade away. Do not make the mistake of thinking this is just “a passing phase” or a “rite of passage.” Bullying is cruelty and if allowed to continued it can become not only a habit but an accepted view that “It’s okay to be cruel.”
The consequences of letting bullying behavior go unheeded are disastrous to your child’s character and conscience as well as his or her reputation and social endeavors.
The good news is because bullying is a learned behavior it can also be unlearned. And no matter the age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention.
3 Steps to Turn Bullying Around
Here are the three beginning steps for educators, parents and counselors to turn this behavior around, and pronto.
Step 1. Get Educated About Bullying
Bullying is intentional cruelty and always contains these elements. Understanding these points will help you recognize if your child is bullying and how to help.
Aggressive: It is an aggressive act of cruelty
Repeated: Bullying usually is repeated and rarely a single incident
Clear power imbalance: The bully has more power (strength, status, size) than the victim who cannot hold his own
Intentional: The hurtful behavior is not an accident, but intentional and the bully usually seems to enjoy seeing the victim in distress.
No remorse: The bully rarely accepts responsibility and often says the victim “deserved” the hurtful treatment.
Step 2. Learn Bullying Signs
Most every child will have an “off-day.” Most kids may even occasionally pinch, hit, or send a verbal barb to another child. So look for repeated and intentional patterns of aggression. Bullying can be physical, verbal, emotional (or relational), sexual in nature or electronic (via text, email, IM etc).
You may not spot signs these when your child is with you. Also bullying is situational – it doesn’t happen in all places but some places and it may be that your child is engaging in bullying-like behaviors when you are not there. In fact, most kids bully when adults are not present. So here are a few “don’ts”:
Don’t do this alone. Ask other caregivers (teachers, coaches, babysitters, relatives) for their perspective. Get on board with others.
Don’t base your verdict on one social setting. Try to observe your child is different settings. Kids act differently when we’re not around. Bullying also does not always happen in the same situation.
Don’t be so quick to dismiss an unfavorable complaint about your child. Dig a little more. Get the facts. Could the complaint be legitimate? I know it’s tough to admit your child may be bullying, but the sooner you stop this behavior the better for your child.
Don’t assume because your child is popular that bullying isn’t happening. One study found that some of the most popular kids in schools (particularly those in the “second tier” of popularity) and even those in leadership roles display aggressive behaviors.
Don’t be too quick to say: “Not my kid!” Dig deeper. Ask. Watch. Tune in!
There is no one profile to a bully so here are a few typical behaviors of bullying to watch for. Keep a record of your child’s behaviors. Note the date and time, where the incident took place and who was involved. You may begin to see a pattern emerge that will help you determine if your child is bullying and if so, why he is using aggression to meet his needs.
Watch for Signs of Possible Bullying
Excludes or shuns another child
Is insensitive to the feelings or needs or others; lacks empathy
Taunts, intimidates or harasses
Spreads vicious rumors verbally and or electronically that hurt or ruin another’s reputation
Physically aggressive (hits, punches, kicks, slams, chokes)
Positive views of violence
Threatens with force or fear; extortion
Marked need to control and dominate others
Damages another child’s property or clothing
Quick-tempered, impulsive, easily frustrated, flares off the top
Takes pleasure in seeing a child (or animal) in distress, unconcerned if someone is upset
Finds it difficult to see a situation from the other person’s point of view
Refuses to accept responsibility or denies wrong doing when evidence shows guilt
Blames the victim or says the child “deserved what he got”; good at talking way out of situations
Shows little sympathy or concern for the victim or a child who was hurt
Targets those who are weaker or younger or animals
Intolerant of “differences” whether it be sexual orientations, cultures, religious beliefs, appearances, age, gender, or abilities and often slams those differences
Step 3. Take Bullying Reports Seriously
It’s not easy to hear negative things about your child, but don’t dismiss any report that your child is bullying. And don’t be quick to make excuses: “He has friends.” “She’s a model student.” Catching an aggressive behavior early is the best way to stop it from becoming a habit. Here are ways to dig a little deeper and find out what’s really happening (and it may take a bit of detective work).
Ask the source for further details
If someone tells you your child is a bully or using aggressive behaviors, ask them to describe “What that behavior looked like.” You need specific details so you will know the type of behavior (such as fighting, put downs, excluding, threatening, giving racial slurs) you’re dealing with.
Make sure the behavior is bullying not teasing
Bullying can be misconstrued with teasing (and all kids tease!).
Bullying is NOT mere teasing. Teasing usually involves two kids who are on “equal footing” – which means the victim or teased child can hold his or her own to the teaser. Teasing can be making fun “with the child” and if the teased child asks the teaser to stop, the teaser usually complies. Teasing is also usually amongst friends or acquaintances. Teasing is not relentless emotional taunting.
Monitor your child a bit closer
If you’ve been told your child is bullying (or suspect so), then tune in closer. Show up sooner at school events. Go to those soccer games. Pick your child up a bit earlier at those play dates. Your goal is to observe your child closer and ideally spot the actual bullying behavior (which is not always easy). The trick is to try to do so without your child watching you. You will need to see the bullying for yourself to get a better handle on what’s happening.
Watch for signs of bullying. Once you recognize this behavior is a fact, then you will need to intervene immediately.
Remember, kids often act differently in different social settings. Observe your child in a number of settings. The dynamics (who is in the group, who is leading the group, what the makeup and concept of the group are) all can be clues as to why your child may be bullying.
The bullying behavior may not happen when you’re around so enlist the perspective of other caring and trustworthy adults who know your child.
Set up a conference with the teacher.
Go and talk privately with the coach or scout leader.
Ask the day care worker or babysitter for her opinion.
Talk to those whose opinion you trust and see your child in different social settings. Are they seeing those same bullying behaviors? Get their perspective!
Ask your child
While most bullies deny their actions, don’t overlook discussing this with your child. Don’t ask “Why” are you doing this? Kids usually don’t respond well to “why questions” and may not know the reason. Ask instead “What” queries: “What did you want to happen?” “What did the child do to you?” “What happened right before?”
Your child may be the “lead” bully who is initiating the aggressive behavior. But we are seeing a pattern that children who are repeatedly bullied may resort to bullying themselves. No one is defending them and they have no recourse and so they bully.
Also, the child may also be not the “lead” bully but the “henchman”: this child resorts to bullying to protect himself because the bully has a power hold on him or wants protection.
Identify exact location and time
Bullying is a repeated behavior that usually happens in the same places (called “hot spots”). Those places typically are not adult supervised (such as the back of the school bus, the fringes of a playground, bathrooms, under stairwells, in locker rooms). If possible find out where the bullying is happening. Your first line of duty: tell your kid those spots are off-limits.
Respond ASAP if you suspect reports have validity
Contact the teacher. Set up an appointment with the school counselor or psychologist. Or get a referral to an outside counselor or psychologist. You will need a specific plan tailored to your child to stop this behavior. Your child needs to know you will be monitoring his or her behaviors.
University of Michigan psychologist, Leonard Eron, tracked more than 800 eight-year olds over four decades and singled out the twenty-five percent who often showed bullying behavior. By age thirty, one in four had an arrest record, while only five percent of the nonaggressive children did.
Recognizing that your child is using cruel, aggressive behaviors is tough. But remember, bullying is learned and can be unlearned. It will take steadfast commitment and a research-based strategies to make that change, but it is doable. And nothing will be more important for your child’s future than ensuring that change.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.
You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips about bullying (as well as 100 other topics) in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Refer especially to the chapters on Bullying (pg 232); Bullied (pg 323); Sensitive (pg 284); Bad Friends (pg 314); and Peer Pressure (pg 373).
M. Borba, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2010.
A. Dickinson, “Bad Boys Rule: A New Study Shows Some of the Most Popular Kids in School Are ‘Extremely Antisocial’”, Time, Jan. 31, 2000, p. 77.
University of Michigan study by Leonard Eron study: Z. Lazar, “Bullying: A Serious Business,” Child, February 2001, p 78-84.
D. Olweus, “Bully/Victim Problems Among Schoolchildren: Basic Facts and Effects of a School-Based Intervention Program,” in The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression, 1991.