Is a bully, a bystander, a victim or some combination?
Contributed by Michele Borba, CEP board member
It’s not easy to know that your child is bullying.
It’s hard to admit that your kid is using aggression.
But to allow bullying behaviors to continue will be disastrous to your child’s character, conscience, reputation, well-being and mental health.
No matter the age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that bullying just “a phase” or a “rite of passage.” Behaviors and attitudes turn into habits and can easily be entrenched and much harder to change. Now is the time to help your child.
A key to changing bullying is to uncover what is motivating the child’s behavior. Each child is different and multiple factors may play into bullying so a “one-size fits all” remedy will not work.
Best intervention plans are based on the “medical model approach.” Doctors don’t give the same medication to every patient. They first identify the symptoms, and then diagnose the reason so they can use the right treatment. The wrong diagnosis means the wrong treatment, and that means your child won’t improve.
The good news is because bullying is a learned behavior it can also be unlearned. The sooner you begin, the greater your success!
Figuring Out Why a Child Bullies
Jot down your ideas helps you see a pattern in your child’s behavior you may overlook.
Roll up your sleeves and let’s get started! I’ll give you solutions, but your first step is to figure out the “why.”
Get a notebook to jot down your thoughts as I help you figure out how to help your child.
You may not need to go through all of these steps. Use those tips that help you most.
Do not expect overnight turnarounds, but know this is doable!
Also, please know that there is no one reason why a child bullies.
Each child is different, and there is no one behavior intervention plan that will work for all kids.
What’s key is to figure out what might be triggering your child’s aggressive behavior. Only then will you be able to develop a specific plan to turn the behavior around.
This may take time. You probably need others to help you develop a plan, but hang in there!
Identify the Reason
Your first step is to determine why your child is using this behavior. What might be triggering your child’s behavior?
Here are a few of the top reasons why kids bully. Could any apply to your child? Think through each item carefully. What is your best guess as to why your child is using aggressive behaviors? There may be another reason beyond this list which you can add to the end.
Your child has been allowed to get away with bullying. Adults are turning a blind eye to the behavior. Or have bullying or aggressive behaviors been rewarded or encouraged? Does your child need firmer limits and monitoring?
Your child has been handed too harsh discipline, too rigid or strict, “conditional” love. Is your child using bullying is as exaggerated need for attention or respect? Does your child need a warm, loving parent?
Your child uses aggression to gain rank, attention, power or show “toughness.” Perhaps she lacks social skills, feels rejected or isolated by peers, and is trying to fit in. Research also finds the urge for popularity — especially for kids on the second tier of the social rung – is a bully motivator. Might this be your child? Does she need to learn social skills or find ways to make and keep friends appropriately?
Your child’s empathy – or feeling for others capacity – has not been encouraged or nurtured at home. Did he have an early trauma or depression, which may inhibit the development of empathy and need counseling? Might your family need to tune up compassion? Is empathy not expected?
Your child is hanging with a group who believes it’s “cool to be cruel.” Could he be mimicking other kids? A child’s social network can inhibit or encourage bullying behaviors. Does he need a new group of pals?
Your child has been bullied and is seeking protection. Could he be serving as henchman for another bully out of fear of being victimized himself? Does he need to learn appropriate assertive skills?
Your child lacks coping skills and is impulsive, unable to control anger, and has a natural tendency to “act out.” Does he need anger management skills?
Your child has adopted the view that aggression is acceptable. Could he be watching television shows, movies and video or computer games that glamorize aggression and cruelty and the exposure affects his behavior and attitude? Has his aggression been reinforced or even encouraged by others? Is he watching others who are aggressive?
Your child… What other reasons could your child be bullying?
Uncover the Cause
Watch your child closer. I know it’s hard to be objective about your child, but try to keep an open mind so you can uncover what’s really going on.
Ask others who care about your child and see him or her in other social situations for their input.
Watch your child in different social settings. Bullying does not happen in all situations and with all kids, so check into each situation. Then answer these next questions:
- Where is this behavior happening most often?
- Where is the behavior not happening? Why? What’s different in those spots?
- Are there certain adults or peers involved in situations where bullying is more frequent?
- What about the time of days?
- How frequently does this happen?
Do the questions help you see any pattern? It sometimes helps if you keep a journal to jot down notes to review.
What is your best guess as to what is triggering the bullying? Don’t worry if you still don’t know. Just move on to the next step.
Get Your Child’s Take
Now get your child’s take on the situation.
Your role is to try and discover what might be bothering your child or triggering this behavior so you can help, so listen carefully and try to gather facts.
- Was he falsely accused?
- Could he be the victim of bullying himself?
- Was he trying to protect himself?
- Is this the only way he can figure out how to find a friend?
Ask: “What do the other kids think about your behavior?”
Ask: “What would your teacher say is the reason you are doing this?”
Ask: “What help do you need to stop?”
Be calm and nonjudgmental as you try to uncover your child’s real motivation. Listen twice as much as you talk.
Keep in mind that your child probably won’t be able to put in words what’s triggering the behavior.
Also, keep in mind that bullies often deny their actions or blame the other kid. You may need to call witnesses to help you get the most accurate picture.
You will need to be the detective.
Still unclear? These details will help you piece together what is going on to help prevent a reoccurrence. Ask yourself these questions:
- Where and when did the bullying first happen? Think back…way back.
- What started it? What was going on in your child’s life at the time? Is there anything that might have triggered the behavior?
- Which kids were involved? Which adults were present in your child’s life?
- Were there any adult witnesses that might be able to provide clues?
Create a Plan to Turn Bullying Around
Once you determine what preempted the offense (he uses aggression to make friends, to protect himself, for revenge, to try to look cool), your next step is to work together to try and create an immediate first solution. The objective isn’t to let your child off the hook, but to develop alternatives it won’t happen again. For example:
Problem: He bullies for protection.
Solution: Avoid the spot your child is most likely to be bullied by others; find an older child who can look out for your kid. (See Bully-Proofing Strategies for Kids)
Problem: She bullies to seek power to find friends.
Solution: Find other social avenues where your child can make a new friend; teach her friendship-making skills to boost her social competence. For instance: How to start a conversation, lose gracefully, ask permission or solve problems peacefully. Then target and teach one new skill at a time by showing your child the new strategy and then practicing it until your child can use it alone. (See Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, by yours truly and Helping Kids Find, Make and Keep Friends).
Problem: He bullies due to inability to control anger.
Solution: Teach specific anger management strategies (See Anger Management for Kids and Helping Kids Cool Hot Tempers).
Problem: She bullies because she is mimicking other children.
Solution: Watch with whom your kid pals around. Also, check out the day care center, sports teams or other after-school programs your child is enrolled in. Ask teachers for recommendations for a peer group who won’t feed into the behavior.
Problem: He bullies because he doesn’t recognize or care that his behavior is causing his victim distress.
Solution: Boost empathy by asking him to “Switch Places” and pretend to be the victim. Then ask: “How would you feel if someone said that about you?” Tell or read a story in the about a child who is victimized. Consider doing community service as a family. Food drives, picking up trash in the park, painting battered women’s shelters, serving meals at homeless shelters or delivering meals to sick and elderly folks who are housebound are just a few options.
Problem: He bullies because he has a surplus of energy that often is acted out.
Solution: Offer positive alternatives to channel her aggression such as karate, boxing, swimming, jazzercise, weight lifting, soccer, football, or the marching band. But find a physical outlet for your kid to direct his strength and be also praised for his effort. Also, make sure you teach strategies to help control his anger. (See Helping Kids Cool Hot Tempers).
Once you think you have an idea about the motivation behind your child’s behavior, refer to the specific chapter in my book for solutions in: The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or on my website: Michele Borba and refer to the articles in the Bullying section.
Don’t be frustrated! This will take time. Keep a diary of your notes. Keep talking to others who know and care about your child.
Above all, don’t give up!