When Your Child is the Bully: Tips for Parents
It’s bad for the health of children, makes headlines and defies most attempts to prevent it. Harassment has become the “big deal” of the 21st century.
What can a parent do when their child engages in behavior that almost everyone condemns? We spoke with Dr Peter Raffalli, neurologist and director of Bullying and Collaboration in prevention and advocacy against cyberbullying at Boston Children’s Hospital, on children who bully other children, and what parents can do.
What do parents of bullies face?
The first challenge for parents is actually believing that their child is bullying other children. Contrary to popular belief, bullies are often beautiful and popular children. Adults often see them as role models for other children. The myth that bullies are brutal and insecure thugs can make it very difficult for parents to believe that their popular and confident child is bullying others.
What is bullying?
Bullying is a series of nasty acts committed against one person repeatedly over time. Bullying behavior can include:
- push, hit, trip
- insults, teasing
- spreading rumors, excluding a group
- steal or damage property
- send hurtful messages via text or social media
The next challenge that parents face is getting their child to talk about his behavior. Often times when confronted, bullies become defiant. They roll their eyes and refuse to answer questions. They may insist that what they did was not bully or that the other child deserves it.
Understandably, many parents of bully don’t know what to do to change their child’s behavior. We know that punishing them doesn’t work. Schools can suspend bullies, parents can punish them, but as soon as the punishment ends, the bullying starts again, sometimes worse than before. This is why at the Bullying Clinic, we recommend a therapeutic rather than a punitive approach to bullying.
What motivates children to bully other children?
Some children bully out of the need to be the best dog in school or in their social circle. They prey on children they perceive as weak – shy or “different” children or who don’t have many friends. No matter what sets their victims apart, kids who bully have more power and use bullying to keep it going.
Sometimes children who bully have a neurodevelopmental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have a hard time dealing with frustration and controlling their impulses. Ironically, this can put them in the sights of other bullies as well, and many children with ADHD are both bullies and bullied by others – in other words, bullies-victims.
For other children, the root of the problem is at home. We see children in the bullying clinic who witness violence between parents or who are victims of violence from a parent or sibling. They then repeat this behavior at school, except that they are the ones who mistreat their peers.
Does it help if bullies apologize to their victims?
It’s a popular idea, but not one that is often successful. Children who are bullied are not on an equal footing with their abuser (s). Gathering children for mediation is strongly discouraged in bullying situations as it often makes the situation worse, especially for the victim. Therefore, the mainstay of bullying intervention is separation. An appropriate school leader should meet students separately and confidently, but not together.
What can parents do if their child is bullying others?
Talk to your child. It is very important to fight against bullying behavior with children. Parents should explain how singling out and being mean to someone repeatedly over time hurts that person. Children who are bullied have more anxiety, depression, and a host of health problems that often last into adulthood.
Teach empathy skills. Many of the bullies we encounter in our clinic lack empathy or refuse to see how their behavior affects others. Ideally, children start learning to empathize with others early on, but it’s never too late. The good news is that their brains continue to develop into their twenties.
Consider a neurological assessment. We have had a number of kids who have come to the bullying clinic or general neurology clinic with undiagnosed ADHD. Often times, when we treat their underlying condition, their behavior improves remarkably. They are able to tolerate frustration and better control their impulses.
Solve problems at home. Dealing with violence in the home may help the abuser by alleviating a source of significant physical and emotional stress. If a family needs help with this, the Boston Children’s Service Social work and family services can provide advice and support services.
Bullying is not easy to fix. It often develops from a complex web of relationships, social values and expectations, and medical conditions.
But children who bully others are also vulnerable. As adults, they are at higher risk for psychological and legal problems. To protect both their child and children who are being bullied, it is important that parents step in and possibly seek professional help for their child.
Learn more about the Collaboration in prevention and advocacy against bullying and cyberbullying.