Bullying: what to do when your child is the bully

It’s a call no parent wants to receive. “There’s been a case of bullying involving your child,” the voice on the other end explains. You demand answers. You want to know the name of the child that has purposefully been hurting your child. And then it hits you: horror, anger, possibly even denial as you discover that it is your child who is the bully.

Nobody wants to hear that their child is being bullied. But being on the other side as a parent can be just as bad. Finding out that your child is the one hurting others can be incredibly upsetting.

“It is often hard for parents to accept that their child is a bully,” says Elisabeth Basford, a former deputy head and teacher with over 25 years’ experience. “However, bullying is very widespread. It can start with very small comments and then develop into something much more serious. It’s important to be proactive and nip it in the bud early.”

Bullying is not normal behaviour or just part of growing up – so take it seriously! Here are some suggestions.

Keep the conversation calm

If you find that your child is exhibiting bullying behaviour, don’t focus on the good or bad or right or wrong as this will not solve the underlying problems.

Instead, focus on stopping the negative behaviour by encouraging open communication.

“Don’t turn into a bullying inquisitor,” says Nellie Williams who has run numerous anti-bullying assemblies in her capacity as neighbourhood policing and schools contact officer. “Sit down, be patient and listen. Then, armed with facts, seek a resolution. Shouting doesn’t help anything it just makes the shouting louder.”

Let your child explain

The important thing is that your child talks to someone if they’ve messed up.

Instead of asking them questions like, “Why did you do that?” ask them to tell you what happened. Let your child tell the story without interruption or showing emotion. If your child does not want to talk to you, encourage them to talk to another adult they are close to, such as a teacher or grandparent.

It’s normal to feel shocked, angry, sad, disappointed and defensive when finding out your child might be a bully. But, it is important that you do your best not to overreact. If needed, try a calming technique like taking big breaths or counting to ten. Do whatever it takes to keep your emotions in check.

Encourage empathy

Promote empathy by discussing how your child would feel if they were in the victim’s shoes. How would they feel if someone did that to them? If they wouldn’t like it, then maybe the other person didn’t like it very much, either.

For some kids, watching movies that will help them see the consequences of bullying can be a useful tool (Basford recommends Mean Girls as a good starting point).

“Whatever happens, do not punish your child but teach them the rewards gained from being kind to people,” says Basford.

Develop understanding

It is important to find out why your child is bullying their peers.

Ask your child open-ended questions such as:
• What are you thinking when you__________?
• Do you know why you are______________?
• When you are ______________ how do you feel?

“Bullying is often a sign of attention seeking or even a lack of social skills and not knowing how to behave to fit in with a group,” explains Basford. “We are all guilty of saying unpleasant things about people at times, and children pick up on this. Bullies aren’t all cut from the same mould, but they have usually learnt this behaviour from somewhere.”

Help your child change their behaviour

Once you are confident that you have an understanding of what happened (or is happening), you must hold your child responsible for his or her actions. Tell your child that what they are doing is bullying. Make sure they understand why.

Tell them you will not tolerate this type of behaviour and mistreatment of others, and ask them what they think they can do to put an end to the bullying.

Speak to your child’s teacher and let them know that you are willing to work with the school to help stop your child from bullying others. “Ask the school what their policies are on bullying and how they educate children about bullying. That way you are reinforcing what is taught in school,” says Williams, who also runs a business helping people find solutions to everyday problems.

If necessary, ask the school to intervene to break up toxic friendships, and don’t be shy about suggesting strategies you may have read about being implemented in other schools.

“I introduced an initiative called, ‘My new best friend’ that was highly effective,” explains Basford.  “For a week children had to make friends with someone outside of their normal friendship group. They did activities such as writing down what they learnt, writing down good qualities.”

Have realistic expectations

With all of this, it is important that you have realistic expectations. Create an environment where your child feels safe and loved, yet continue to remind him or her that negative behaviours such as bullying will not be tolerated.

Meanwhile, encourage other children to speak up if they notice someone being bullied. The message is clear, says Williams: “You must say something because if not then you’re allowing it to happen. You’re not being a snitch or a snake, you are possibly saving someone’s life.”