- Many kids report being bullied — but what if your child is the bully?
- If your kid is hurting others, you can intervene with conversations, consequences, and outside help.
- A psychologist suggested talking with your child about why they bullied and how they can avoid it.
When you think about kids and bullying, you may envision name-calling on the playground or a fight on the school bus. But bullying can happen anywhere, and it’s likely more common than you think.
In a national survey in 2017, one in five 12- to 18-year-old students reported having been bullied at school. And in a survey of 9- to 12-year-old students conducted in 2020, about half said they’d experienced bullying at school, while about 15% said they’d been cyberbullied.
It can be difficult to know how to respond if your kid is being bullied. But what if your child or teen is the one causing the problem? Even if your kid is already involved in bullying behaviors, you can take steps to stop or prevent it.
A parenting-book author and a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist shared advice for how to cope when you discover your child is bullying someone else, whether online or in person.
If your kid is bullying in person, you may not always hear about it from their school or another parent.
Titania Jordan, the author of “Parenting in a Tech World,” suggested asking your child’s school and activity leaders to inform you about any bullying behaviors. It may also help to do the same with the parents of your child’s friends.
It could be even harder to know if your child is engaged in cyberbullying. But Larry Mitnaul, a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist based in Kansas, recommends taking a proactive approach to identifying signs of bullying.
“In this age of parenting through screens, it’s helpful if we are vigilant in those spaces so we can identify when our children are being mean, coercive, or intimidating,” he said.
Jordan said that installing monitoring software is one way to keep tabs on a kid’s online behavior. Understanding the types of bullying that can happen online is also important: While cyberbullying can include direct harassment, such as sending hurtful text messages or leaving negative comments on social media, it can also include posting embarrassing photos of someone else or excluding others from a game or conversation.
It’s upsetting to find out your child is bullying. But a big emotional reaction may prevent your child from opening up to you about what’s going on with both the behaviors and why your child may be engaging in them.
“Remaining calm can help you have a powerful, candid conversation about why this isn’t acceptable and how to remedy the situation,” Jordan said.
Take a few deep breaths and, if needed, a few minutes of alone time so you can approach your child calmly. Jordan suggested first letting your child know you love them unconditionally before you ask questions about the situation or explain the gravity of their behavior.
Discuss the behavior
Mitnaul suggested sitting down to discuss the situation with your child and, if applicable, another adult who lives with you. Let your child know you’re aware of what’s happening and want to understand so you can help remedy it.
“Try to get to know the context of what’s been going on so you know how to approach the next steps,” Mitnaul said. For example, ask whether the bullying happened one time or is ongoing, and why your child incited it.
Once you learn more about what happened, talk to your child about why the behavior is inappropriate and harmful. Tailor the discussion depending on your child’s age. “A younger child may not understand expected behavior in interpersonal relationships, so this is a chance to share the weight of their actions,” Mitnaul said.
No matter your child’s developmental phase, encourage empathy by asking them to imagine and express how the other person felt.
Encourage new strategies
Kids bully for many reasons, ranging from simple misunderstandings to anxiety and low self-esteem.
Mitnaul said that after learning why your kid bullied and explaining why bullying isn’t acceptable, you should try to provide tools for dealing with similar situations and preventing the bullying.
“For example, maybe your child says, ‘I’ve been rude to Sally because she’s always looking at me like I’m dumb,'” he said. In that case, you’d want to help your child understand that the classmate may not have meant to look at them that way and that if they’re upset they can ask a teacher for help.
If your child has been mean to others because of anxiety or low self-esteem, you can work on those things together and enlist help from a school staff member or medical professional if necessary.
Showing your child that there are consequences to their actions — and that their actions can affect other people — is another way to help stop bullying. Encourage them to apologize to the person they hurt, whether in person or through a note. “Help kids practice learning to say they’re sorry with their actions so they can mend the relationship,” Mitnaul said.
You may also consider a consequence at home, such as taking away an activity your child likes for a certain amount of time. Mitnaul said kids often imitate bullying behaviors they see online, so limiting or monitoring screen time after the incident may help.
While discipline can be effective in stopping unwanted behavior, Mitnaul also suggested positive reinforcement. “Reward your child for the behavior you want to see, such as being loving or helpful toward a sibling,” he said.
Know when to seek help
If the bullying is recurrent or you’re feeling overwhelmed with your child’s negative behaviors at home, in school, or online, it may be time to seek support. Mitnaul suggested sharing your concerns with your child’s doctor, who can recommend a path forward.
Mitnaul said that along with evaluating your child for mental- or behavioral-health concerns, a pediatrician can recommend strategies to try at home or refer you to a specialist like a therapist or a psychiatrist.
Ditch the guilt
If your child’s actions don’t align with your family’s values, you may feel upset or even guilty. Know that your child’s behavior isn’t necessarily a reflection of your parenting or even of their character. Jordan emphasized that even good people — especially kids whose brains aren’t fully developed — can make poor choices.
Use this opportunity to reflect on and instill in your child what matters to you most as a parent.
“You are the primary influencer in your child’s life,” Mitnaul said. “So try to take your guilt and use it as an opportunity for deeper connection.”