What if the Neighborhood Bully is YOUR Child?

mama-to-mama1The bullying issue is getting more attention of late. Finally, parenting and education experts are taking a systematic look at the problem and realizing that this is not just a matter of teaching victims to stand up for themselves. School districts nationwide are forming panels to come up with prevention policies, and for the first time the American Academy of Pediatrics is about to issue a statement on the prevention of youth violence that includes a section on bullying.

Bravo! All of these steps represent big progress in awareness of a problem that used to be seen as nothing more than “kids being kids”. But what if if you’re on the other side of the problem? Where do you go for help if YOUR child is the one doing the bullying? There’s not much guidance out there for the parents of the bully, just lots of judgmental glances and a boat-load of guilt.

So what do you do when that parent or teacher calls accusing your child of behaving like a bully? Most likely, you’re going to feel shocked and defensive, and you’re not going to want to believe it.

Step back for a moment and buy some time to process the situation with a question like “Could you please tell me what happened?” And then really listen to the answer. Because in the big picture this is about the well-being of your child in relationship with other children, and no matter how aggressive the behavior looks, it’s likely coming from feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.

Once you’ve heard the details of the story and feel you’ve gotten the most objective account possible, you need to talk with your child … and soon. Give yourself the time you need to get over the initial emotional upset, anger, and embarrassment you’re likely feeling, but don’t let more than a day pass or your child may get the message that you don’t see the event as urgent or important.

Don’t assign blame or get into a discussion about who did what to whom. You want to look for clues to what’s causing your child to behave that way. What scary feelings are being expressed with aggression?

The conversation may include the following key points:
Bullying is not acceptable in our family or in our world. There are consequences for bullying behavior (spell them out) and we can’t let it continue. If you’re angry or upset, here are some things you CAN do. We’re here to help you with this. Let’s figure out how you can let us know when you’re having a conflict so you can handle it differently. We need to talk about how you can apologize to the child who was bullied, and how you can feel strong inside yourself so you don’t need to act that way.

Most important is to let your child know that you love them unconditionally, even though this particular behavior is not OK. A solid bedrock of acceptance will make it easier to choose different ways of handling scary feelings. Talk about kindness and how good it can make you feel to do something kind for someone, then reward that behavior with heaps of praise.

I remember a time when my oldest son, Sam, was the target of some bullying at school. He was about 10 at the time, and some boys had slashed the tires on his bike while it was parked in the bike rack. I called the mother of one of the boys, a woman I knew casually in the neighborhood, and she responded something like this:

“Mikey has been picked on all his life for being fat. He’s usually the one who comes home crying because other kids call him names and make fun of him. I can’t really blame him for lashing out once in awhile.”

“Has Sam ever done that to Mikey, as far as you know?” I asked.

“No, but that’s not the point”, she answered.

This mom had taken the important first step of realizing that her son’s behavior came out of his own feelings of anger and vulnerability. Unfortunately, she didn’t take that next step to address those feelings in a way that could help him change the pattern.

Don’t let that be you. Take that next step.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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