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When Your Child Is the Bully


Imagine receiving a call from school informing you that your child has been in a fight. You demand to know what young ruffian has attacked your helpless child—only to find it was your child who was the instigator! Later that day, before you’ve had time to ask your child to explain his behavior, you are shocked to see him punch his younger brother. You are suddenly faced with a situation you may not be prepared for. Your child is a bully! Bullying can occur with peers as well as siblings. Either case is a delicate situation requiring careful reaction by parents. 

Potential Causes of Bullying Behavior

There are several possibilities parents need to consider that show why children are bullies:

  • They may be dealing with peer pressure to participate in the bullying of another child.
  • They may be attempting to gain the attention of their friends.
  • They could be trying to deal with issues of control within the family.
  • They may feel jealous of another sibling because of unequal attention given by parents.
  • They may have had unjust or abusive authority imposed on them in the past.

Bullying is often an attempt to increase self-worth at the expense of a smaller or weaker child. Bullies are often not fully aware of what they are doing, thinking that the force and pressure they apply is “deserved.” It is important for parents to realize that, although the child may be bullying other children, he or she does not necessarily enjoy it. A child trying to fit into a particular social group may bully a smaller child yet feel extremely guilty. However, he may feel validated in his behavior because of his peers’ social acceptance.          

The bullying of a sibling might also be explained by Alfred Adler’s “birth order” theory. This concept suggests that each child strives for a special role in the family that only he can fulfill. Thus, according to Adler, if one child is particularly gentle and kind, another child may take on the role of the bully to gain identity in his family. 

A child may bully because she is “modeling” behavior she has witnessed in adults or other children. Or she may feel negatively toward another child because of an earlier conflict. She may be at the top of a hierarchy in a peer group and thinks she must exhibit power. She could be displacing aggressive feelings toward parents or other adults onto smaller siblings or peers. 

As you can see, the reasons for bullying behavior are complex. Now that you understand some of the possible causes of the problem, you can proceed to take steps to improve the situation.     

The Alternative

Of course, your intent at this point is to help your child leave the bullying behavior behind. Rather than bullying other children, you want him to be the kind of child who...

  • treats other children with respect and kindness.
  • behaves gently with other children, especially those weaker and smaller.
  • handles disputes justly by talking it out rather than fighting.

Parents can take the responsibility to teach their children that arguments need not be settled with fists. Rather than bullying those weaker and smaller than ourselves, we should instead be their protectors.

Helping Your Child Reach the Goal

Your child needs to learn that it is not moral behavior to bully. Parents need to strengthen the relationship with the child as they accomplish the task of teaching. Without keeping that thought in mind, you might use one of the several less-effective techniques in disciplining.  Spanking and other types of physical punishment teach the child that using violence to control another person is acceptable. Removing or withholding affection teaches the child that his bad behavior is more important to you than he is. 

School-aged children are cognitively able to understand relationship concepts. This is particularly true as the child approaches age ten or eleven. You may need to begin more basically with young children, and discuss more complex issues as the child matures. For example, when a child is six, parents may ask, “How would you feel if someone pushed you down?” At age eleven, however, parents may explain how bullying may affect another's self-esteem.

Talk to your child and find out why she bullied. If she is bullying out of a desire for attention, make sure you are giving her attention for her positive actions. It is essential that your child understands that you still love her, in spite of her negative actions.

Help your child vent his physical energy in productive, socially acceptable ways. It may be beneficial to enroll your child in a sport of some kind, such as soccer or baseball. Forms of play that may help your child release angry feelings include using a punching bag, pounding clay, and hitting pegs with a hammer. Once released, the aggressive feelings may be quickly brought under control.

You might try having your child practice getting along with other children. Make a specific rule about not hitting others. Let your child participate in the making of the rule, letting her know that her opinion is important to you. Give plenty of positive reinforcement for non-aggressive acts such as playing cooperatively with a friend. Each time she plays with someone without demonstrating any bullying behavior, she should be praised by a parent.

In addition to setting rules, you must consistently enforce them. An effective form of punishment for aggression is a “time out” penalty. For a specified amount of time, the child must be isolated from social activity. In this way, the discipline is directly related to the bad behavior and is more effective.

If time out is not feasible, you might help the child to make restitution to the injured party by apologizing or by being “extra nice.” If a blow was struck, the child might be required to pat the injured area for a short time with the hand that administered the blow. This method will help your child learn to have empathy and concern for others. This can also be done by teaching positive verbal skills like giving compliments and asking questions to learn about someone. 

Loving feelings between the parent and child may help lessen the frequency of bullying behavior. Feelings of affection from parents are a powerful antidote to acting aggressively, especially when the child knows his parents disapprove of aggressive behavior. If you take the time to find out the underlying reasons for your child’s behavior, you will be better able to understand and resolve the situation through effective discipline.

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