Just imagine the scenario: You get called into your child’s school for a meeting with the teacher to discover that your little darling is engaging in bullying behaviour. For a parent, this is just as horrible as being called in because your child is being bullied. One thing is certain, it will leave you feeling distressed and even a little horrified.
What you shouldn’t immediately do is start blaming yourself or any of the other parties involved as this won’t help the situation. There could be various reasons why your child is bullying other children. “A child who has been on the receiving end of bullying behaviours, from other children or adults, might become a bully themself. Due to this role modelling and / or possible fear of being bullied again, a child might see this as his or her only option, and repeat how they have been treated,” says Jo Hamilton, Educational Psychologist (jo-hamilton.com) and author of The Ultimate Assertiveness Toolbox For Kids (available from Clockwork Books https://clockworkbooks.co.za/product/assertiveness/)
She also adds, “Another reason why a child can become a bully is due to his or her difficulty coping with frequent, intense, and uncomfortable feelings such as fear and anger. A child might try to get rid of and defend themselves against these feelings by projecting them onto others. By manipulating others and being mean, a person can temporarily feel free from their vulnerable or angry feelings. By intimidating others, he or she might feel temporarily powerful as a defence against feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.”
So, when you discover that your child has been bullying other children, you will most likely be walking into a situation fraught with tension and emotion, and it is therefore crucial for you to address the issue calmly, promptly, and effectively for the well-being of both your child and the other people involved.
So, how do you recognise if your child is a bully, discuss potential causes of such behaviour, and provide guidance on how to intervene and help your child to stop being a bully?
Recognising the signs
You may not immediately realise that your child is engaging in bullying behaviour because they often hide their actions or exhibit different behaviours in different environments. However, there are some common signs that you can look out for which may indicate that your child is bullying others, and they are:
- Aggressive behaviour– this may play out in frequent displays of physical or verbal aggression towards other children, siblings, or even adults.
- Lack of empathy – they may have difficulty understanding or expressing empathy towards others’ feelings and emotions.
- Power balance – they may try to exert power and control over others, seeking to dominate and belittle them.
- Social isolation– they may struggle to keep positive relationships and will then exhibit social withdrawal or exclusion.
Frequent complaints – peers, teachers, or other parents may complain about your child’s behaviour towards others.
Try not to look the other way when you spot the signs. It may be difficult for you to admit that your child is being mean and hurtful towards others. However, facing the facts means that you can get to the underlying cause of why the bullying is taking place and help your child to stop the behaviour.
“Children can be taught to understand and cope with their intense emotions and consequently they can learn how to respond with different behaviours. They can gain insight as to social dynamics and their triggers and how to assert their needs whilst simultaneously being respectful of others,” says Hamilton.
Getting to the heart of the issue
Understanding the underlying causes of your child’s bullying behaviour is essential if you want to effectively intervene. Here are some of the reasons why your child may be behaving this way:
- Learned behaviour– exposure to aggressive or bullying behaviour at home, in the media, or among peers can shape a child’s understanding of social dynamics. Access to the internet and toxic social media platforms isn’t helping the situation.
- Lack of empathy skills – some children may struggle with developing empathy and understanding the impact of their actions on others. This doesn’t mean your child is a sociopath. It just means that empathy doesn’t come as naturally to them as it may to others.
- Insecurity and low self-esteem – children who feel insecure or have low self-esteem may resort to bullying as a way of asserting control or gaining a sense of power. They think by bullying others, they will feel better about themselves.
- A need for attention or popularity–some children may engage in bullying behaviour to gain attention or be perceived as “cool” or popular by their peers.
You must remember that your child isn’t an awful person but rather he or she is committing an awful act, and this means that the bullying behaviour can be unlearned.
Breaking the bullying cycle
Hamilton suggests, “To break a cycle of bullying the parent needs to help their child identify how they are feeling in the moment. By assisting a child to recognise that he or she might be feeling scared (about not being respected by others, for example), the parent can help the child to recognise that it would be an understandable emotional response and to think of more effective, respectful ways to address this emotion.”
Along with this method of breaking the cycle, you should also:
- Communicate openly with your child and have non-judgmental conversations with them. Encourage your child to share their experiences, emotions, and concerns while attentively listening to them. Always validate their feelings but make it very clear that bullying behaviour is unacceptable.
- Put boundaries in place by clearly communicating your expectations regarding respectful behaviour and the consequences of bullying. This will help your child understand the impact of their actions on others and the potential legal and social consequences of bullying behaviour.
- Help your child to develop empathy skills by encouraging them to see situations from others’ perspectives. Promote kindness, understanding, and consideration for the feelings and experiences of others.
- Foster healthy and positive relationships by encouraging your child to engage in cooperative activities, teamwork, and empathy-building exercises. Help them develop social skills and build friendships based on respect and inclusivity.
- If the bullying behaviour continues, seek professional help from a mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychologist who can help guide both you and your child, and provide strategies and tools to address the bullying behaviour effectively.
As parents, we need to understand that bullying behaviour is something that is learned and can therefore be unlearned. So, with a good dose of patience, guidance, love, and support, you can teach your child to stop behaving like a bully and to start being kind, compassionate, respectful, and understanding instead.