Annie Fox, M.Ed. is an award winning author, educator, and online adviser, and has been helping parents and teens since 1997. In this 2-part series, Fox tackles the uncomfortable realization that your own child is a bully. Part 1, below, shows ways to recognize bullying behavior in your child and in your home. In Part 2, Fox offers tips for changing bullying behavior. For more information, visit Fox's anti-bullying forum, Cruel’s Not Cool!
This won’t be an easy read. But if the title pulled you in, you may already have some suspicions (or hard evidence) that your kid engages in mean-spirited behavior that hurts others. No parent wants to admit their kid is a bully, but according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study, 77% of students nation-wide reported having been bullied, verbally, mentally or physically, in school in the past month. Lots of tormentors. Each one is somebody’s child. Would you know if (s)he was yours?
Hints that your child may be a bully:
1. You or your partner is a bully. The family is Ground Zero for learning about emotional responses and relationships. If a parent consistently yells or uses verbal threats, emotional blackmail or physical violence to manipulate family members, that’s what the child learns. And that learned aggression is likely to come to school with him/her. If you’re a bully it may be difficult for you to see it. If you’re wondering, ask your partner or your child “Do you think I’m a bully?” Hopefully they’re not too afraid to tell you the truth.
2. Your child is bossy at home. Is she demanding? Do things have to be her way or she throws a fit? Curses at you? Threatens? Gives you the silent treatment? Refuses to cooperate? Takes it out on siblings? If you made a short list of adjectives describing your child would you paint a portrait of someone you admire? If you admit she’s self-centered, controlling, insensitive at home, why assume she’s consistently caring and supportive at school?
3. Your child’s close friends are not the nicest people. You may not trust them without knowing why. Or you may have good reasons not to respect the choices these kids make. If so, talk to your child (calmly and respectfully) about these friends. This isn’t about labeling or demonizing. And it’s surely not about getting into a power struggle with your child about who she can and can’t be friends with. This is about understanding your child. Be compassionately curious about his friendships and he’s likely to open up. Your intent is to find out what your child likes about his friends and which ones, if any, your child may not be 100% comfortable with.
4. Your child makes rude comments about other kids. Tune in to conversations between your child and her friends. What kind of language do they use to describe other kids? How often do you overhear gossip, a rude put-down, or a “joke” being made at someone else’s expense?
Ask your child to tell you about the social hierarchy in her grade. Kids often like to display their expertise and you’ll be surprised at how detailed they get about who’s “in” and who is so not. Some kids will literally draw you a picture of the school’s social landscape! Listen closely as your child describes the kids who aren’t popular. Or the ones who are. Do you hear derogatory language? (“He’s such a loser.” “She’s such an ugly bitch.” ”Fat!” “Retard!” “Whore.”) If your kid freely talks this way in your presence, there are no barriers to the hurtful words (s)he’ll say, text or post when you’re not around.
Parents of tweens and teens assume that their days of influencing their children are over. Not so! While it’s a fact that friends’ opinions are important, so are yours. You still have tremendous influence on your child’s values and behavior, and you always will. Even after your kids are grown with kids of their own.
If you are aware that your child is a bully or leaning in that direction, it’s up to you to provide a course correction. When each parent does their job… bullying problem solved.
So, what should you do if you realize that you’ve been contributing to a bully-in-the-making? How can you begin to help your son or daughter change… for good? Read: My Child? A Bully?! Part 2