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Published on September 15, 2020

What to do when your child is the bully

Child Bully

No parent wants to hear that their child is being bullied, but it’s also a tough situation when you find out that your child is the one doing the bullying.

“It’s normal for children to go through times when there’s conflict, but they don’t yet have the best strategies to deal with that,” said Jevon Plunkett-Rondeau, MD, PhD, a pediatrician with the Cape Cod Hospital Pediatric Hospitalist Service. “Oftentimes that comes out in bullying behavior, which is part of growing up, but children need to learn better ways to deal with conflict.”

If you get a report from school or another parent that your child is being a bully, the first step is to get more details.

“Try to understand exactly what happened, even though that can sometimes be difficult,” Dr. Plunkett-Rondeau said. “It's important to keep an open mind because there's always at least two sides of every story. Oftentimes there’s a lot of gray area, and it’s not necessarily clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong.”

Even if your child was undeniably doing something that is not acceptable, it's important not to label your child, she said.

“Make it clear that you're upset about the behavior and it needs to change, but that you don’t think of them as a bad person or a mean person. Labeling often causes further behaviors that are inappropriate.”

Whatever the situation, you should address the issue promptly, Dr. Plunkett-Rondeau said. Don’t overreact but take the problem seriously.

“When you're disciplining a child, whether they're toddlers or teenagers, it's important to define specifically which behaviors need to be corrected,” she said.

“Say things like, ‘I find it unacceptable when you call names, when you push someone, when you get into a physical fight, when you purposely exclude people.’ Mention the specific behaviors that were unacceptable, because it's difficult to get better unless we have a target.”

Encourage Your Child to Open Up

Try to help your child understand the trigger for their behavior. They probably know it's unacceptable to call Jessica a jerk but see if they understand why they did that.

“Ask what was happening. If they'll open up enough to tell you about their underlying feelings, addressing those difficult feelings is going to help prevent that behavior from happening again,” she said.

It's important to know who your kid's friends are and whether they're having any conflicts with each other.

“Bullying situations are usually not straight forward,” Dr. Plunkett-Rondeau said. “Rarely is one child a bully and another child a victim. There's usually a lot of back and forth.

“It also depends on how you define bullying. Some people will only define it as bullying if there's a power difference, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.”

Children should know that it’s OK to feel angry.

“Emotions are not bad,” she said. “It's how we express them that can be healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate.”

One of our roles as adults is to help children and adolescents find ways to deal with their negative emotions in a more positive way, she added.

“Tell them, ‘When you feel angry, you can't throw a punch. You can take a walk, you can journal, you can scream, or you can talk it out.’”

Using our own positive and negative experiences can help teach our children.

“Don’t just tell stories from when you were their age but look at the way you interact in the world. (Tell your child) ‘I shouted at that person in traffic and that wasn't a very helpful interaction. What I should have done instead was take a deep breath and respond more calmly.’

“If you make a mistake, be honest about that and use it as a learning opportunity.”