My child is a bully. What to do?

It can come as a shock to a parent to learn that your child is a bully him or herself.

The profile for bullies is diverse. Many children who bully witness bullying behaviours at home, while some have been victims of bullying themselves and others have come from homes where bullying has never been practised.

As a teacher I have seen two diverse sets of reactions from parents when it has been suggested that their child either individually or as part of a group has been involved in bullying behaviour. The first reaction is for the parent to make sure their child doesn’t bully anymore often using strong-arm tactics themselves. This ‘sorting out’ process often models bullying itself. It reinforces the notion that he or she who has power can get what they want by whatever means. Bullying begets bullying. The other reaction is one of self-denial – ‘Not my child! He couldn’t ever hurt anyone.’ This reaction is natural in a way as our children’s behaviour often reflects on us as parents, so we can find it difficult to think that our children can be anything but well-behaved.

If you find your child has been involved in some type of bullying:

Get the facts. Discuss the behaviours with them letting them know how you feel and why the behaviours are inappropriate. Find out if others have bullied your child, which will give you a guide to how you may approach the discussion.

Do a family-check: Make sure that bullying does not occur at home. Sometimes bullying can be such an ingrained part of family life that we aren’t aware it is happening. I know one family situation where the father used bullying tactics to get his own way but he used humour and jokes to cover it up. His wife and kids had grown so used to giving in that they didn’t consider him a bully. But he would interrupt anyone who was speaking to get his point across. He would continually ridicule his wife in front of others, and he'd threaten to leave home if he didn’t get his own way. This father created such an atmosphere of intimidation that his family thought it was the norm. His nine-year-old son used similar techniques at school and with his younger siblings, whenever he wanted to get his own way.

Bullying is about the misuse or abuse of power. The authoritative parenting principles outlined in this book where parents use discussion and guidance rather coercion and control are anti-bullying strategies. Bullying doesn't occur when members of a group act in respectful ways toward each other and work toward cooperative ways to resolve issues and disagreements.

Develop empathetic skills: Bullies are usually adept at deflecting the significance of the impact of their behaviour on victims. They often have the attitude that a little bit of teasing or a biff behind the ear won’t do anyone any harm. ‘Get over it’ is their anthem.

Children who develop empathy with others are less likely to bully. Ask your child how she would feel if she were in the shoes of the child being bullied. Many know what it is like because they have experienced the same behaviour but still they won’t empathise with the victims. ‘How would you feel . . .?’ is a powerful question to ask bullies. But sometimes you have to keep asking and asking.

How will you fix the situation?

Many Australian schools adopt a restorative approach to bullying and its subsequent behaviours. That is, the focus is on repairing relationships and ensuring problems won't be repeated in the future.
The restorative approach often works best when a third party, such as a teacher or school representative is involved. It can be powerful as the bully has to confront the person he or she has bullied, and look to ways to fix things up or repair the damage or harm they have caused.

Seeing and hearing firsthand the personal impact of their bullying behaviours is a great learning experience for kids. If you know your child has been bullying others, this process is an excellent one for you to pursue, and support.