Help: I think my child is a bully
Parenting: How can you tell if your child is a bully - what are the warning signs?
What should you do if you suspect your child is picking on others? Photograph: iStock/Getty
We hear a lot of concern about children in school being bullied but, for every victim, there is a bully. On occasion, an encounter with the parent of a bully can reveal that the child didn’t lick it off the ground, but the majority of parents would be horrified to realise that their son or daughter is tormenting someone else. That said, “bully” is a strong word and few parents will want it applied to their child. So what should you do if you suspect your child is picking on others?
Is it bullying or a “personality clash”?
Name calling including homophobic, transphobic or racial slurs; sexual harassment; excluding other children and/ or encouraging classmates to do the same; and physical violence all constitute bullying. If one child is regularly being excluded, intimidated, attacked or the subject of gossip and slurs, this is not a personality clash: it is bullying,
What’s causing my child to be a bully?
Poor emotional regulation, a desire for attention or a misguided attempt to fit in, low self-esteem or an attempt to exert power where they may feel powerless themselves can all make a child lash out. Poor developed empathy and an inability to see things from another child’s point of view can also contribute.
The child and family agency, Tusla, advises that the negative label “bully” can form part of a child’s identity and that they may struggle to step out of it.
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Ah sure, kids will be kids, right?
Patterns formed in childhood may stick. Don’t bury your head in the sand: if a child’s bullying behaviour is ignored, they are much more likely to become aggressive, bullying adults with difficulty forming healthy relationships. Try to avoid justifying your child’s bad behaviour with excuses (e.g. parental separation): we all go through hard times in life but it doesn’t give us carte blanche to treat others badly.
What can I do?
Stay calm - shouting and losing the rag is hardly the behaviour you want to model to your child. Accusations of bullying can mean parents have to look at communication within their own family. Are you all kind and respectful to one another, or is shouting, abusive behaviour and physical violence happening between family members? Children will model what they see.
Tusla advises to avoid the label “bully” and focus instead on behaviour. So talk to your child, helping them to understand the impact that their behaviour is having on others and emphasising the value of friendship and kindness over aggression. Listen to them.
The Roots of Empathy programme, run by children’s charity Barnardos, focuses on developing empathy skills in children by having a parent and their baby visit the classroom every few weeks and encouraging the school pupils to observe and identify the baby’s development and feelings. There’s a solid body of evidence which shows that empathy can be developed by giving caring responsibilities to children, including minding or helping to mind pet and younger children.
For more read here.
Try to work on your child’s self-awareness and resilience as well, perhaps by getting them involved in more activities where they can build positive relationships.
Should I punish them?
Bad behaviour, whether carried out by children or adults, invites consequences. As an adult, bullying could result in a job loss, a severe reprimand, loss of friends and isolation - and children need to learn that aggressive behaviour has consequences, too. Those consequences shouldn’t be too severe and there needs to be a chance of redemption so, for instance, cyberbullying doesn’t mean a phone should be confiscated forever, but it does mean that they should lose internet and phone privileges for at least a while, and that there is some level of monitoring of social media until they have proven they can be trusted.
For more on this topic, check out Stella O’Malley’s article on how to stop your child from being a bully. Or check out the national anti-bullying website, TackleBullying.ie