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What to Do When Your Child Is the Bully

There's a lot of good advice out there about what to do when your child is being bullied, but what about for when you suspect your child might be doing some of the bullying himself?

As hard as it is to recognize when your child is the guilty party, many moms do acknowledge the signs, if only to themselves. One mom, Gena, said that when she realized her son was habitually hitting, kicking, and saying mean things to his brother she was initially afraid to call it "bullying." Only a short time earlier, her boys had been best friends.

Recognizing your child's bullying behaviors is the first step. Here's where to go from there.

1. Understand What's Really Going On

Reader Kim J. goes straight to the heart of a parent's biggest fear when she asks, "If your child is a bully, is it your fault?"


Bullying is often a learned behavior but your child's missteps don't automatically mean that you're to blame. What they most definitely do mean is that it's time to look at the behaviors, address them, and teach your child other, more adaptive behaviors instead.

In Gena's case, she has no doubt about her son's behavior because she witnessed it firsthand, but not all parents have that view. If you're getting calls from school informing you that your child is being "aggressive" toward other children, and that's not in line with the child you see at home, you need a bigger picture before you act.

Ask for more information from teachers or other adults to get a sense of the whole situation so you can sort out where your child fits in. Who instigated the incident? Was your child the only one involved? What did the adult see that they are calling "bullying?"

2. Know the Difference Between Teasing and Taunting

Another mom, Tamara, discovered that her son was being teased and that he was responding aggressively. She may have meant that her son was being taunted. There's a big difference between teasing and taunting, though many of us, and kids especially, have trouble knowing the difference. Teasing is a behavior that goes on between two children who can hold their own against each other. Both kids are in on the "joke" and when one kid asks the other to stop, he does. Taunting, on the other hand, is a one-sided, relentless emotional onslaught that a child may often increase when asked to stop.

3. Distinguish Between Self-Defense and Bullying

That doesn't mean that your child's reactions to taunting wouldn't be considered bullying too, and that's an important conversation to have with your child. Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of the book Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me!, says that kids who are bullied sometimes feel they have no one on their side and resort to bullying to defend themselves. They don't understand that consistently reacting in kind is also bullying.

It's the word "consistently" that makes all the difference. Some parents think that kids need to be taught to defend themselves. If that means fighting back when they are literally cornered and have nowhere else to turn, then they should protect themselves. Hurting people (either physically or verbally) proactively or on a regular basis isn't self-defense, though — it's bullying.

4. How to Work Through It

Many parents feel that if they found out their child was the bully they would come down hard on them. In the words of one reader, she has "less than zero tolerance" for perpetrators. Others feel that a parent can positively reinforce good behavior while also having zero tolerance for bullying behavior. And one, Micheline S., went elsewhere for help: she took her daughter to anger management classes when she discovered that the teen was being a bully.

Despite the range of responses, one sentiment is almost universal: that while as a parent it is your responsibility to teach your child about acceptable behavior, your child still needs to take responsibility for his actions. As Sherri C. explains it, "[If] they are mean then they need to do what they have to [do to] right the situation."

Image Source: Flickr user marianne
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