“I hope she doesn’t get bullied,” I confided to my husband on our daughter’s first day of school.
“I hope she doesn’t bully,” my husband replied.
The thought that my darling angel could bully another child had never once entered my head. And when I did think about it I dismissed it immediately.
I suspect I’m not alone because two years later, and after countless conversations with parents, I’ve heard many stories about children being bullied. But I’m struggling to think of even one time a parent told me that their child had bullied.
And I understand why; the idea that your child is a bully can be just too awful to contemplate. It’s also unlikely that your kid is going to come home and tell you if they were.
Educator and friendship expert Dana Kerford says that there are a few signs parents can look out for that may indicate your child is bullying.
“Your child might be engaging in mean-on-purpose behaviour within their social domain if they are not being invited to birthday parties or playdates, or if they demonstrate exclusive behaviour and/or have very few friends,” says Kerford who is the founder of URSTRONG.
“Other signs are if your child has misplaced confidence, putting on a mask or front to give off the ‘king of the castle’ vibe or exhibiting relational aggression or physical aggression when frustrated.”
Sophie* was shocked when a teacher took her aside two weeks into her son’s first year at school to report that he’d punched a girl in the nose.
“The teacher brought my son over to us and spoke to him as well. She said that the children were standing in line and that his punch was completely unprovoked and the teacher would have a conversation with the girl’s mother as well,” Sophie said.
“I felt angry, humiliated, frustrated and helpless. I was pretty sure that the teacher knew we did not promote such behaviour at home, but I still wanted to justify my son and myself (which I didn’t),” she said.
That night Sophie and her husband talked to their son about his behaviour and made him write a card to the girl to say sorry.
“The card was read, apology accepted and the episode was ended,” said Sophie. “Except of course not for me. I still have a child who hurts others ‘accidentally’, who just doesn’t think that if he is flicking his hat in the air 15 times, one of those times it might flick one of his friends standing near him; a child who can rank 150 Pokemon characters on their powers and strengths but can’t count how many times he has been banned from the computer for hurting his sister.”
Kerford says there are three ways parents can help a child who is exhibiting mean-on-purpose behaviour:
Kerford says that the best approach to curb mean-on-purpose behaviour is for children to govern it on their own, by standing up to bullies and not tolerating their bad behaviour. However, parents and teachers need to follow up with consequences as well.
“There needs to be a ‘zero tolerance policy’ for mean-on-purpose behaviour,” Kerford says.
“If they witness their child exhibiting mean-on-purpose behaviour, they need to provide an immediate negative consequence. Getting a child to simply say sorry or apologise is insufficient, as a child who is attention-seeking will find this rewarding. Therefore, it’s important that parents choose a consequence that will discourage them from doing it again.
“While immediate, logical consequences that match the behaviour are important, not being invited to birthday parties and playdates also serve as a natural consequence for unkind behaviour. As heartbreaking as it is sometimes, helping your child recognise there are consequences for their actions is essential in helping change negative behaviour patterns.”
2. Addressing the root cause
Kerford says children don’t wake up one day and decide, “I think I’d like to be a bully!” It’s not something kids aspire to be. Rather, it’s something that can happen as a result of a number of experiences that lead them to choosing inappropriate actions.
“Children with big, explosive emotions need guidance and support to find strategies to calm themselves down. The key for parents is to recognise when their child is starting to feel angst, like a balloon blowing up with air,” says Kerford.
“The goal is to help their child prevent the balloon from popping by giving their child very practical, step-by-step ideas to work their way through the emotion.”
3. Strengthening empathy
Kerford says that it’s important to realise that empathy is a skill and, with practice, children can learn to be empathetic.
“It takes some children a long time to cognitively be capable of seeing outside of themselves. You can help your child with this by getting them to make the connection between how their actions affect others,” she says.
“Asking them, ‘How do you think Reggie felt when you said he was being a baby!? What if someone called you a baby? How would that make you feel?’ Helps them to strengthen those empathy muscles.”
Kerford cautions parents about ignoring their child’s bullying behaviour, or refusing to believe that their child is less-than-perfect.
“Parents who recognise their child is bullying, and address it, will certainly be able to shift their child towards a healthier approach to conflict.”
*not her real name
This article first appeared in Daily Life.