No one wants to hear that their child is being bullied. It’s heartbreaking for any parent to think of their child being upset and harmed by other kids. But being on the other side as a parent can be just as bad — getting the dreaded call from the school or another parent that your child is a bully (or, at least, engaging in bullying behavior.) Knowing that your child is the one hurting other kids can be an incredibly upsetting realization. As a parent, we want to not only shelter our kids from pain, but also help them avoid inflicting any pain on others. How can you know if your child is bullying others? And if you suspect — or know — that they are, what can you do about it?
According to Deborah Gilboa, parenting expert and author of Get The Behavior You Want Without Being The Parent You Hate, bullying is not necessarily evil, “it’s a normal developmental phase.” Kids are trying to figure out what’s allowed and test boundaries, so they try different things to see if they will work, she says. Since this is a normal, but not acceptable, developmental phase, what matters is happens next, says Gilboa.
There are plenty of signs to look out for if you think your kid might be a bully. To learn about them, I spoke to Carrie Severson, one of the founders of Severson Sisters, which is an organization that provides “action plans on gossip, peer pressure and bullying,” among other resources. Severson tells Romper that there are several signs to look for that could indicate that your child is bullying other kids. If you notice any of them, there are things you can do to stop the bullying. Whether you can stop it before it starts, or nip it in the bud as soon as you realize that it’s happening, there are appropriate ways to handle talking to your child about being a bully.
1. They Continue To Engage In Behaviors After You’ve Asked Them To Stop
If your child doesn’t listen well when you ask them to stop doing something, chances are that they react the same way when other people make the same request. This includes if they’re doing something hurtful to another child, who may have asked them to stop. Severson says that this difficulty with following rules can be an indication of bullying behavior, and shows that they aren’t respecting people’s wishes.
What to do about it: Talk to your child. What’s really going on? Oftentimes, kids are acting out because they’re seeking something, whether it’s attention, control, or something else entirely. Understanding what drives the behavior is a good way to make it stop.
2. They Have Little Tolerance For Kids They Perceive To Be “Different” Or “Weird”
If you child is uncomfortable around kids they feel are different than they are, or who they think are weird, they may respond with bullying them. Kids often fear things they don’t understand.
What to do about it: Encourage them to befriend people instead of teasing them. Humanizing people who are different than us is one of the most effective ways to stop viewing them as so weird or scary. Teach them that differences are good and valuable, and try to surround them with diverse people from the time they are young.
3. They're Into Violent Video Games
Severson notes that children who view violence in a positive light may be more prone to bullying other kids. If your kid is really into violent video games, they may be demonstrating aggressive tendencies in other areas of their life, too. And while that’s not necessarily the case, violent video games can help kids internalize harmful messages about appropriate behavior.
What to do about it: Help your child find more productive ways to let out their aggression, like through physical activity or even screaming into pillows.
4. They Have Trouble Empathizing With Other People
Does your child seem to have trouble putting themselves in other people’s shoes? Severson says this may also manifest as a feeling of entitlement. Difficulty understanding how other people feel may make it harder for them to know when their actions could be hurtful. Gilboa suggests listening to the stories your kids tell you. She says that if you hear stories of your child always seemingly leading the pack, or hear no sign of compromise or extreme disappointment that their friends didn’t do what they suggested, those are normal things to feel. But it may also be that no one feels comfortable turning them down, which is a sign of an unequal friendship.
What to do about it: Encourage empathy by asking your child to imagine if they were in the victim’s shoes. How would they feel if someone did that to them? If they wouldn’t like it, then maybe the other person didn’t like it very much, either. Gilboa also suggests inviting your child’s friends over for a movie night or sleepover. "When they’re in your space, you’ll get a sense right away if there’s a power imbalance," she says.
5. They Are Very Concerned With Their Own Popularity
Is your kid concerned about what people think about them? Do they insist on having the latest trends, and get embarrassed easily? Is their biggest goal to be in the “popular” group at school? This could make them more prone to bullying behavior. You should also pay attention to any changes in your child’s friend circle, says Gilboa. As a parent, you often have an idea who their friends are and which of those friends have strong personalities; if your child is suddenly surrounding themselves with children who are meek or more impressionable, Gilboa indicates that could be a sign that they’re looking for people they can manipulate.
What to do about it: When you invite your child’s friends over, try asking them what they want to watch. If they look to your child for their opinion, your kid may be being given too much social power, says Gilboa. Try to get to the root cause of this concern. Often, kids who are concerned with being popular at all costs are trying to seek external validation as a way to feel better about themselves. A need for popularity may actually accompany a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy on your child’s part. Work with your child on ways to boost their self-esteem.
6. They Are Prone To Teasing Other Kids
If you’ve seen your kid picking on or teasing other kids, even if it’s their sibling, chances are they’re doing it when you aren’t looking, too. Gilboa suggests that, if you have more than one child, you watch the patterns of behavior at home. She says that all siblings will try to bully each other at some point, because they’re trying to figure out what will work to get what they want. How can you tell the difference between normal sibling bickering and bullying behavior? “If you’d call it bullying when a stranger does it, then it’s bullying when your kid does it," Gilboa says.
What to do about it: If the behavior is happening at school or with a friend, have your child make restitution as a way to demonstrate the right way to act, but also that there are consequences for their actions. The amends should include an apology, but also a promise to make it right by acting differently going forward. This can involve parents of the other child or teachers or counselors from school, if necessary. Teach your child that they don’t have to put other kids down in order to build themselves up. If the bullying is happening at home with a sibling, Gilboa indicates that this actually a good thing, because you can see what’s happening, have the whole story, and step in in an appropriate way.
7. They Witness You Gossiping Or Demonstrating Exclusive Behavior
Our kids are reflections of their parents. If parents engage in catty, bullying behavior, our kids will take notice. And, chances are, they may emulate that behavior. “If the child sees their parents fighting often, they may need an outlet to release their own stress and may take it out on kids at school,” ASeverson says. Setting a positive example for your kids is a good way to help teach them the right way to treat others.
What to do about it: It’s OK if you’re a gossip or if you go out of your way to avoid Susie from the park. You’re only human. But this is a really good opportunity to make some changes to your own behavior, if not for yourself then for your child. And remember that your child is learning about acceptable behavior, both in friendships and romantic relationships, from watching you interact with your partner. Try to demonstrate the kind of behavior you want her to emulate.