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Much is written and reported about the victims of bullying and how to help, but we tend to think little of the “bully” and how they, too, need help. These bullies are suffering their own pain and tend to be socially isolated, poorer students, and have strong tendencies toward alcohol and substance use in their teenage years.
So, what happens when parents are told their son or daughter is bullying others? While I find parents are often in denial of such feedback, there are many others seeking help to bring their tyrannizing child under control. They are often surprised and alarmed by such behavior. When seeking help, many show up with this fundamental question: “How did my child learn to bully?”
The bully has been bullied
Without a doubt, the most common finding is that bullies have been bullied, either at home, at school, or on the playground. Such behavior rarely unfolds in a vacuum. Yet, while an alarming 70 percent of middle school and high school students report that they have been bullied during their lives, most never become bullies.
It takes more than a few moments of name-calling or being pushed out of line to turn into a bully. It is the repeated experience of being bullied at home or in school that instills the underlying shame, guilt, and anger that produces a future bully. It is important to appreciate the impact of such experiences on these children. As soon as we put the label of “bully” on the child, it’s easy to lose sight of their struggle and the painful path they have walked in their lives.
The apple does not fall far from the tree (usually)
Unfortunately, much bullying behavior can be traced to parent behavior. Children follow their primary role models, which cannot be avoided. Nature is wired that way. Thus, it is essential to tune into the modeled behavior that a child is following. For many parents, this is a tough pill to swallow, but the proof is usually obvious after spending time observing and discussing family dynamics.
Sibling interactions also play a role in teaching young children to bully. Boys, inclined to be more physical, often end up wrestling and fighting. In some circumstances, one sibling seems to enjoy being physical much more than the other and will “torture” the other sibling with physical pushing, jabbing, etc.
The more unprovoked these moments
appear, and the more that intimidation and fear are the apparent outcomes, the more these sibling exchanges fall into the category
The social world teaches
As children engage in outside playdates, sports, school, and other activities, there is the opportunity for other children to bully and to model bullying. While dramatic improvements have been made in schools to reduce bullying, the reality is that it still happens. The weak, the small, the odd, and the disadvantaged are often the focus of the neighborhood bully. Again, a moment or two will not mold a future bully. However, repeated exposure to fear and intimidation will likely produce a future bully.
Modeling various forms of bullying: Emotional, physical & cyber-bullying
Most of us are aware of the line that is crossed when there is physical bullying. An example at home is when a parent uses their body to trap another member of the family in a room or area of the home. There is also the more abusive form, when there is pushing or physical force used to demand compliance with the actions sought from another adult or child. When a larger-bodied adult hovers over a spouse or child, with finger pointed in their face, this physical intimidation is an unhealthy mistreatment of family and falls into the physical category.
However, the more frequent and less acknowledged form of bullying is that of emotional or mental bullying. This involves using demanding and controlling words and doing so in personal ways that torment, embarrass, and demean the victim. It’s also a way to get control and compliance, generated out of fear or desire to avoid embarrassment or shame. Here are some examples of emotional bullying:
Threats of violence or harm, or telling others
Intentionally frightening others to gain power or control
Inciting fear in a child that they will not receive love, food, or care from a parent
Demeaning a spouse or child because of some trait or characteristic (e.g., weight, speech, hair, dress, IQ, athletic performance, etc.)
Excessively criticizing, pointing out mistakes, or relentlessly relating how to do it better
Yelling and using forceful language to get attention
Ordering a child or spouse around; treating them
like a servant
Finding pleasure in the pain or fear incited in others
And now, in recent years, we have cyber-bullying to add to the list. Many times, parents are not the role models for cyber-bullying. This can unfold in all sorts of social media apps as children get older. Certain apps offer a way to bully others where your identity is hidden, making it easy for the bully to demean, ridicule, and harass without consequence.
These various patterns of coercion are mentioned to make clear that there are many ways to model being a bully. Each is recognizable because the core impact is that the victim feels helpless, afraid, weak, and disempowered. Ultimately, the victim complies out of fear…not out of respect.
to helping the bully:
Look in the mirror
If your son or daughter has turned into a bully, the first step to help them is to take a long, hard, personal look in the mirror. How often do they see me bully? How often do I threaten, coerce, or use words to make them feel bad over their actions? How often am I controlling them or demanding that they listen? How often do I want them to feel bad in order to try to end up with better behavior? Do I ever use physical intimidation to get my way, at home or in public?
Any of these tendencies can play a key role in a child’s bullying patterns, and it is essential to stop these behaviors yourself if you want to help your child to stop bullying. By looking at the expression on your child’s face, you can see the impact of your behavior. Tune in to that expression, as this is the measure of the impact your reaction is having. Often, it is creating powerful, negative emotions in your child and has zero impact on changing a negative behavior pattern.
Stop sibling bullying
If one sibling is unilaterally pushing, fighting, or name-calling and demeaning another sibling, it is essential to bring this to a stop. It’s important to distinguish between sibling conflict and sibling bullying, as sibling conflict is unavoidable. Trying to get a bully to appreciate the impact of such moments on a younger sibling is futile. It seems like a promising idea to teach them how it feels, but it doesn’t work. Do not require apologies, as these are insincere. Do not try to talk it out between them. Instead, get between the two children. Support the child who was bullied. Give an immediate time-out to the bully. Once complete, have the bully do something for the victim to improve the child’s life, such as cleaning their room or taking on their chores for the day. Require an “over-correction” model that does more than just stop the moment. Finally, abandon efforts to lecture or teach in these moments, as again, this also is futile.
Intervene in social settings
If there are games, movies, or TV shows where intimidation, fear, and physical force prevail, get rid of these. Don’t let a bullying child have exposure to violent media in any form.
If your child plays with another child who tends to bully, don’t let them play with that child again. Get them out of a situation where a bully runs free. Another option is to teach them to be strong and stand up for themselves. Often, this can be accomplished (if adults are nearby) by simply having your child scream, “STOP!” This effectively gets attention drawn to the situation, and it’s rarely what the bully expects.
Research now strongly supports the power of teaching other children to stand up for the victim on the playground or in other social settings. In other words, if an adult is not around, bullies are quickly disempowered when peers step in to say “stop” as a small group. They can then walk away with the victimized child. This approach has a proven record of success.
Now, if your child is the bully in such situations, it would be essential to remove them, if you have no ability to monitor the situation. If you can monitor, then of course, step in immediately when there is a moment of bullying. Support the intimidated child. Then, create a consequence that your child will feel, by removing them from the setting for the day. Again, no lecture or yelling. Simply take them to the car, complete a time out, and then go home. Perhaps an extra chore or two at home as well. All this is done without emotional drama and reaction on your part, and this is key. Repeat this as often as needed. You can also add the previously mentioned over-correction approach by having the bully do something to improve or enhance the life of
Finally, it’s a difficult situation if you’re getting feedback from the school that your child is the bully. Your goal is to empower the school to take action, ensure you accept no excuses from your “bully” about why they bullied another child, and make certain you have addressed everything you can from the above game plan. It is also critical to examine whether your child is being bullied in another setting, and have the school appreciate the impact this could be having on your son or daughter.
Rarely is professional help required, if you can accomplish the steps above. However, if you happen to be divorced and the other parent is the bully who will not change their ways, then you may need professional guidance. Likewise, if you find you cannot stop your own reactive tendencies, and you end up yelling and using emotional upsets to get your children to listen, this is a form of emotional bullying that must stop if you want to help your child. Sometimes sibling disharmony requires professional help. In short, focus first on steps one through three. If you do not see change, either in your home or in your child’s bullying behavior, then reach out for help. !