Why do kids bully and what can we do about it? When you think about bullying, it is usually with the fear that your child could be bullied. But what if your child is the bully?
I dread meeting with parents about their child’s bullying behaviour. I know I’m going to tell them something they don’t want to hear. It will probably bring them fear and pain and shame. Even though it’s not what I mean to do.
They shift uncomfortably in their seats and their eyes dart around the room. It’s hard to put them at ease, because they already know. If they haven’t seen it or heard about it, they almost always have sensed it. They don’t want the words to leave your mouth though. It will only become real when someone says, “Your child has been bullying other children”.
It’s a secret fear that many parents have. “What if my child is the bully?” or “What if my child becomes a bully?” There must be more you can do than apologise and hide!
Just because your child bullies, does not mean that you are a bad parent. Bullying is a learned behaviour. It can be unlearned and it can be replaced with better behaviours.
Why Do Kids Bully?
There is no one factor that makes kids bully and there is no one kind of child that bullies. However, there are high-risk factors:
- Bullying can be a social shortcut. Using force and aggression is a quick way to get what you want. If a child has not learned the social skills required to get along with others and achieve their goals, they may just resort to force. That said, some bullies have highly advanced social skills. They recognise strength and weakness in others and they know what words and actions will hurt others. They employ these skills to gain dominance and get what they want.
- A child who has been bullied is more likely to go on to bully themselves. Let’s face it, they have learned that skill the hard way and they know it works. It is also a self-protective behaviour. If a child is bullying, they are unlikely to be bullied themselves.
- Children are more likely to bully when they feel vulnerable. It can be a source of empowerment. They are making themselves feel better by manipulating relationships around them or putting others down to feel superior.
- Bullying happens in the home or extended family. Aggression and violence happen in families, as much as we wish it wouldn’t. If a child sees this sort of behaviour at home it becomes the norm.
- It can be an extension of what is valued in the home. Santa Maria College Psychologist Jane Carmignani says, “If parents model that you are “good” when you are in control; you are a leader when others are scared of you; you are popular when you are feared; you are popular when you are exclusive. Then children will sometimes live that out in bullying.”
- Neglect can cause bullying. Children will literally fight for attention, negative or positive. Positive attention is a natural antidote but often adults will punish bullies by withholding positive attention. The cycle continues.
- Children see a lot of bullying behaviour on television and in popular culture. When you are making a TV show for young people, apparently there are only so many sources of conflict you can use to create drama. Bullying behaviour is often the one chosen.
- Bullying is a way of fitting in and not being bullied yourself. Fear is a very powerful motivator. The need to belong to a group is also a strong motivator. Some children will only bully as part of a group of other bullies.
- Some argue that humans are hard-wired to rank and create hierarchies. Other theorists believe that some children have a need for superiority and control as part of their temperament. Nature over nurture. That doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed.
Bullying Has Negative Effects For The Bully As Well As The Victim
Sometimes adults encourage bullying. They think it will make kids tough and able to cope with what the world throws at them. This is a misguided view as the negative consequences of bullying for the bully can be as severe as for the victim.
“Research suggests negative longer-term outcomes for those who have been bullies in adolescence. Bullies are more likely than their peers to go on to adult substance misuse, violence and abuse, or criminal behaviour. One study also found that they are also more likely to have children who behave aggressively.” Mind Matters Australia
Bullying also isolates a child. They may have the pack with them at the time of conflict, but kids aren’t silly. If your child is a bully, other kids will avoid them in the long run. In school playgrounds you often see bullies sitting alone or going from social group to social group trying to stir up trouble, anything for attention. It is very sad to watch.
10 Ways To Help Ensure Children Don’t Grow Up To Be Bullies
1. First and foremost, children need to know from a very young age exactly what bullying is. Name it and explain it. Behaviour Management Specialist, James Lehman says, “You can tell them the following (or even post these words in your house somewhere):
A bully is somebody who forces other people to do things they don’t want to do.
A bully is somebody who hits other people.
A bully is someone who takes or breaks other people’s property.
A bully is someone who calls other people names.”
We could add…
A bully is someone who makes others feel alone
A bully is someone who says they are your friend but then treats you meanly
2. Give children a lot of positive attention and clear boundaries. Children who know they are a priority are less likely to seek attention in negative ways. That does not mean ignore your child’s negative behaviour. Kids respond to clear boundaries and predictable consequences.
3. Make it very clear that bullying will not be tolerated in your family. Create that culture early.
4. Develop empathy in children. Empathy is the weapon we need in the war on bullying.
5. Make children accountable for their bullying. It isn’t someone else’s fault.
6. Talk about alternative ways of solving social problems. When teaching I used to say to my students, “Let’s think of three ways you could have handled that situation differently.” Then insist that they are workable, kind solutions.
7. Please, whatever you do, don’t look past bullying. What you ignore is what you condone. I know it is hard to pick kids up on everything they do, but with bullying it just has to be that way. Bullies feel that if significant adults say nothing about the bullying behaviour, then they have given their blessing.
8. Monitor your child’s internet use and never let them use the internet in their bedrooms. As you’re aware an enormous amount of bullying happens online. It is easier to treat someone else badly when you don’t have to look them in the eye.
9. Work with your school. If the school approaches you about your child’s bullying behaviour, the chances are it really is happening, even though it is the last thing you want to hear. I can tell you it is difficult to tell a parent their child is bullying. It wouldn’t be said lightly. If you argue with the school about the behaviour, particularly in front of your child, you are telling the child to carry on. In the long run that does your child no favours. Schools do make mistakes, but they also see your child seven hours a day, five days a week. Most have an idea of what is going on.
10. If you are unable to address the behaviour yourself, or with the help of your school, seek counselling. A psychologist is uniquely qualified to offer your child the support, behaviour modification and guidance required to set them on a more positive path forward.
If you do end up being that parent, sitting uncomfortably in your chair, eyes darting around the office. Please know that it is normal for kids to push boundaries. They go through phases when their behaviour isn’t great. When it’s not, we need to work together to guide them. Discipline isn’t about punishment and making kids pay. It’s about teaching kids to make better choices. We can do that together.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.