Articles about what to do when your child has engaged in bullying behavior can be confusing. In some portrayals, bullies are popular, good-looking and socially powerful. In others, they’re withdrawn, rejected and suffer from low self-esteem. They get away with being unkind because teachers like them; they don’t do well in school at all. High emotional intelligence allows these kids to skillfully manipulate; low emotional intelligence means they don’t anticipate the impact of their actions.
Well, which is it? Experts across the country say it can all be true. To know where to start with any one child, we have to untangle the research.
Why Kids Bully
Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, explains there are two types of aggression that can be at play: proactive and reactive. Proactive aggression can be cold-blooded and Machiavellian. In older kids especially, it looks like a child at the top of the social hierarchy maintaining dominance through calculated strikes. In younger ones, says Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California–Los Angeles, it’s still behavior calculated to obtain a reward, but it frequently reflects frustration (for example, at not getting the toy they want) and isn’t so targeted.
For all ages, sometimes the goal is subconscious and more situational. A destabilizing event, like a family move or a loved one’s death, can make otherwise well-adjusted kids desperate to feel like they have control over something, anything. “They do something that makes them, in the moment, feel powerful,” Juvonen said.
Reactive aggression, on the other hand, is usually impulsive and unrestrained. It’s responding to a perceived threat. These kids have often been bullied and ended up hypervigilant so they interpret, say, an accidental bump in line as an attack, Prinstein says. Reactive aggression can sometimes look like a quiet kid who just “snaps.” Usually though, these are children who have always had difficulty regulating their emotions.
Finally, Juvonen says, there are kids who have trouble with social cues or cause and effect, almost always as the result of a disability or very young age. They aren’t deciding to harm someone in pursuit of a goal and they often aren’t reacting to provocation either. They just truly don’t understand what actions and statements are likely to cause harm.
How Parents Should Respond
Knowing which of these rough sketches best fits your child can help you figure out where the behavior is really coming from and how best to respond. But regardless of the cause, experts suggest working through these four steps:
Process the Information
Everyone should start the same way: by processing your emotions alone or with another grown up before talking to your child or the school. A parent’s first reaction is often embarrassment or guilt. We worry about how our kids’ behavior reflects on our parenting, but it shouldn’t be about us.
Well, sometimes it should, and here the experts have a tall ask: introspection. “Proactive aggression tends to be very clearly modeled by others in a kid’s environment,” Prinstein says. For parents who use power-assertive discipline, your child engaging in bullying behavior can be a man-in-the-mirror moment. If it’s not you, could anything else in your home be communicating it’s OK to engage in abusive behavior? Has your child experienced a traumatic event recently? Could an overscheduled, micromanaged life have left them with nothing they can control besides a classmate?
It can be tempting to downplay bullying, Prinstein says, with phrases like “everyone gets their feelings hurt” and “kids can be mean.” More often than not, what school leaders see, Juvonen says, is “parents just absolutely denying it and defending their kid.” A few psychological terms — like “hostile attribution bias” and “blame avoidance” — describe the tendency to preserve one’s self-esteem by assuming others have ill intent and are the cause of their problems. Both get passed down, so parents who deny and defend tend to have kids who do the same thing at school, insisting everything was the other child’s fault. Experts recommend parents instead take allegations seriously and prepare to work collaboratively with school staff.
That said, for those who are part of a marginalized group, it’s important to be extra sure your child isn’t being unfairly accused. Shanelle Clay, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Onyx Therapy Group in Washington, D.C., points to a historical tendency for educators to associate Black and brown students with aggressiveness. Implicit bias and “a disconnect with our culture in general,” she says, can make a teacher think, “Oh, they are the bullies,” when a child hasn’t done anything wrong.
And if your child has a disability, she adds, get ready to make sure the school is taking their diagnosis into account.
Communicate With Your Child
Talking to your child comes next. Clay says kids respond well to respect and empathy. Acknowledge that there’s been a call home. And then aim for information gathering, information sharing and joint problem-solving, all while communicating that your love and regard are unconditional.
Lead with questions: What upset you? What thoughts were going through your head? What were you trying to accomplish? Listen and validate their emotions with statements like, “I can see how that would be annoying.” If you start with what your child was feeling, you can later push them to move beyond their own perspective and consider what the other child felt.
Experts say it’s important to behave as if your child lacked information, not moral character. One way to do that is to say you’ve read a bit about bullying and want to share some research-backed facts. For example, Prinstein says, verbal insults can cause just as much harm as a punch to the face.
This approach helps do what Clay says is most important: acknowledge their capacity to learn and change. Ask what they could have done differently. What can you do next time someone insults you?
What you don’t say (or do) can be just as important. Online advice often suggests imposing unrelated consequences (like taking away screen time or other privileges) to show your child that bullying behavior isn’t acceptable. But the experts consulted by U.S. News agree that punishment usually backfires. An authoritarian crackdown just reinforces domineering behavior, Clay says. And if that urge is coming from a lack of control, taking away more control is counterproductive.
[READ: Mindfulness Activities for Kids.]
Form a Team Attuned to Your Child
Next, talk to adults in your child’s ambit — from school social workers to coaches to religious leaders. If you feel that school personnel are not supportive or not taking your concerns seriously, Clay recommends searching online for an education advocate in your area — an independent guide to special education and disciplinary procedures.
Once you have a team in place, start with ways to give your child the skills they need to prevent future bullying behavior. Young kids and kids with disabilities can benefit from explicit social skills training, Juvonen says. Some things that seem obvious aren’t. For example, it might be fun to tease your best friend about his shoes, but the same comment can have a different impact on an acquaintance, Clay says.
Reactively aggressive kids need emotion regulation skills, Juvonen says. Parents can advocate for social-emotional learning at school, or, if it’s already happening, ask to be filled in on “some of that same language and ideology,” Clay says, “so that the kids are receiving it on both ends.”
Kids who are proactively aggressive can be the hardest for adults to understand. Here, there’s a different kind of skills deficit, Prinstein says. They “don’t know how to get power or status in more adaptive ways.” Maybe they can get a joke book from the library since well-executed humor can increase status. Or the team could try Prinstein’s likability workbook, which teaches kids to go after the more prosocial kind of popularity.
For a control-hungry kid, ask your child’s teacher to help: “Can they take on jobs in class? Be in charge of walking papers to the office? Have free-choice time?”
You can also change their mental calculus by reducing the rewards of bullying. Ask what administrators are doing to create a school climate where kindness and allyship are cooler than dominance. Evidence-based anti-bullying programs, like the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and the KiVa antibullying program, can help.
Make Amends and Promote Growth
With the team’s guidance, you can work to “identify ways that your child can move forward,” Clay says. But having related consequences might not mean a traditional apology. When a “sorry” is forced, Juvonen says, not only is there no benefit for the aggressor, but the victim also knows it’s not genuine. Instead, ask, “What part are you sorry for? What can you say, that you really believe, to make them feel better? What can you do to help ease their pain?”
To get there, kids have to learn empathy. “Empathy is the antidote,” Prinstein says. Parents can check out books with detailed strategies for helping children develop empathy, like “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World“ and “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.” Clay recommends the “catch them being good” strategy, where you positively reinforce any empathetic behavior you see. Make children the experts by having them describe what bullying behaviors look like to a younger sibling. This gives them a way to buy into the idea that these actions are wrong without feeling shamed.
And promote reading. Books don’t need to be about maltreatment to build empathy, though that’s certainly the fast track. Any picture book or novel where the reader is transported inside the head of another person will help.
And while many schools are now attempting restorative justice practices, which emphasize repairing harm through conversation and reflection, these techniques should be used with caution. “You have to be so incredibly skilled to do those,” Juvonen says, and the average teacher lacks sufficient training.
“My biggest issue with bullying in schools is we just do not educate our teachers adequately to deal with bullying,” Juvonen says, “If we were able to teach the teachers, the teachers then can help the parents.”
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