Confront bullying behavior in children

Earlier this year two teenage boys came upon a 9th grade boy being bullied for wearing a pink shirt. Rather than walking by, they stood between the boy who was being bullied, and the bullies. Later that day they headed off to a discount store and bought 50 pink shirts. They sent out messages to their friends at school, telling them what had happened. The next morning, as they were distributing the pink shirts for fellow students to wear in support, the boy who had been bullied walked in: the look on his face spoke volumes. The courage of these young men has started an anti-bullying movement (

Media stories about bullying are common these days. Usually, the information is about the children who get bullied, or, is for parents advising them what to do if their child gets bullied. Other stories, like the one above, are about courageous boys and girls who intervene.

Yet, for every bullied child, there is one who is bullying. And, every child who is bullying others, has parents. Parents who often do not know what to do.

Some parents are shocked when they hear their child being accused of bullying. Others aren’t. Your son doesn’t seem to have a lot of empathy for others or your daughter has a domineering or manipulative personality. When you have asked him or her about accusations from peers or teachers about aggressive and intimidating behaviors in the past, he or she always has a good reason for it, and, it’s always the other person’s fault.

It’s hard to admit your child is treating others like this. As hard as it is, your child is better off if you address your concerns with him or her and start to intervene. Without help, your child is unlikely to simply outgrow bullying behavior, and more likely will continue it in different ways toward coworkers, neighbors, friends and spouse. With your help, your child can change. And, the earlier you nip these tendencies in the bud, the better.

Here are some recommendations about how to help your child. Importantly, note that I am not calling the child who bullies a “bully”, rather, I am describing their behavior as bullying. It is important that, when talking with your child, you separate who they are as a person from their behavior. Notice their positive attributes and help grow strengths; assure him or her they can change their negative behaviors.

Hopefully your child’s school has an anti-bullying program. Check with your school counselor and get their advice. Seek out help from a therapist if you think you need it.

Build empathy: when you see examples of one person bullying another, ask your child, “How do you think X feels?” Conversations like this, over time, help children understand that other people have feelings too. There are lots of good stories to read with your children to increase empathy; I like “Odd Velvet”, “A Hundred Dresses”, and “Have You Filled A Bucket Today?”

Emphasize the importance of physical and emotional control: go over skills with your child about how to control their physical and verbal outbursts. A good workbook to go through with your child at home is “What to do When Your Temper Flares.”

Look closely at your parenting style. Ask yourself tough questions about how you and your spouse resolve conflicts with each other, your children, or at work. Look at the teaching style of other important people in your child’s life. Do they act in bullying ways? Seek help for your family if bullying is going on at home. Intervene if an authority figure in your child’s life is setting a bad example. Ask your child if they have been bullied by others.

Witnessing these behaviors in your child is hard to accept. But, don’t shy away from it. If you have the courage to acknowledge and confront these behaviors, your child will too.

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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