Learning Points: What to do when it turns out your child is the bully

The majority of children who bully are struggling with issues. Try to discover what it is that your child is dealing with, writes Richard Hogan

IN the previous two articles, I wrote about bullying from the perspective of the parent and the child. I outlined how to support your child and how that child can gain their power back.

From the amount of letters I have received in support of those articles, it does seem like many of us are being bullied in our work place.

I will explore that in the coming weeks. However, today I am going to outline what you can do if your child is the bully. It can be unsettling to receive a call from the school to inform you that your child has been targeting another student.

While your immediate reaction may be to defend your child and deny that they would ever bully, your reaction is very important if your child is to learn how to stop this negative behaviour. Children bully for many reasons. Children are not born bullies; children learn how to bully, so think about where your child might have picked up this maladaptive behaviour.

This is not about blame, but trying to ascertain why your child has such a low level of empathy that he/she is willing to bully another child. Much of the work I do in schools is helping the management team draft a sensible bullying policy.

The last thing anyone wants to do is to further exacerbate the issue with an over-the-top reaction to something that requires a sensitive and delicate approach. And the school can come under extreme pressure to deal with the issue in a way that might not be in the best interests of all involved. Understanding how the bullying started, and the nature of what is taking place, is key to making sure it does not continue.

What to do if your child is the bully:

1. When you receive the information from the school, control your response. Do not overreact; instead, be calm and think of how your child might have developed this behaviour. The majority of children who bully are struggling with issues. Try to discover what it is that your child is dealing with. They haven’t always behaved like this. What has changed? If you simply discipline your child, you may stop the behaviour, but you haven’t discovered the root causes and, therefore, it may arise again. Get to the root cause of the issue: self–esteem, power, control.

2. Listen to your child’s explanation in a supportive way, but also let them know that bullying is never an acceptable answer to a personal issue. Develop their sense of empathy. I had a conversation with a student who had been saying very nasty stuff to another boy in his class. And when I asked him to describe how the other student might feel, he was unable to do so. It was clear that empathy was lacking for this boy and therefore he didn’t have any problem launching such hurtful and devastating comments. Get them to describe what it must be like for the person on the other end of those comments.

3. Support the school’s disciplinary action. It is incredibly important that your child sees just how united the school and his/her family are against bullying.

When parents fight with the school or do not engage with the disciplinary process, they are losing the opportunity to teach their child such an important lesson about life. When a family blames the school, they are showing their child that you never fully take responsibility, and that is one of the crucial learning points, if you are to ameliorate this negative behaviour. Show them that all behaviours have consequences.

4. Reinforce positive behaviour. Often, children bully for attention, whether that is from their peer group or teachers.

Make sure they are getting the attention they need from positive behaviour. I had a student explain to me last year, when I talked to him about his behaviour, that ‘at least when I’m aggressive people pay attention to me’. It is important that our children receive positive feedback when they do something worthy of it. We all crave attention — make sure your child is getting that attention in a healthy way.

It is not helpful to think of the child that is bullying as a monster. Sometimes, the victim of bullying can go on to become the perpetrator of bullying.

Supporting our children in a way that allows them to grow from their mistakes, and holding them while they navigate the difficult landscape of the teenage world, is a major part of our duty as parents. When we learn that out child is victimising another, we must work with the school to support our child, so that they learn how to better represent themselves in the world.

Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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