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When Your Child is a Bully

How To Deal With Your Bully Child

When Sue Parker* was 6, she began teasing Kate, her 2-year-old sister. Soon the teasing escalated into physical aggression: pushing and shoving, grabbing Kate's coat when they were out in the park, throwing it into the dirt and stamping on it. By the time Sue was 12, her mother received weekly complaints of her picking on other children, verbally and physically.

"We were at our wits' end," says Sue's mother, Frances Parker* of London, England. "We'd seen how Sue treated her little sister, but had put it down to sibling rivalry."

It took many hours with the school counselor, along with some family therapy, before things improved. "It was really hard," Parker says. "My husband and I had to hear how we had never set clear boundaries for Sue, and how she was angry with us and with the world."

Why My Child?

According to Randy Reynolds, author of Good News About Your Strong-Willed Child (Zondervan Publishing Company, 1995), the failure to set limits is one of the most common reasons why a child becomes a bully. "Setting boundaries for a child's behavior, and mostly importantly, sticking to them, is vital," he says.

When children bully, they are mimicking actions they have seen around them, says Richard B. Cohen, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, Calif. "These kids are blank slates," he says. "Most of this bullying behavior is modeled in the family or in the peer group, and that's how the kids acquire their behavior."

Joyce Moore* of Brooklyn, N.Y., had to face this when her 11-year-old son started getting into trouble at school. "I kept getting calls about how angry Ben seemed to be and how he was taking it out on his peers, threatening them and punching them," she says.

Addressing the problem required Moore to look at her family situation, understanding that Ben had learned this behavior from seeing his father bullying his mother. "I knew that my ex-husband had been emotionally abusive to me, but I believed I had shielded Ben from it," she says.

Bully Warning Signs

Drawing the distinction between typical childhood meanness and bullying may be difficult. "Usually you have to rely on others for information and feedback, because it's unlikely that your child will come home and say, 'This is what I did in school today; I pounded on one kid and then on another,'" says Jeffrey Marsh, a family therapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Parents are going to get information from teachers and other families."

Even if your child is quiet and placid at home, don't assume that he or she is that way with his or her peer group. "Parents need to ask good, pointed questions and should also be willing to observe without trying to jump in and change things at first," Marsh says. The idea is to see if your child's behavior is not just an isolated incident, but reveals a pattern over time.

Teaching Healthy Relationship Skills

If you do determine that your child is using controlling, aggressive behavior, experts agree that the responsibility lies first with you to teach your child non-coercive ways to negotiate. "When a kid victimizes another kid, make the perpetrator sit down and listen to how his behavior has affected the other child and what that feels like," Reynolds says.

Maintaining a set family communication time – usually dinnertime – is critical, Marsh says. Deliberately pose a question to the aggressive child or all the children in the family, and then give each one an opportunity to respond, without interruption and without judgment. "This is much better than dealing with this problem by jumping on the kid and saying, 'What did you do today? That was terrible! You should know better! We've taught you for years,'" Marsh says.

As a follow-up, a child with a combative personality needs to be shown how to manage frustration and deal with conflict before bullying becomes a habit. The following strategies can help:

  • Help your child express anger and fear.
  • Nurture your child's sense of self-worth.
  • Back up the bully's feelings with support, but let him know that his or her behavior is unacceptable.
  • Model the values you wish to teach.
  • Provide healthy, non-violent entertainment.

Talking With the "Victims"

Perhaps the most difficult task to address is talking to the parents of your child's "victim." Parents naturally shy away from this, because it gets into the area of who has the right to talk to another parent about their parenting skills – an uncomfortable situation.

Reynolds advises that the first step is to listen to each other non-defensively. "Both sides need to work to de-escalate the situation by hearing each other, without responding," he says.

If that doesn't work, parents can ask for help from teachers, counselors or another objective mediator. "It's especially difficult for two men to speak openly, as opposed to just getting defensive and mimicking the children's behavior," Marsh says. Yet, he emphasizes, it's critical for parents to recognize that they can talk to the parents of a child who has been victimized without it becoming a blame/shame scenario.

In the midst of all this, parents should remember that anger is fine, but lashing out is the wrong way to handle it. As parents, we must help our children find the right way.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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