How to spot a bully and what to do if you suspect a child is bullying….advise for parents and educators to turning bullying behaviors around
Here is a recent letter I received from a parent. How would you respond?
“My son’s teacher says he bullies a classmate by saying cruel things, deliberately slamming or tripping him. He denies being mean, and says the other kid is just a “wimp” and deserves it. My husband says this is just a phase and a “boy thing.” Do I believe my husband or the teacher?”
My advice: believe the teacher! One of the biggest mistakes parents make is assuming that bullying will just fade away. Do not make the mistake of thinking this is just “a phase” or a boys rite of passage. One study found that nearly 60 percent of males who were identified as chronic bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24. The consequences of letting bullying behavior go unheeded are disastrous to your child’s character and conscience.
The good news is because bullying is a learned behavior it can also be unlearned. And no matter the age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, any child resorting to bullying needs an immediate behavior intervention. Here are a few ways to spot bullying behavior so you can turn this around from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (refer to the chapters on Bullying, Insensitivity and Aggression). Here are the beginning steps for educators, parents and counselors to turn this behavior around, and pronto.
Understand What Bullying Is
Bullying is cruelty and always contains these four elements:
- It is an aggressive act that is usually repeated
- The bully has more power (strength, status, size) than the victim who cannot hold his own
- The hurtful behavior is not an accident, but intentional. The bully usually seems to enjoy seeing the victim in distress
- The bully rarely accepts responsibility and often says the victim “deserved” the hurtful treatment.
Know the Signs of Bullying
Look for repeated and intentional patterns of verbal, emotional or physical aggression. You may not spot these when your child is with you, so ask other caregivers (teachers, coaches, babysitters, relatives) for their perspective. Get on board with others. Know that there is a new breed of bullying One study shows that some of the most popular kids in schools and even those in leadership roles display antisocial behaviors. So don’t be too quick to say: “Not my kid!” There is no one profile to a bully so here are a few typical behaviors of bullying to watch for:
- Excludes or shuns another child
- Taunts, intimidates or harasses
- Spreads vicious rumors verbally and or electronically that hurt or ruin another’s reputation
- Physically aggressive (hits, punches, kicks, slams, chokes)
- Positive views of violence
- Threatens with force or fear; extortion
- Marked need to control and dominate others
- Damages another child’s property or clothing
- Quick-tempered, impulsive, easily frustrated, flares off the top
- Takes pleasure in seeing a child (or animal) in distress, unconcerned if someone is upset
- Finds it difficult to see a situation from the other person’s point of view
- Refuses to accept responsibility or denies wrong doing when evidence shows guilt
- Blames the victim or says the child “deserved what he got”; good at talking way out of situations
- Shows little sympathy or concern for the victim or a child who was hurt
- Targets those who are weaker or younger or animals
- Intolerant of “differences” whether it be sexual orientations, cultures, religious beliefs, appearances, age, gender, or abilities and often slams those differences
- Is insensitive to the feelings or needs or others; a lack of empathy
A poster of bullying behaviors from Cornelia Elementary School in Edina, MN that you could use to talk about bullying with your child. Educators may want to post a copy in every classroom and hallway. The first step to stopping bullying is to identify what the behavior look and sound like so everyone is on the same page.
Take Bullying Reports Seriously
It’s not easy to hear negative things about your child, but don’t dismiss or excuse any report that your child is bullying: “He has friends.” “She’s a model student.” One study shows that some of the most popular kids in schools and even those in leadership roles display antisocial behaviors. Catching an aggressive behavior early is the best way to stop it. Here are ways to dig a little deeper and find out what’s happening.
Ask the source for further details. If someone tells you your child is a bully or using aggressive behaviors, ask them to describe “what that behavior looked like.” You need specific details so you will know the type of behavior (such as fighting, put downs, excluding, threatening, giving racial slurs).
Make sure the behavior is bullying not teasing. Bullying can be misconstrued with teasing (and all kids tease!). Bullying is NOT teasing. Teasing usually involves two kids who are on “equal plane” – which means the victim or teased child can hold his or her own to the teaser. Teasing can be making fun “with the child” and if the teased child asks the teaser to stop, the teaser usually complies. Teasing is also usually amongst friends or acquaintances. A bullied child never considers the bully to be a friend and the bullied child can never hold his or her own.
Monitor your child a bit closer. If you’ve been told your child is bullying (or suspect so), then tune in closer. Show up sooner at school events. Go to those soccer games. Pick your child up a bit earlier at those play dates. Your goal is to observe your child closer and ideally spot the actual bullying behavior (which is not always easy). The trick is to try to do so without your child watching you. But you need to see the bullying for yourself to get a better handle on what’s happening.Watch for signs of bullying. Once you recognize this behavior is a fact, then you will need to intervene immediately.
Get a different perspective. The bullying behavior may not happen when you’re around. Set up a conference with the teacher. Go and talk privately with the coach or scout leader. Ask the day care worker or babysitter for her opinion. Talk to those whose opinion you trust and who see your child in different social settings. Are they seeing the same bullying behaviors?
Ask your child. While most bullies deny their actions, don’t overlook discussing this with your child. Don’t ask “Why” are you doing this? (Kids usually don’t respond well to “why questions” and may not know the reason. Ask instead “What” queries: “What did you want to happen?” “What did the child do to you?” “What happened right before?” Your child may be the “lead” bully who is initiating the aggressive behavior. But we are seeing a pattern that children who are repeatedly bullied may resort to bullying themselves. No one is defending them and they have no recourse. Also, the child may also be not the “lead” bully but the “henchman”: this child resorts to bullying to protect himself because the bully has a power hold on him or wants protection.
Identify the exact location and time. Bullying is a repeated behavior that usually happens in the same places (called “hot spots”). Those places typically are not adult supervised (such as the back of the school bus, the fringes of a playground, bathrooms, under stairwells, in locker rooms). If possible find out where the bullying is happening. Your first line of duty: tell your kid those spots are off-limits.
Respond ASAP if your suspect those reports have validity. University of Michigan psychologist, Leonard Eron, tracked more than 800 eight-year olds over four decades and singled out the twenty-five percent who often showed bullying behavior. By age thirty, one in four had an arrest record, while only five percent of the nonaggressive children did. Contact the teacher. Set up an appointment with the school counselor or psychologist. Or get a referral to an outside counselor or psychologist. You will need a specific plan tailored to your child to stop this behavior.
In my next blog I’ll post steps you can take to change a bully’s behavior. Your first step is often the most difficult: recognizing that your child is using cruel, aggressive behaviors. Remember, bullying is learned and can be unlearned. It will take steadfast commitment and a research-based strategies to make that change, but it is doable. And nothing will be more important for your child’s future than ensuring that change.
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert
Resources for this blog:
M. Borba, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2010.
A. Dickinson, “Bad Boys Rule: A New Study Shows Some of the Most Popular Kids in School Are ‘Extremely Antisocial’”, Time, Jan. 31, 2000, p. 77.
University of Michigan study by Leonard Eron study: Z. Lazar, “Bullying: A Serious Business,” Child, February 2001, p 78-84.
D. Olweus, “Bully/Victim Problems Among Schoolchildren: Basic Facts and Effects of a School-Based Intervention Program,” in The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression, 1991.