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That Child Is a Bully!

Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

That Child Is a Bully!

Elisabeth Stitt


Have you ever written off a child in your neighborhood or at your child's school as a bully?  It is easy as parents for us to get defensive and judgmental.   

We worry.  What if my child is being bullied? 

First off, parents need to remember that the definition of bullying is "one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.”  Most kids start out being hurtful or mean in small ways and use bullying behaviors to try to gain some advantage, but this does not make them bullies—especially if the person they are striking out at strikes back in some other way.  That does not make these behaviors less painful, but it does help to remind the receiver that they are only temporarily vulnerable.  

It is easier to know if your child is being bullied than that she is acting the bully.  Be alert to changes in behavior, attitude and friend groups.  A child who starts acting out (or getting inexplicably emotional at home) may be being bullied.  Get curious about the child who has generally liked school and now does not want to go or is experiencing a lot of belly aches.  If your child no longer wants to play with a long-time friend, that is also worth investigating.  

We worry.  What if my own child might be a bully?

Recognizing that your own child is using bullying tactics is harder.  Often when parents bring up a complaint like, “My Maria is feeling left out now that your Rachel is no longer playing with her,” the parent is surprised to hear back all the ways in which Maria has been hurtful. If your child is complaining about someone else’s treatment, first acknowledge her feelings but then get curious.  You might say something like, “I wonder what’s up with Rachel that would make her act that way?  Is it possible the two of you had a misunderstanding and she is feeling hurt?”  Don’t make accusations but do allow for the possibility that the problem might be a two-way street.  

If you suspect bullying behaviors (by or towards your child), picture books are great tools for talking to kids about what is going on.  Here is a blog I wrote about one of my favorite books on the topic that really gives kids some concrete ideas for “swimming free” from the bully:

As real as bullying is and as much as it scares us, it is important that kids not overuse the title of bully.  

Most kids are not dyed-in-wool bullies.  More often than not the unwanted behaviors are being passed back and forth among kids in a group.  Of course, some kids are truly hurting and they do not have the skills to deal with that hurt, so they look for someone weaker and more vulnerable as a way of processing their own emotions.  Let your kids know that if the “swim free” techniques really are not working, that you want them to go to their teachers and to tell you—not just so they can get help with not being bullied but so that the child doing the bullying can get help, too.  

Expect your kids to be UPstanders.

Teaching kids to be UPstanders is also critical.  First and foremost, you do that by modeling.  When you see or hear someone being mean, you put a stop to it.  For example, perhaps your friend (Let’s say Jane) will say something negative about another parent at school (Let’s say Mary).  Rather than just changing the subject, call Jane out on it:  “I hear that you are really frustrated with Mary, and at the same time, please do not say such negative things about her behind her back.  If you have a problem with her, perhaps it would be best to confront her directly.”  Being that clear is not easy—even for adults!  When you have the courage to ask for kindness and consideration for others, it gives your kids the courage to do the same.

Step two is to be clear about your expectations.  You can share with them, “I think you overheard me telling Jane today that I don’t want to hear her being mean behind someone’s back. Well, that is what I expect of you, too.  In our family, we stand up for people who are unable or who are struggling to stand up for themselves.”  Ask your kids for some examples of when and how they might have stood up for someone.  Any time a child says, “I felt sorry for so and so,” ask, “What did you do or could you have done to stand up for him?”  Over time standing up for others will become automatic.  In the process of standing up for others, kids will learn to stand up for themselves clearly.  Kids who can stand strong are not weak and vulnerable, so bullying behavior doesn't work on them.  

Bullying strikes a lot of nerves in us, but when you stay strong and confident in supporting your kids with their own Swim Free and UpStander skills, they will stand strong, too.