What to Do When Your Child IS the Bully

Image adapted from iStock

When bullying incidents make the news, or become the hot topic on the school quad, worried parents wonder how to handle bullying. 

Parents can intervene quickly and help children make better choices in the moment. Real life scenarios provide excellent opportunities for honing social interaction skills, but this requires active parenting.

School policies are reviewed, prevention programs are put in place, and parents do their best to give their children the necessary tools to handle a bully.

As important as it is to talk about coping with bullying, it is equally important for parents to learn what to do if their child is the bully. Although no one looks forward to taking that phone call from the school, bullying behavior is often a cry for help, and it’s important to act immediately. 

Children bully for a variety of reasons, and it’s important to find out what is behind the behavior. This makes it difficult to sketch a profile of a typical bully. There are a few common traits that emerge when research is conducted. In general, children who bully:

  • Use bullying to express anger
  • Lack empathy and compassion for others
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Want to impress or get attention from peers
  • Want to be in control
  • Have inadequate parental supervision or attention
  • Have parents who do not enforce discipline or rules
  • Have been bullied

It’s crucial for parents to take an active role in helping children to stop bullying and find healthy alternatives. 

Image via iStock

Look for triggers:

The first step toward helping your child stop the bullying cycle is to identify potential triggers for the behavior. Is your child struggling in school? Does your child struggle to make and keep friends? Are there problems at home? Does an older sibling repeatedly pick on your child?

Open the conversation by asking your child what he’s feeling.  Resist the urge to come down on your child for negative behaviors before you’ve taken the time to understand what might be causing the behavior.

Increase supervision:

No matter how independent your child might appear, if he or she is bullying others  you as a parent need to increase supervision. While many tired parents view a trip to the park as a chance to sit down and breathe for a minute, it’s important to remain engaged with your child when negative behaviors arise.

Parents can intervene quickly and help children make better choices in the moment. Real-life scenarios provide excellent opportunities for honing social interaction skills, but this requires active parenting.  


Image via iStock

Teach conflict resolution:

Some kids lack the necessary skills to handle conflicts and rely on maladaptive coping strategies when the going gets tough.  Teach your child stop, think about what’s happening, review options, and proceed with the best strategy. 

Role playing common social problems helps your child gain the necessary practice to handle uncomfortable situations with confidence.  

Teach empathy:

Teach your child to think about the feelings of others. “How Full Is Your Bucket? (For Kids)” by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer is an excellent resource for helping kids understand how their actions impact others.

Happy African American Father and Mixed Race Son Playing in the Park.
Image via iStock

Set clear expectations:

Have a clear set of rules and behavioral expectations for your child. Discuss how those expectations apply when your child is in school, in the community, or at a play date. 

Review the expectations frequently, and make necessary changes as your children grow.

Model appropriate behavior:

Do you tend to become angry quickly when things don’t go your way? Do you gossip with friends when the kids are around? Do you jump to conclusions without getting all of the information?

If you want your children to be kind, caring, and calm in the face of frustration then you have to do the same. Model healthy coping strategies and kindness. Talk about difficult situations and various ways to handle them.

Seek help:

If you’ve been working with your child and the school to decrease bullying behavior, but your child continues to bully others, seek help from a licensed mental health professional. There can be any number of reasons for the behavior, and sometimes kids struggle to open up to their parents. Don’t let the anger build up. Seek help right away to best support your child through this difficult time.

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What to Do When Your Child IS the Bully

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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