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When Your Child Becomes the Bully

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You hear that your teenager threw another child’s hat out the bus window or has knocked over someone’s science project. It might be the second time your teenager is in trouble on the bus. You might notice that your child, who was bullied for years, now seems to be turning on other kids. You read their texts or hear about messages sent to friends that seem unbelievable but a screenshot of a social media message sent to you confirms that your child has been bullying other kids. You feel baffled. How did this happen and what do you do?

We spend a lot of time thinking about those who are bullied, but as a parent, one of the loneliest experiences is to be the mom or dad of a child you suspect may be bullying other kids. It’s common not to know where to turn or what to do. Parents often feel ashamed to hear that their child is doing something to hurt someone else. Do not get me wrong, as someone who was ruthlessly bullied, I am not saying bullying is not a big deal. But it can be more complex than we think. And the fact is that the bully, the bystander, and the victim all need help.

It is important to understand the root causes of bullying. In some cases, children may resort to bullying as a way to cope with their past traumas.

Signs of Bullying May Include:

  • Behavioral Shifts: They might exhibit increased aggression, impatience, or defiance.
  • Detachment from Responsibility: They often blame others for problems or show no remorse for misdeeds.
  • Concerns from School: Frequent trouble at school or negative teacher reports can be indicative.
  • Evasive About Online Activities: If your child is reluctant to share online interactions or quickly switches screens when you approach, it might be a sign of cyberbullying.

Teens are growing, and their brains aren’t fully developed. Many have poor self-regulation skills. Mistakes are very quickly labeled as bullying. There is no defense to the behavior, but we need to remember that the bully, the bystander, and the victim need help navigating these challenges. Many teens do not have the socia-emotional skills to cope with past bullying; they are impulsive, and they are struggling with how to cope with the complex social dynamics. Low self-esteem leads them to lash out or make poor choices. Additionally, social media makes teen life complicated, and many teens do not have the skills to cope with these choices or might need help with their anger, low self-worth, and impulsivity.

Nurture Change from Within If your child is accused of bullying, they may not have the skills to manage the situation and, therefore, are just reacting with bad choices. We aren’t happy about this, but before we punish, there’s a real opportunity to intervene with new skills to get them emotional support, but also a chance to get the whole story. Punishing is not going to help them make better choices. They may need to apologize. They may need to take ownership. But they may infuriatingly not understand what they’ve done. Teens, especially teens with poor self-regulation, make poor choices.

  • Foster Empathy: One of the pivotal skills many bullies lack is empathy. Engage your child in activities that promote understanding others' feelings. Books, movies, or even personal anecdotes where they see the world from another's perspective can work wonders.
  • Teach Impulse Control: Encourage your child to partake in tasks that require patience. Over time, they'll learn the value of thinking before reacting, a skill that transcends bullying.
  • Open Communication Channels: Instead of severe reprimands, create a space where your child feels comfortable discussing their motivations. Sometimes, the underlying reasons for bullying may surprise you.
  • Positive Peer Interactions: Encourage your child to befriend peers who exhibit positive and inclusive behaviors. It's often said that we're the sum of the five people we spend the most time with; let those people be a good influence.
  • Seek Professional Help: If the bullying behavior is persistent or rooted in deeper psychological issues, it might be time to consult a therapist or counselor specializing in child behavior.

Our children sometimes play roles we never imagined in the intricate dance of childhood and adolescence. It is essential to remember that these roles often stem from deep-seated emotions, experiences, and environmental factors.

As parents, our primary role isn’t to express frustration or disappointment but to listen, guide, and provide the necessary tools for our children to grow and navigate the complexities of their social relationships. If our teen is the bully, we must understand that their actions may be a cry for help or a manifestation of their struggles. With patience, communication, and sometimes professional assistance, we can guide them toward empathy, understanding and positive behavior changes.

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