By: Daniela Uslan
Bullies make easy villains. From Biff in Back to the Future to the Plastics in Mean Girls, everyone loves to hate them.
But bullies don’t start out that way. They turn to bullying because they lack self-esteem, feel powerless, and ache for attention. And, as much as the media focuses on the harm done to victims of bullying, the bullies themselves also face negative repercussions. In an interview, Jodi J. De Luca, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist at Erie Colorado Counseling, told me, “Bullying significantly impacts the emotional, psychological, and physical health of all those involved — including the bully. The consequences of being a bully are long-term. The academic, social, and overall well-being of bullies are negatively affected.”
The first step to stopping bullying behavior is facing and addressing the painful truth that your child might be a bully. If you notice some of these common signs, it may be time to step in and get help for your child and stop the behavior.
Your child makes fun of other children
Do you notice your child frequently making fun of other children? While making fun of others is often just a part of growing up, sometimes it points to a deeper issue. “Does the child focus on differences to pick on? Do they encourage others to join in their ridicule? Do they label or call other children names? It is important to notice if these behaviors are usual for this child; every child slips up now and then, but the bully is always trying to make himself look bigger, stronger, more popular by putting other kids down,” Marianne Clyde, the owner of the Marianne Clyde Center for Holistic Psychotherapy, told me in an interview.
If your child seems to spend a lot of time insulting others and tearing them down, it could be a sign that your child is a bully. In this case, it’s not the playful banter that many children engage in. It’s hurtful language that makes other kids feel bad and inferior.
Carole Lieberman, M.D., psychiatrist and bestselling author, agreed. She added, “If your child calls other kids names in order to order them around and get them to do things — such as to get them a cookie or give them their homework — these are signs of being a bully.”
Your child keeps getting into trouble at school
Children who act like bullies often have trouble following the rules at school. Do you find yourself dreading school pick up time as you brace yourself for yet another uncomfortable conversation with your child’s teacher? If you hear about your child getting into trouble on a regular basis, they might be bullying other children.
Bullies typically have difficulty listening to authority and struggle with building friendships, two reasons they are likely to get in trouble. Bruce Cameron, M.S., LPC-S, LSOTP PA, a licensed counselor and former federal prison therapist who works with bullies in his private practice, told me that a child may be a bully if “there is a failure to submit to authority and a failure to have several meaningful peer relationships.”
Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., suggested a few more reasons bullies have a hard time behaving in school. “The child has difficulty when they don’t get what they want, when they are not first or identified as the winner or the best. Behavioral challenges may also include impulsivity and thoughtless reactivity to perceived slights.”
Children must be able to hear the word “no” in order to do well in school and to act gracefully when they don’t come in first — something I know well as a former third-grade teacher. If you notice your child struggling to get through the day at school without getting in trouble, keep your eyes open for other bullying behaviors.
Your child hangs out with bullies
What do you think of your child’s friends? Are they nice kids? Do they seem to get along well together? If you think your child’s friends act like bullies, chances are your child is a bully as well.
Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., cofounder of AHA! (Attitude.Harmony.Acheivement.), a non-profit organization dedicated to combating bullying in schools, told me that bullies tend to “associate with other youth who seem quite belligerent, blaming, and negative. Conversations with friends are about who is bad, who is to blame, and their sense of social superiority. ”
Cameron agreed, and added that if your child is a bully, “your kid’s friends are also aggressive and mean to others. Water seeks its own level. So true in the bully sphere.”
Your child excludes other children
Often, bullies target people who are different from them, using their differences to shame them or tear them down. Just as you pay attention to the children your child hangs out with, also notice the kids they avoid. Are they excluding specific kids?
Dr. Mendez suggested that often bullies don’t know how to deal with differences. “Such children may lack a foundation of acceptance of differences and engage in exclusionary behaviors, casting out others whom the child perceives as unworthy because of race, nationality, ability levels, or physical appearance,” she told me.
Clyde agreed, and asked, “Is your child being inclusive or exclusive? Are they actively inviting kids over but turning down a couple names that used to be included?” Make sure that you teach your child to include others. It’s likely that they are learning their behavior from you, so model the way you want them to treat others.
Clyde had this advice for parents who think their children might be bullies: “The best thing to do is to take the child aside, look him in the eye with compassion, and ask him what’s going on. Affirm that you understand that is not who he really is and it’s not his character to act that way. Offer him a safe place to talk about whatever is causing stress in his life and then teach him new coping skills that are more in line with his true character.”
Your child is obsessed with being popular
To be fair, many kids obsess about being popular, especially in middle school. I remember having long conversations with my best friends in which we dissected everything the “popular group” did. But bullies take their feelings of inadequacy and insecurity out on others in an attempt to bolster their own popularity.
“The child could be feeling insecure and is choosing to pick on someone who seems weaker in some way in order to make themselves feel important, popular, or in control,” Krystal Rogers-Nelson, parenting and child safety expert at A Secure Life, told me in an interview.
Even if your child isn’t the instigator, their desire to be popular may encourage them to join in when others are bullying their peers. Barron Whithead of Agora Cyber Charter School told me, “Children may be obsessed with trying to ‘fit in’ and being part of the popular crowd. They could follow their peers with bullying others in the cafeteria or online chat rooms by saying hurtful things to their classmates.”
Unfortunately, popularity can sometimes equate to cruelty. If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls, you know what I mean. Cameron described the behavior like this: “Your kid will do anything to be popular. They will try to attract other popular kids that may be brash in their delivery. They constantly talk down to other kids and spend time with each other bad mouthing other kids and putting them down.”
Your child acts aggressively toward others
Aggression is one of the most common traits found in bullies. Examples of aggression include fighting with you or other family members, refusing to take responsibility for themselves, lashing out, and destroying things.
Dr. Mendez gave me these examples of aggressive behavior: picking fights with peers, demonstrating cruel behaviors towards animals, intentionally destroying others’ property, and spreading gossip, whether cruel or fabricated, about others that results in emotional injury to others.”
Your child may not be aggressive physically, but pay attention to their language as well. Dr. Freed told me that bullies “act more aggressively at home and are not discussing their social life. They are using derogatory and disrespectful language. They talk back more and put other people down frequently.” Words can be just as painful as actions, so make sure to let your child know what language is and isn’t acceptable.
Keep in mind that often, your child’s aggressive behavior and language may indicate that they don’t know how to act in a more respectful manner. Rogers-Nelson recommended taking action to help your child learn how to respond to negative emotions differently. “The child most likely has a pattern of defiant or aggressive behavior and will require assistance in learning how to manage strong emotions,” she told me. “They could also suffer from mental health issues or learning disabilities.”
Your child shows a lack of empathy
When a child is empathetic, they understand how other children and adults feel. But bullies often seem to enjoy seeing other people suffer. They may even inflict pain on others in an attempt to feel better about themselves.
This lack of empathy can show up even in young children. Dr. Lieberman told me, “If your child grabs toys away from other kids and doesn’t care whether this makes them cry, this is typical bully behavior. Though sometimes your child may do this because they want to play with this toy, many times it is just to show the other child who’s boss.”
Most of the time, your child will be able to learn how to empathize with others if you give them the right support. Rogers-Nelson told me, “If they have a hard time managing emotions, don’t understand how to resolve conflicts or they don’t understand why bullying is hurtful, a counselor or child therapist can help them understand where their feelings are coming from, how to develop empathy and teach them strategies to manage emotions and resolve conflicts in a positive way.”
Your child withdraws from you
Often, your child won’t want you to know about their bullying activities, and they will isolate themselves from you and other people in your family. If you notice that they’re spending even more time alone in their room than usual, find out what’s going on.
Dr. Freed told me that bullies will often avoid connecting with their parents, noting, “They are zoned out on devices and seem sullen, withdrawn, and irritable most of the time. When you try and have quality time with them they pull away and won’t let you know anything about them.”
When your child isolates themselves, it’s even more difficult to reach out and get them the help they need. Remember, they are withdrawing in order to nurse difficult emotions. If your child won’t open up and tell you what’s going on, you can investigate in other ways.
Dr. Freed suggested, “If you suspect your child is bullying others, do some fact finding and consult other adults and school folks to see if your intuition is correct. Children rarely admit to bullying so it is important to have the facts. Once you have the facts, it’s time to call in trained professionals to help you and your child unpack the reasons this behavior has started and to quash it as quickly as possible. Youth need support to understand the unprocessed pain that originated their bullying and learn functional ways to manage their feelings.”
Why do children bully?
Children who bully others aren’t bad people. They’re often reacting to feelings of insecurity, powerlessness, or frustration. Whithead told me, “Children may bully others because of low self-esteem or insecurities. They also may want to follow along with other classmates who are bullies so they feel like they are part of group. Sometimes when they feel powerless, it may cause them to act out aggressively.”
Children learn how to act by observing others. “They could have adults in their lives that are modeling bullying behavior. This could be a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult,” Rogers-Nelson told me.
Unfortunately, many children turn to bullying when they are bullied themselves. Dr. Lieberman added, “If they are being abused and feel helpless to stop the abuse, they then identify with the abuser and start bullying other kids to feel more powerful themselves. You need to check out whether their older siblings may be bullying them.”
What can you do if you think your child is a bully?
If you think your child might be a bully, first find out what’s going on. Then take action to help your child learn how to behave appropriately. This may begin with looking at your own behavior and intentionally modeling positive, compassionate action. Clyde put it this way: “If you suspect that your child is a bully, the worst thing a parent can do is try to bully or humiliate the child. If that is the first go-to technique of a parent, chances are that the parent needs to take a closer look at himself. Children learn what they live, and more is caught than taught.”
She gave me a number of suggestions for helping your child become more giving toward others. “Teach him ways to share or show compassion by visiting a food pantry with a donation, giving away good used toys to needy children; and finally, help him figure out a way to strengthen his own sense of value by helping him create something of value like a painting or a fort or writing a book, or having a lemonade stand or a vegetable stand where he can earn money to give a portion to others,” she said.
In addition to modeling positive behavior, also make sure your child knows that bullying is not okay and give consequences for their behavior. “Effective consequences could include: writing a story about the effects of bullying or benefits of teamwork, role-playing a scenario or making a presentation about the importance of respecting others to their class, writing an apology letter to the child who was bullied, or making posters about cyber-bullying for their school,” Rogers-Nelson suggested.If you think your child might be a bully, first find out what’s going on. Then take action to help your child learn how to behave appropriately.
Remember that children are loving at their core
Even if your child is acting like a bully right now, it doesn’t mean they will be a bully forever. You have the power as their parent to stop the behavior and teach them empathy. Clyde told me that bullies will change their behavior “if they have someone compassionate listening to them and understanding that that’s not who they are at their core. At their core, they’re loving and kind and creative and generous, and that’s when they’re most happy, and that’s what we have to tap into.”