No child is perfect. Most parents, at some point, have seen their child be mean to other kids. But if you’re worried that your son or daughter might be a bully at school because they seem to have a habit of putting others down, there are some subtle signs of bullying you should watch out for.
Maybe, in the past, you’ve gotten a phone call from your child’s school. Your son has pushed another kid’s face into some pasta at lunch. He has been reprimanded and is in trouble again.
Or you saw your daughter being snarky to other girls at a classmate’s birthday party and heard her say snide things, like “We can see you’re a genius” or “I’m trying to picture you with a personality” to other kids.
Perhaps your child’s peers do their bidding, or you overhear a comment from another child to their mom, “Casey says I can’t be a sweater-saurus at Halloween” — and you wonder, “Wait, is that like MY child telling other people what to do?”
Overall, you think, “Heck, no, this is not happening.” But sadly it is.
No one ever thinks of themselves as the parent of a bully; no parent wants their child to be a bully to others.
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.
Parenting a Bully
I have worked with many children who were dubbed a bully. And let me say first that I think the term bully is overused. As an expert in this field, I want to make one thing clear: bullying involves intention. It involves a persistent desire to humiliate or belittle someone or to physically harm them.
Not all kids who are labeled a bully are acting with this kind of intention. But even being called this creates a ripple effect. When your child or teen is accused, or labeled, as a classroom bully it creates shame for kids and parents alike. In my experience, while there are some people who are bullies, there are also kids with ADHD and other behavioral challenges that do not mean to hurt anyone, but they act impulsively and that lands them in trouble. And while the child’s intention is not to harm, as parents you still have to cope with this situation.
It’s quite common for kids who have experienced bullying to turn to this kind of behavior as a reactive measure. And this shows us that the bully, the bystander and the victims all need help.
Children who turn to bullying others often do not mean to be cruel, but things happen that may lead to them eventually putting others down.
There are many reasons this can happen and they include:
- Low self-esteem
- Struggles at home
- Bullying behavior modeled by parents, siblings or influential friends/acquaintances
- Impulsivity or impulse control
- Poor relationships or models for how to create healthy relationships
- Lack of support from others
- Limited connection to others
- Poor control over their emotions
- Social discomfort
- A desperate need to fit in
- Regularly being punished
- Witnessing violence or aggression
- Struggles at school
Being aggressive can become a lifelong pattern that will hurt your child’s future. Part of being a parent is playing detective and trying to figure out what your child needs even when you have little to go on other than other people reporting that they’re behaving in “bullying ways.
If you’re worried you’re parenting a bully, here are 5 signs of bullying behavior that signal your kid needs help.
1. Lack of Empathy for Others
Kids that display a difficulty walking in other people’s shoes or don’t display feelings of understanding around the fairness of someone’s emotions or reactions is a sign to watch for. Additionally, kids who don’t show compassion or empathy and don’t think about other people’s feelings or experience may have a struggle in front of them.
These kids often blame other people for their experiences and outcomes. They also tend not to take responsibility for their actions.
If your child, more than their peers, just does not seem to worry about the feelings of other people or their impact on others, they are showing signs of lacking empathy for others. This is a tell-tale trait that we work on with kids who are accused of being the classroom bully.
That said, it’s important to know that empathy is a skill that grows with maturity. It’s not as if a 2 year old should be expected to show empathy the way we think that a 7th grader should, or the way we expect to see it in an 18 year old. Empathy as a skill grows over time. Being self-focused is normal for young kids. It’s when the child is older and they do not recognize the pain of others that you want to start to pay attention to this as a sign of potential bullying behaviors.
2. Obsessed About Fitting In
Some kids are very acutely aware of the social hierarchy and social status. They feel tremendous pressure to fit in. They may try to manage and orchestrate control and are obsessed with their social image, social media, and they spend a lot of time (potentially too much time) worrying about how they are perceived.
This can lead your child to make choices to fit into the crowd. When these choices are not in the best interest of others (themselves included) it can lead to bullying behavior, especially when the child perceives a risk to their “status” if they don’t fit in. This kind of anxiety can lead to bullying behavior even though they don’t mean to.
In this case, the real issue is the anxiety or worries about not being popular, fitting in or being picked/chosen as the “best” or “most important” in whatever arena they are fixated on. The bullying behavior must be addressed, but that alone won’t resolve the feelings that are motivating the bullying behavior.
To really resolve this kind of challenge, parents have to get to the “why” behind their child’s behavior to help manage the reasons underneath the behavior.
3. Previous Experiences with Anger, Violence, or Bullying
If your child has witnessed and experienced bullying behaviors, violence, anger, and punishment they are inherently more susceptible to becoming a bully themselves. Once a person has been pushed around and seen aggression and punishment as the answer to their problems, it can become a coping skill for the future.
That is not true for everyone, but it is true that witnessing this kind of behavior creates a vulnerability for the child. And since your child has been a victim or has experienced injustice or witnessed adults using aggressive behavior, they may turn to this as their go-to reaction. This may not be their intention and as a parent, you can help him find another way.
Like the obsessive drive to fit in talked about above, once the bullying behavior has been addressed, truly resolving this kind of bullying behavior comes down to understanding the child’s template for resolving emotionally tense or anxiety-ridden situations.
4. A Tendency to Put Other People Down
Some kids develop a tendency to put other people down while building themselves up. When you see this in kids, what you’re watching for is a child who points out flaws in others, makes cruel jokes about others to their face and outright insults kids who keep following their lead.
What’s underneath this is low self-esteem, fear, and even feeling overwhelmed by life/friendships. This kind of internal pressure can make some kids become dismissive and put others down. This is a sign that your child needs your help feeling better about themselves so they don’t resort to bullying others to help “fix” feeling low/less than others.
5. Recurring Behavior Problems
If your child struggles to control their emotions, this can be a sign of bullying behavior. But, in and of itself, it can be a misread sign because many neurodiverse kids have up and down moods, as do kids with depression and anxiety. It’s important to read emotions with some depth and not react to the first sign of a mood swing with the assertion that your kid is a bully.
That said, if your kid has a history of behavior problems and you notice their friends also share these characteristics, this is something to explore and you want to watch for signs of aggression.
In boys, stereotypically this can be fighting, pushing, or loud arguments outside of situations that appear to warrant that kind of behavior. A kid who plays a physical sport where aggression is “valued” may have carryover behavior into their non-sports life that can be addressed and may not be bullying.
In girls, bullying can be stereotypical “mean girl” behaviors. Putting down others, shaming, and kicking friends out of their circle.
If these behaviors land your kid in the principal’s office or in detention, you have signs that their behavior, wherever it generated from, is getting them into trouble and needs to be explored. Are they acting impulsively? Is this a “reaction” vs an “intentionally mean thing done to hurt someone else?
As with all true bullying behavior, you have to look at your child’s intention. Did they “plan” to behave this way? Or was it just a reaction? If your kid is impulsive during fights or other aggressive actions, this may lead them to act like a bully even if they don’t truly operate like a bully in the rest of their life.
Bullying is a complex issue and parents are not necessarily to blame.
If your child is struggling and you’re either being told or you’re witnessing them becoming a bully, you can help by spotting these 5 signs when he or she is acting up. Parenting a bully isn’t easy. But, as a parent, you can help them pick themselves up and adopt better behaviors so that putting other people down doesn’t become a life-long habit.
If I can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.