Parenting is filled with memorable milestones: the first step, the first day of school, the driver's license, and the college acceptance letter. But what happens when those milestones aren’t positive or uplifting?

What happens when you find out your child’s latest developmental accomplishment is becoming a bully?

What Exactly IS Bullying?

When most people hear the word “bully,” they picture a big, intimidating child challenging a tiny, cowering youngster. Those might be the characteristics of a bully, but they also might not be. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, all races, economic backgrounds, and ages. Anyone can exhibit bullying behavior, and anyone can be a victim.

Despite all those differences though, most bullies have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Children who are quick to blame someone else and fail to accept responsibility for their actions.
  • Children who lack empathy and compassion.
  • Children who are victims of bullying behavior from someone else.
  • Children who are trying to fit in with a group of bullying peers.
  • Children who have underdeveloped social skills.
  • Children who are frustrated, unable to deal with their anger, or are depressed.
  • Children who want to be in control.

And there are subtle differences between bullying and regular childhood conflicts.

  • Bullying is a deliberate behavior. Children have the intention of hurting or dominating another child.
  • There is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.

Most importantly, it is essential for parents to understand that bullying is a learned behavior. As such, it can be unlearned.

When You Receive the Call…

Few parents randomly stumble upon the revelation that their child is a bully. Usually, there is some sort of notification from a third party: another parent, the school, or a community member. When you receive the call…

  • Be Grateful. As devastating as this news seems, you’ll ultimately appreciate knowing the truth. The longer undesirable behavior continues unchecked, the harder it will be to correct it. Sincerely thank the other person for bringing this to your attention and recognize how difficult it was to reach out.
  • Promise to Take Action. Once you know about it, it's time to figure out how to stop it, immediately.
  • Don’t Get Defensive. It's easy to feel like your parenting skills are being attacked, but keep your cool in check.
  • Try to Calm the Other Parent. A confrontation from a victim’s parent could involve anger and raised voices. Let the parent know you genuinely want to hear what’s being said, and see if you can have a calm, constructive conversation.
  • Get Essential Contact Information. You may want to follow up later to clarify certain points.
  • Take a Moment to Process the Information. This is a stressful situation and you need to handle it by first taking a deep breath.

What Parents Shouldn’t Do

If someone confronts you about your child’s behavior, there are certain things you shouldn’t do.

  • Don’t look for someone to blame. Bullying is a learned behavior, but it isn’t necessarily learned from just one person or experience. It is unfair to say something like, “He didn’t learn that at home. Billy must have taught him.”
  • Don’t justify the behavior. Even if a child was provoked, bullying behavior is unacceptable.
  • Don’t assume you know how your child behaves around other people. Children act vastly different at home than they do in public.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. You are a good parent. As is the case with any other negative behavior — cheating on a test, lying to a teacher, failing to do homework — this isn’t a reflection on your parenting skills or an implication that you can’t control your child.
  • Don’t ignore the situation. This isn’t a phase your child will simply grow out of.

Correcting the Bullying Behavior

Are you ready to deal with the bullying behavior?

  • Be Realistic. The very first thing parents need to do is establish realistic expectations. Change takes time. The process will likely include two steps forward and one step back. Be patient. Go slow. Be supportive.
  • Find the Facts. If children suspect their behaviors have been detected, they’ll likely create a cover story. They’ll share this with their parents before the truth is exposed in an attempt to plant a seed of doubt. Remember there are always two sides of the story. Don’t assume the victim’s story is wrong or that your child is lying. There could be truth to both sides.
  • Expose the Behavior. It’s possible the child doesn’t know anything is wrong. Your youngster might not realize bullying is happening; the child might think it’s all just fun and games. Expose the behavior as bullying, and let your kid know it is not appropriate.
  • Search for the “Why?”. Why is this behavior manifested in your child? What is causing your child to behave this way? Have a non-judgmental conversation with the child. Try to find the root of the problem.
  • Create a Plan. The undesirable bullying behavior can be changed, but it won’t be changed on its own. You’ll need a plan that includes determining the problem, which behaviors, actions, and opinions need to change, who should be involved in the transformation, and what steps need to be taken?
  • Emphasize Emotions. Most bullies don’t realize their actions and words have a negative impact on someone else’s emotions. Help your child understand empathy, respect, and compassion. Use role playing. Switch roles with your child and act out various bullying situations. Provide suggestions on alternate solutions to the problem. Help your child understand how the victim feels.
  • Lay Down the Law. Once the bullying behavior has been identified, let your child know it is unacceptable for this behavior to continue under any circumstances. Even if children are provoked, they must still be held accountable. Clearly outline the consequences for this behavior. What can children expect if the bullying continues? Choose punishments that are meaningful for your child and appropriate for the situation.
  • Reward Good Behavior. Acknowledging good behavior is just as important as punishing bad behavior. Praise your child every chance you get. Be specific with your encouragement. For example, “I really like the way you handled that situation. You didn’t get angry when your little sister took your toy. It was a good idea to try distracting her with something else so you could take your car back.”
  • Be a Role Model. Not only do parents need to model non-bullying behaviors themselves, they also need to intentionally exhibit qualities the children would want to mimic. Emphasize positive conflict resolution. Vocalize emotions. Look for other role models within the community. Who else can help your child get back on track?

Still not convinced this behavior is worthy of such drastic measures? Experts have discovered bullies are affected just as much as the victim. Statistically, bullies have a greater inclination of school failure, depression, violence, crime and other issues.

Bullying Awareness

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. This month provides an extra opportunity for parents to equip their kids with the skills they need to thrive in a hurtful society.

However, your child might be on the other side of the bullying conundrum. If this month serves as a rude awakening for you, take heart. Life is a learning experience, and no one can learn without a few setbacks every once in a while. What really matters is that your children learn to overcome those obstacles to success.