Has your child been called a bully? Has he been accused of roughing up classmates or skewering them in cyberspace? “No one wants to think that her child is a bully or capable of being a bully,” says Val Bergeron of Simon Fraser University’s Canadian Society for Information Children in Burnaby, B.C. But occasionally kids need reminders and guidance to get back on the path to good citizenship. Here are steps to take if you suspect your child is engaging in bully behaviour.
1 GET THE WHOLE STORY: Yes, there’s always a chance your kid’s actions were misunderstood. Maybe she struck out to defend herself, but was the only one the teacher caught with fists curled. Get as much information as you can from all involved. Was the behaviour deliberate and intended to cause harm? Was there an imbalance of power? “Naturally, parents may at first feel defensive,” says Dr. Victoria Talwar, an associate professor in the human development program at Montreal’s McGill University. “But the circumstances have to be investigated, whether or not it’s true.”
2 FIGURE OUT WHAT’S GOING ON WITH YOUR CHILD: Kids sometimes bully because they’re modelling the aggression they see in people close to them. Other times, it’s because they feel helpless. Gail Jansen says she understood why her 12-year-old son felt provoked to hit another child two years ago. She’d just moved him to Swift Current, Sask., over 200 kilometres away from his dad and his friends, and he was having trouble fitting in. “He was feeling very frustrated. He was acting out more, and it came to a head.”
3 GIVE LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES: Talk with your child about how the victim must be feeling and help your child make amends. Jansen had her son write a letter of apology. Then she encouraged him to find a way to repair the friendship — he chose to buy flowers from his allowance. “Hopefully, the child starts to make that connection between his or her behaviour and the impact on that child,” says Bergeron. How about removing privileges? Dr. Talwar notes that while taking away a cellphone as punishment for texting mean messages may stop him from doing it again, it won’t solve the underlying problem — encouraging him to apologize in person is more likely to make a difference.
4 PROVIDE LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES: Try to give your child more appropriate ways to feel good about herself and her contributions. Bring her to volunteer with you, get her involved in coaching younger athletes or ask her teacher about matching her up as a reading buddy for a younger child (with supervision).
5 GIVE HIM CHANCES TO LEARN: Read books or watch shows about bullying followed by an open discussion. “That way they will be able to put themselves in that person’s shoes,” says Bergeron. After Erin Goffin’s son Riley, 8, kicked another boy at recess in response to being punched, the Toronto mom signed him up for a karate school with an anti-bullying program. She also gives Riley opportunities to learn empathy by caring for his brother while she’s nearby, and has seen him shine with his new responsibility.
6 PROVIDE SUPERVISION: Kids this age are learning independence, so we often ease up on the adult supervision. But it’s better to keep your eyes and ears open, even from a distance. “Bullying tends to happen when the adults aren’t present,” says Bergeron.
7 REINFORCE POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR: Remember to recognize the times when your child shows consideration of others or acknowledges their feelings. “It’s so easy to just notice the negative things,” says Dr. Talwar. When you see your child share her game system or comfort a friend, make sure she gets a big thumbs-up from you.
If nothing is working — discussion, consequences, even school intervention — then it may be time to seek out a professional who can explore what’s behind the bullying. Ask your child’s school counsellor or your family doctor for recommendations and look for a therapist who supports your child and approaches him without judgment. “In a tiny percentage of kids, they may have some sort of diagnosable behaviour problem,”
says Dr. Talwar. In that case, not only does your child need professional help, but you may benefit from support as well.
Lisa Bendall is a freelance writer in Toronto who is doing her best to raise a good citizen.