What to do if your child is a bully

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American Bryan Thornhill shared a video on his Facebook page recently that showed his 10-year-old son Hayden running to school in the rain — about two kilometres in distance.  Mr Thornton did this after he learned his son got kicked off the bus for three days after “he was being a little bully,” something Thornton says “he does not tolerate.”

“Therefore he has to now to run to school … all week he’s got the experience of running to school,” he states in the video.

Mr Thornton claims that his son’s teachers “approved of his behaviour” since this punishment. We know that children who bully tend to have a wide array of conduct problems, and show high levels of depressive, aggressive and delinquent behaviour. But punishing bullying with bullying only feeds these symptoms, and reinforces a feeling of belittlement to the child.

Growing up, many children will choose to bully others. With the right guidance, support and education about the effects of bullying, most children will grow out of it.

Bullying by children is a serious problem in Australia and elsewhere. But approaching this behaviour can be challenging if you’re a parent of a child who’s bullying others. What can you do?

Talk to your child

  • Keeping your focus on the behaviour rather than the child, this helps them understand why their actions are hurtful, and are less likely to feel personally attacked by you.
  • Explain to your child why bullying behaviour is inappropriate. This is an important lesson in emotional intelligence, but also describe the type of life that the path of bullying leads them down, using examples if you have any. Bullying by children is considered a stepping stone for criminal behaviours, increasing the risk of police contact when they become adults by more than half.
  • Ask your child to describe why they have behaved this way, and try to get to the roots of what is causing the bullying. Then try to address these issues, so the motivation for the behaviour is gone. Children who bully increase their risk of later depression by 30 per cent.
  • Ask and encourage your child to describe to you their bullying from the other perspective – for example, ask “How would you feel if…” to try to help them understand on an empathetic level the effects of bullying.
  • Help your child think of alternative paths of action. Discuss alternative paths of action they can take when they feel like bullying another child. Having a solution ready and waiting is a proactive approach to the behaviour.
  • Set clear and appropriate boundaries for their behaviour, and be sure that they understand you will act on these boundaries if they push them.
  • Teaching conflict resolution and social/emotional skills is key to a long term solution to this behaviour. Dominance, control, or exclusion are not the way to manage relationships for children or adults, and learning positive alternatives to dealing with people is a crucial lesson they need to be taught. Take a look here for additional guidance on achieving this.

Work with the school to solve the problem

Many schools now use restorative approaches rather than punishment, where students involved in the bullying situation reflect on the issues. The student who has been bullying then has to confront the person they have bullied and look for ways to repair the effects of their bullying and restore their relationship.  Children who bully require greater support for behaviour change through targeted approaches. Children who chronically bully may also have mental health issues that require specialist intervention.

Reflect on your family’s behaviours

Children copy their role model’s behaviour, and those they spend a lot of time with. You must set an example and look candidly at the behaviour within your family, addressing stressors or potential motivators for bullying if they exist. Bullying arises from the complexity of children's relationships with family members, peers, and the school community and culture. Families, especially, play an important role in bullying behaviours.
Importantly, children who bully are not doomed to bully all of their life. Effective and early treatment may interrupt the risk of progressing from school bullying to later adverse life outcomes.

Addressing and fixing bullying behaviour from your child is a challenging task, but with a levelled and well informed approach at educating your child, the behaviour will pass. To help inform your actions on teaching your child about bullying, the Australian government provide advice that can be found here.

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