Most parents are on the lookout for bullies — they do everything they can to ensure other students aren’t mistreating their child. But what if your child is the bully? Many parents and caregivers would struggle to admit that is a possibility.
As uncomfortable as it can be to label your child as a bully, it’s an important thing to keep in mind—for your child’s long-term wellbeing and for that of his or her peers. In fact, some research shows that “bullies are significantly more likely to be depressed, struggle in school, go to prison, abuse drugs and alcohol, and act violently throughout their lives.” When a bully gets away with any kind of abuse, they typically don’t grow out of it, but develop a life-long habit of mistreating others.
The below list includes six common tell-tale signs to look out for when noticing and dealing with bullying behaviors in your child:
1. Lack of Empathy
One of the biggest factors that enables a bully to manipulate and dominate another person so effectively is a lack of compassion or regard for the feelings of another person. They struggle to consider another perspective or what their own behaviors/actions may have caused that person to feel.
Empathy comes less naturally to some children, and it may need to be taught and demonstrated by a parent or counselor. Taking time to talk through social situations with your child can help them understand this important social skill. It is recommended that a parent or counselor needs to explain that bullying in any form causes pain to others and that name-calling, teasing, hitting, pushing, starting or spreading rumors, cyberbullying and all other forms of bullying are not acceptable behaviors.
2. The Need to be in Control
“Bullying is an attempt, through word or action, to enforce control over another person,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bullies may crave the ability to control their surroundings or people around them. If they feel a lack of control in their own life, they may also enforce control over the peers. Life changes (divorce, death in the family, etc.) can often trigger a deeper need of control. Parents can deliberately give their child more opportunities to make wise, appropriate choices in their life (meals, activities, etc.) to help this balance.
3. Obsessed with Popularity
A bully may be fixated on being popular — perhaps to the point of obsession. Bullies are very aware of the social hierarchy of their school, community or family structure and attempt to manipulate and dominate others to maintain or increase their social status. The bullying may involve excluding children from groups or acting in a hostile way toward any child or group of children that is somehow different from them.
4. Often Tests Limits, Boundaries and Breaks Rules
These types of behaviors may be noticed at home, school, or both. The bully will most likely determine where they can “get away with” certain behaviors at certain places or with certain people. This can sometimes make it difficult for an adult to decipher bullying from acceptable child development.
Bullies need clear, set boundaries in addition to appropriate, meaningful consequences to learn that their behavior is not tolerated at home, school, or in larger society. Communicating with the child on why they are facing a consequence for a behavior towards someone is vital. The bully needs to understand not only why their behavior is not okay and hurtful, but that they have the ability to make a better choice in the future.
5. Overly Proud or Arrogant
According to some researchers, “We tend to think that bullies are people with low self-esteem who are trying to overcompensate through aggression, but that’s not always the case. Many bullies have high self-esteem and it can be contempt for the other person that leads them to attack, not defensiveness.”
We want kids to feel good about themselves and have healthy self-confidence. But, there is a danger that some will take their opinions of themselves too far and believe that they are better than their peers. When parents build up their child, they should include conversations about value and respect for other people.
6. Has Been Bullied Themselves
It is easy to dismiss your child as a bully because they were bullied themselves. Victims may turn to bullying to regain self-confidence they had lost. They may think that bullying is the only way to get ahead, be popular, or be liked. It is essential for parents of victims to let their children know that bullying is never acceptable behavior.
What to do if your Child is a Bully
Most parents are genuinely shocked to discover that their child is bullying others. Bullies can be socially savvy, popular, and outgoing. Specific attributes such as their popularity or ability— whether academically, athletically, or otherwise—can lead them to feel superior to those around them.
Thanks to these possible attributes, it can be easy for parents to assume that children who bully are “bad kids.” The truth of the matter is that many well-behaved children can get involved in bullying. Children who crave attention or are naturally assertive may also become bullies by not understanding how their actions or words impact others. Kids who are bullied themselves, whether at home or at school, can often become bullies too.
According to Stomp Out Bullying, “bullying should not be treated as a phase a child is going through. Bullies who grow up as adults with the same behavior can experience many serious problems later in life.” As we now know, there are long-lasting effects on a child who is bullying. So my biggest piece of advice is—take it seriously.
Whitney Cress is an elementary school counselor at North Carolina Virtual Academy.