7 Signs Your Child May Be a Bully

By Dr. Susan Bartell

bully2Dear Dr. Susan
I received a call from school today that my son has been bullying another child. I was upset and surprised, to say the least! How do I know for sure that my son really is a bully? And what should I do about it if it turns out my child is a bully?

Discovering your child is a bully
It often comes as a rude awakening to find out that your child is a bully. In fact, sometimes, your initial tendency is to become defensive and insist that it can’t possibly be true. However, until you have collected ALL the facts, it is important to be as open-minded as you can-perhaps your child IS a bully. Even though it doesn’t feel good to hear about a child’s negative behavior, it is far better to address it now, than to deny it and think that it will go away, or improve by itself-it won’t! In fact, it will probably get worse.

The most challenging situation is when another parent approaches you directly–angry or upset–accusing your child of having bullied her child. Do your best to remain calm, willing to listen to the situation. Then, unless the situation is clear, tell the parent that you will speak to your child and find out what happened. In many cases you will need to ask a school administrator to become involved to help negotiate the situation. Parents and children are very often biased, unable to see each other’s sides clearly.

Recognizing a Bully-is this my child?
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Of course there is the stereotypical big, mean, “steal your lunch money” bully. But some bullies are small and wily. They bully with mean words, in a quiet way, reinforced by a posse of friends, rather than a large size. Therefore, don’t assume that your child isn’t a bully just because she is small, short or seemingly quiet.

Often, bullies have low-self esteem-although this may not be obvious at first. They are mean-physically or verbally-to other children, as a way to boost their own egos.

1.  Does your child feel insecure?

2. Does he feel bad about his body or about his sports ability or academic skills?

3. Does he wish he had more friends?
Sometimes a child bullies because she is or was bullied herself: by an older sibling or by her parents. Even if your child is not (yet) a bully it is important to take a look at your family.

4. Do you allow your children to bully each other?

5. Do you use your power as an adult to bully your kids into doing what you want-be honest with yourself?

6.  Do or did you or your child’s other parent bully each other through a divorce?

7. Role-modeling bullying behavior in other situations will also put your child at risk for becoming a bully. For example:

  • Do you yell at a server in a restaurant if you’re unhappy with your meal?
  • Do you refuse to listen to your friend’s point of view when you’re having an argument?
  • Will you scream at the supermarket checkout person if a mistake is made?

If you answered YES to ANY of the above questions,
your child may be at risk for becoming a bully.

What bullying looks like
Not only do bullies come in all varieties, but so does bullying. Some bullies kick, punch, pull hair and knock over sand castles. Others curse, name-call and tease. These are typically the easiest to observe.

But other bullies-usually girls–are not as easy for the adults to spot, although this does not make their behavior any less excusable. This type of bully sneaks or whispers mean comments; passes nasty looks and deliberately tries to turn other children away from one particular child.

Full-scale cyberbullying (and cell phone bullying) operations will often be undertaken by these type of bullies. They will create fake email or IM addresses to stalk a victim or call her from a blocked number, making up information or rumors to hurt or taunt her, in an often untraceable manner-except by wily parents who are NOT in denial about their children’s behavior, and who therefore keep a close eye on their child’s computer behavior, check the computer history and monitor the cell phone bill. Be aware, that this bully will often insistently deny her behavior, feigning innocence until the bitter end.

Handling the problem
If you suspect, find out, or know that your child is a bully, your first response should NOT be to yell, scream or punish! Remember that many bullies are masking their own low self-esteem. However, it is critical to have zero-tolerance for bullying. Help your child to stop being a bully by doing five things:

1. Talk to her about role-reversal: “how would it feel if you were the one being bullied?” This is a conversation you may need to have more than once.

2. Require him to apologize to the child he bullied-either verbally, in a letter (or sometimes both).

3. Continue to follow-up to make sure that the bullying has stopped. This means staying in touch with the school or with the bullied child’s parent. This is the hardest, but most important part. It shows your child that you take his behavior seriously and that bullying is unacceptable in your family.

4. Tell your child that if the bullying continues, there will be a serious consequence-mean it, and follow through!

5. If your child doesn’t stop bullying, speak to a child psychologist or other counselor who specializes in helping children to manage their behavior and feelings. It is critical to help your child now. Teen and adult bullying is much more serious and much harder to stop.


Other articles

Help! My Kid’s a Bully

Raising a Fatherless Boy

Managing Anger Between Child and Parent


Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child, teen and parenting psychologist and award-winning author. Her latest book is Healthy Kids The Easy Way. You can learn more about Dr. Bartell and her monthly column A Teachable Moment with Dr. Susan Bartell™  at www.drsusanbartell.com