Ask Dr. Susan Bartell: Help! My Kid’s a Bully

By Dr. Susan Bartell

bully1Question: My child seems to be bullying other children, what should I do?

Answer: To begin, I would like to commend you on acknowledging that your child is a bully. It is often difficult for parents to see the negative aspects of their children, but since no child is perfect, it is important to recognize when one’s child is behaving in a way that that might be hurtful to others. This is the only way you can begin helping your child work on becoming a more respectful and a kinder person.
These skills don’t always come naturally to children. In addition, as we will discuss, sometimes a child’s life experiences contribute to him behaving unkindly to other children. Therefore, it is best not to have a strong, negative response to your child’s bullying behavior. In fact, if you respond to your child’s behavior too harshly, you will behaving, much like he is—as a bully!
It is best to begin by first talking to your child gently and explaining how her behavior is hurting another child’s feelings. Most children bully by saying mean words, making fun, leaving another child out, or by talking behind someone’s back. You need to help her see the other child’s point of view by reminding her that, just like her, the child (or children) she bullies, has feelings that can be hurt. Her mean words and behaviors will make that child sad, embarrassed and confused. Explain that these bad feelings can last a long time. It can be very helpful to ask your child to imagine herself in the bullied child’s position—to imagine being the one bullied, rather than doing the bullying.
Part of your conversation with your child should include ways to help him negotiate whether he is feeling peer pressure to be a bully; whether he is leading other children in bullying behavior and why it feels good to be part of a group that excludes, or is mean to other kids. Sometimes a group of children feel superficial strength by being hurtful to those who are not members of the group. Your child will need your help to see that this is not acceptable behavior.
Next, it is important to explain to your child that being a bully will eventually (or immediately) have a negative impact on her reputation. While the members of her group may think that it is cool or funny, no-one else will think this—not other kids, and not adults. In fact, she will likely get into a lot of trouble for it. She will also find that many kids won’t like her at all for treating others poorly.
You are probably wondering why your child is behaving like a bully. There are several different possible reasons. For example, peer pressure from a group of friends is sometimes so strong that even the nicest kids can become swept up in it. Next, if a child if bullied at home by an older sibling, or even by a parent, he might become a bully towards his peers or other siblings in order to experience being on the other side. A child who doesn’t have strong self-confidence, or who feels ‘weak’ in other areas of his life—for example, academically or athletically—may choose to exert ‘strength’—by becoming a bully. He hides his shaky self esteem behind these feelings. A child may also become a bully during a period of upheaval in his life—such as divorce. If you believe any of these to be the reason that your child is behaving like a bully, it is important to address it right away in order to give your child the best chance of changing his behavior.
Negative consequences are the last resort to use with a child who is behaving like a bully. However, if you need to use these, do so sparingly and always make sure your child knows you love her and that you are sure she is going to continue working towards becoming less of a bully.
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When Your Child Acts Out

Dr. Susan Bartell
is a nationally recognized psychologist and award-winning author who
has been helping children, teens and families lead healthier, happier
lives for over fifteen years. She is the author of four books: Dr. Susan’s Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Parent’s Action Plan for Success; Dr. Susan’s Girls-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Easy, Fun way to Look and Feel Good!, and Stepliving for Teens: Getting Along with Parents, Stepparents, and Siblings; and Mommy or Daddy: Whose Side am I On? You can reach Dr. Susan at her website: