It’s easy to think of bullying as something that other people’s children do, but not something yours might ever do. And, look, I don’t know you or your kid, but I can say with confidence that some children bully, and your kid certainly could be one. Even if they aren’t, we’ll be better off if all adults know how to intervene if a child is bullying. If you never have to use this information, great! I genuinely hope you don’t. But if you do need it at some point, that’s okay too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior by another youth (or group of youths) that includes “observed or perceived power imbalance.” It can be physical, verbal, or relational (think: spreading rumors, excluding people). According to a 2017 CDC survey, 19 percent of high school students said they were bullied at some point on campus in the 12 months prior, and 14.9 percent reported being bullied online in that time. Bullying is often targeted toward minority groups: A separate 2017 CDC report said that 33 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students experienced bullying (compared to 17.1 percent of heterosexual students) in the year prior.
Bullying doesn’t just affect the child being bullied; it affects every child who witnesses it. And while much has (rightfully) been written about the adverse effects of bullying on victims, it’s worth noting that kids who bully don’t fare well either; according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, they are more likely to drop out of school, get into fights, abuse drugs and alcohol, have criminal convictions as adults, and be abusive toward partners and children as adults.
“If a bully is not helped with being a bully, that’s a mental health issue,” says Mary Gordon, author of Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. If a child you know and love is the aggressor, read on for some expert advice on what to do next.
Try not to freak out
“As a parent, I feel so badly for the parents of bullies,” Gordon says. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I’ve done something wrong, I’ve been a terrible parent.’ Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t make this about you. You’re not a bad parent.”
Psychologist Michael Reichert, author of How To Raise A Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, says that bullying behavior is fairly normative; the child who is bullying is usually hurting in some way, and lacks the opportunity, words, or emotional expression to resolve the tension behind that hurt. “So much of bullying is about expressing your feelings at someone else’s expense, rather than being vulnerable and expressing [the feelings] more directly,” he says.
Gordon agrees. “Emotional literacy or the lack thereof is at the bottom of a lot of this,” she says. “Oftentimes, kids don’t have a lot of experience in their lives of being in a discussion that allows them to talk about vulnerable emotions like jealousy, like loneliness.”
Gordon says parents should think about bullying through a developmental lens, similar to how they’d view biting in toddlers. It’s widely understood that some 18-month-old children have more natural emotional regulation than others, and one who is biting is exercising their power in the only way they know how. “We don’t discard that child and say, “That’s a horrible human being,’” Gordon says. “We see that in a developmental sense. It is not a moral dead-end for them. ”
Gordon says that most bullying behavior isn’t orchestrated or chronic; it’s just a kid trying to exercise their power in a single moment, and inadvertently being hurtful. That’s not great, and absolutely needs to be addressed. But it also isn’t cause for a major freakout. That said, physical bullying specifically typically follows a pattern of physically aggressive behavior; if your kid plays really rough, or hits or pushes other children, you should take that extra seriously.
Even if their acting out is part of a bigger pattern, it’s still important to remember that, yes, this is bad behavior, but your child isn’t a terrible person. “Don’t let this be everything that defines your child,” Gordon says. Labeling them a “bad kid” or doing a lot of scolding or lecturing isn’t going to solve the root problem, and is likely just going to make things worse.
Before you confront your child, get a firm handle on yourself
It’s totally reasonable to have a strong emotional reaction when you discover that your kid has hurt another child in some way; you might be overcome with feelings such as shame, anger, defensiveness, and guilt in that moment. But before you chew out your kid (or you jump to their defense), take a moment to process your own emotions.
“If we feel triggered, if it angers us, if it upsets us, if it irritates us or disappoints us or scares us, we’re not in a great position to intervene,” Reichert says. You’re more likely to blame and shame, and you communicate that you’re not interested in how the child is feeling or what is driving their behavior, which is ultimately what the conversation should be about. So talk to a partner or friend, take a lap to collect your thoughts, meditate for five minutes — whatever will help you process your feelings about your child without putting your feelings onto the child.
(One exception: If your kid is engaged in bullying behavior that’s dangerous and requires immediate intervention, e.g., choking a classmate, then you need them to stop right now, not get them to tell you how they are feeling. But even in an instance like that, it’s wise to give yourself a minute to cool down, once the threat has passed, before you talk to your kid about it.)
You should also be sure to do some good faith self-reflection. Jayneen Sanders, an elementary school teacher and author of a series of educational children’s books, says that parents should think about whether anyone else in the family uses power or privilege to get what they want, and whether the child could be modeling that behavior. Also consider whether sharing emotions or being vulnerable is really welcomed in your household. This might mean confronting some very uncomfortable realities about, say, the way your spouse treats you, or how you respond when your children express their feelings. But it’s worth doing.
During the conversation with your child, focus on their feelings
Now, it’s time to talk to your child about their bullying. Gordon says it’s incredibly important to have a non-confrontational discussion. A walk will work, but she favors the car because the child can’t get away and there’s no eye-to-eye contact. “I have to say, it’s like talking about sex — it’s best done while driving, and they’re in the backseat,” she says, explaining that not looking at them in the mirror during the conversation will help put them at ease.
Start the conversation by making yourself a bit vulnerable; try to share a challenge, frustration, or moment of embarrassment you experienced that day. The goal is to confide in the child and communicate that you’re not perfect.
Then say something like, “Your teacher called me today and told me something that I’d really like to talk to you about, and maybe together we can figure out how to deal with.” When you do this, you enlist the child’s cooperation and communicate, “I’m on your side and we can work through this together.”
Gordon says that when confronted, the child will probably start to cry and blame everyone else; in that moment, you should say something like, “I totally get it: you’re really upset.” A response like this — which doesn’t shame them or attempt to control their emotions — is disarming, and puts you both on the same team.
“Rather than crush the child, help them understand their own feelings in that moment,” Gordon says. Avoid the words “bully” or “bullying” (which are highly loaded, and are likely to make the child shut down), and skip questions like “Why did you do that?” (They probably have no idea beyond, “I felt like it.”) Instead, say something like, “Do you remember how you were feeling at that time?”
Don’t guilt-trip them or make them apologize
It may run counter to everything you’ve been taught, but, “How do you think that made [the other person] feel?” is another response to avoid. Teaching your child empathy is important, but there are actually two kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy (being able to take the perspective of another person) and affective empathy (understanding of your own feelings and being able to articulate them).
Gordon says our instinct to appeal to the cognitive side when approaching kids who bully doesn’t usually work. Instead, lean into affective empathy. Focus on how your child was feeling at the time, and be prepared to fully listen without attempting to correct or lecture them. From there, you can talk about appropriate ways to treat other people, but aim to do so without threatening, blaming, or shaming — avoiding these kinds of reactions will foster trust and lead to better emotional literacy (and behavior) in the long run.
And while an apology from your child might be in order, proceed with caution in that regard. “A forced apology is completely lacking in authenticity, and it’s something we do so that we feel better,” Gordon says. “You can’t make anyone feel anything.” That’s not to say they shouldn’t apologize, but ideally, they’ll get there on their own through this conversation. If they don’t, take a little break, and then revisit the topic later in the evening. At that point, you could say something like, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about what we talked about earlier. What do you think would be a way for you to make this right?”
If your child is bullying, they (and you) might benefit from doing less
Both Gordon and Reichert emphasize the importance of kids having regular, unstructured time with their caregivers, where the children are free to talk and play and be their full, perfectly imperfect selves. This could look like playing video games or sports, walking the dog, playing a board game after dinner, or going to the park. The goal of this time should be to just be with your kids — on their terms, with you following their lead.
“We don’t do enough of not doing anything,” Gordon says. “Kids who feel overproduced or organized very often don’t have any sort of downtime to think about, Who am I? or How do I interact with my friends? Am I happy? What would I rather be doing? They don’t have a chance to process because they have no pauses in their life.”
“If you have a child who has been routinely bullying,” Gordon says, “you better well put pauses in your life where you can connect in a playful, relaxed way with your kid — because if you don’t create a close, trusting relationship with your child, you don’t have the basis for changing his or her behavior.”
Regularly talk with your kid about feelings — theirs, yours, and other people’s
During the aforementioned unstructured downtime, make space for your children to unload their emotions — even negative ones — by asking questions like “What color was today?” or “How did today feel?” to start the conversation. Then listen fully, without chiding them or giving advice (which can be very hard, I know!).
And teaching emotional literacy doesn’t always have to mean talking about their emotions; it can be as simple as discussing what the characters might be feeling when you’re watching TV together. (So: “Wow, SpongeBob must be feeling pretty humiliated right now.”) You should also share your own feelings regularly. “We don’t share enough of our emotional lives with our children to give them the modeling to share it back with us,” Gordon says.
If your child is acting out, it’s important to embrace acceptance. Acceptance in this context, Reichert says, doesn’t mean ignoring bullying behavior that hurts others; it means not forcing children to suppress negative emotions like jealousy, sadness, anger, or loneliness. When you validate their feelings and give them a safe space to express themselves, you build trust, foster emotional intelligence, and establish that they are seen and loved. “You can basically deal with anything if you work on having a safe, loving, relationship with your child,” Gordon says.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up (The Experiment, Spring 2020).