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What to Do When Your Child Is a Bully

No parent wants to get a call from the school principal about bullying, but what if the call isn’t about your child as the victim, but instead as the perpetrator of harassment? Your gut reaction might be to deny it—how could your sweet angel be involved in something so nasty?—but bullying isn’t a problem that anyone should ignore. So take a deep breath and commit yourself to finding out what’s going on and making whatever changes are necessary to be sure you aren’t harboring a bully at home. Here are six steps to follow.

  1. Find out what happened. Your initial instinct might be to get angry, but bullying expert Joel Haber, Ph.D., says parents need to keep their cool. Instead, Haber recommends asking your child to tell you, in his own words, what happened and what his role in the incident was. “Kids have to take accountability for their behavior,” says Haber. If your child tries to push the blame onto another participant, be firm and reiterate that you aren’t interested in hearing about other kids—just your child’s role in the bullying.

  2. Encourage empathy with the victim. After you get your child’s side of the story, ask him to imagine himself in his victim’s shoes. How would he feel is someone did the same thing to him? “The earlier we can help kids develop empathy, the better chance we have of them not becoming a bully,” says Haber.

  3. Have your child make restitution. Once your child owns what she did and acknowledges the hurt she’s caused, it’s time for her to try to make amends for the situation. This may mean apologizing to the other child in the presence of a school guidance counselor, or, in the case of cyberbullying, contacting all the recipients of a hurtful e-mail to issue a correction.

Barbara Coloroso, the author of “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,”notes the nature of the Web means that “rumors on the Internet can be hard to fix.” In extreme cases, she recommends that cyberbullies be forced to pay for a Web scrubber, which help bury nasty Web pages in Google search results.

  1. Try to get to the root cause of the bullying. Just because your child did something hurtful doesn’t mean that he’s a bad kid or that you’re a failure as a parent, says Ben Leichtling, Ph.D., author of “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.” Most likely it means that he’s struggling to get something he wants—acknowledgment or attention or control, for instance—and falling back on bad patterns of behavior. So try to get to the root cause of the behavior, and then brainstorm different, more positive ways to act. “One way to do that is to acknowledge, ‘Okay, those desires are normal. I want to teach you better ways of getting what you want or being popular,'” says Leichtling.

  2. Involve the school. You can’t monitor your child 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so if you believe that your child is a bully, you need to enlist the school to help keep tabs on her behavior and report back to you. “Tell the guidance counselors and the teachers that you don’t support bullying and you want to know if it occurs,” says Leichtling.

  3. Be a role model. Remember the antidrug television commercial from the 1980s in which the parent asks his son where he learned to do drugs, and the son replies, “I learned it from watching you!”? The same commercial could probably be made about bullying. “If your kid is truly the bully, you have to examine what’s going on in your own home,” says Coloroso. So be honest with yourself: What behaviors do you model that send your child the message that it’s okay to make another person feel small? Are you curt with salespeople? Do you gossip and spread rumors? Roll your eyes when you hear something you disagree with? If so, it’s time to change—for your kid’s sake, as well as your own. “Kids observe what we do and follow what we do more than they listen to us,” says Haber. If we as parents want to stop the bullying, we all have to get on board.

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