It can be difficult for parents to notice signs that their child may be a bully. However, if you watch for the signs and are proactive, you can help guide your child into different behavior patterns and curb bullying.
Children who have a difficult time understanding emotions and connecting with others are more at risk for becoming bullies. In a study of 800 children ranging from 7 to 10 years old, bullies reported lower cognitive empathy than non-bullies. These children may feel less connected to their peers and lack emotional understanding of their classmates. They may not realize that they are hurting others, or may not understand how their actions are impacting the peers they bully. You may notice:
- Reactions that may come across as callous
- Lack of understanding when you try to describe how emotions impact others
- Challenging time understanding others' perspectives
Your children are modeling your behavior. That means that even if you tell them emotional expression is important, if you are not showing them how to express that behavior, they still may struggle with the concept. If you withhold emotions, or discourage emotional expression, your child may have a more challenging time understanding emotions in general. The best thing you can do is speak to your child about empathy and begin fostering an understanding of what it is, why it's important and how it can benefit them. Make emotion flashcards and have them identify their feelings at least once a day. You can also encourage your child to pick an organization to volunteer at, as doing so can increase empathy. Show your children what healthy emotional processing looks like and help them get to that place.
Children who tend to be aggressive are more likely to bully others. In a study of kids ages 8 to 18, aggressiveness was shown to have a direct link to moral disengagement, putting these kids even more at risk for targeting others. Children who do not understand how to process and cope with intense emotions may express them by lashing out. This can result in kids focusing their emotional bursts onto peers in an inappropriate way. You may notice:
- Unexplained injuries from acting out physically
- A tendency to have angry outbursts
- A history of acting physically with their peers
- Purposeful damage to property
Manage Their Energy
Children who are overly aggressive need several outlets to express this type of energy. One of these outlets may be physical. Get them involved in some sort of sport or exercise program to help them process the emotions out of their body. Offer other options for emotional expressions such as journaling, drawing and music.
Lack of Focus in School
Children who target their peers tend to lose focus in school. They may become so fixated on how to mess with other kids, they neglect to do their homework and struggle to pay attention in the classroom. They may start being dishonest with you about why their grades have gone down, or completely ignore you when you bring up the subject. You may:
- Hear from their teacher about their lack of focus
- See lower grades on report cards
- Notice a new disregard for their homework or school projects
Speak with your child about the importance of education and learning. You can positively reinforce behavior that shows focus and effort toward doing school work. You can do so with verbal cues, or give your child rewards when good grades are earned. Fostering a love of learning in the household can gently encourage your child to establish a healthy sense of curiosity when it comes to learning.
Popular Among Peers and Teachers
Bullies are more likely to be well adjusted, popular kids who have a stable group of friends, as opposed to their bullied peers who may struggle to make social connections. A study showed that the more popular a bully is, the less responsive he will be to bully intervention programs, suggesting that his peer status overrules his desire to not get punished at school. You may notice:
- Increase in trips to the school office
- A high-status peer group that your child has difficulty differentiating from
- Lack of caring about getting into trouble
- Strong desire to do right by their peers
Reinforce Kind Behavior
It can be really challenging to help your kid think independently when he reaches an age where peer approval reigns supreme. Encourage your child to do what is right, and teach him about the importance of being kind and considerate to everyone, not just the people he is close to. To help him better understand, walk him through several scenarios that a "friend" of yours is dealing with. Discuss the implications of hurtful behavior and help him understand how that negatively impacts those that are targeted.
If your child has a tendency to lash out when she feels angry or frustrated, she is more likely to become a bully than a child who internalizes her emotions. In a 30 year longitudinal study, researchers found that bullies were more likely to engage in externalizing behaviors and that these behaviors later turned into violent offenses and arrest convictions as children reached adulthood. You may see:
- Aggressive streaks of behavior
- Uncontrollable anger
- Physically lashing out
- Damaging property
Teach Insightful Behavior
If your child has a difficult time expressing her emotions in a healthy way, it is best to spend some time every day speaking with her about her emotions and why they are so important. You can mention that anger signals something does not feel right, and it is really helpful for her to figure out why she feels angry before she takes any action. Have them begin journaling about their feelings every day for a few minutes. If they are reluctant to do so, create a reward based routine for them. If your child needs extra help managing her emotions, you can find her a child or adolescent therapist who can help.
Little Self Control
Children who struggle with self-control are more likely to act impulsively, which puts them more at risk for becoming bullies. A study of 253 students demonstrated that lower self-control was a great predictor of bullying behaviors. Children who act first instead of thinking about their behaviors may have a more difficult time managing tricky emotions and their reactions. You may notice:
- Little to no thought put into their behaviors
- Impulsive decision making that lands them in trouble
- Destructive behavior to get what they want
Try the Treat Test
As early as you can, start teaching your child about delayed gratification. This behavior can be taught, encouraged and modeled for your child on a daily basis. To test how your child does with delayed gratification, offer them one piece of their favorite treat now, or see if they would prefer two treats if they wait 20 minutes. Children who are able to wait are likely to have better self-control compared to children who feel unable to wait. You can also speak with your child about being thoughtful before acting on their wants. Explain to them why thinking about their actions is important and give them examples of how you think through your decision-making process.
Connecting With Your Child
Although it may feel overwhelming to find out your child has bullied others, know that this behavior can be shifted and this experience can be looked at as an opportunity for growth. Even though it may not feel like it, children look for the approval of their parents throughout their lives, so be sure to speak with your child often if you notice any of these behaviors and encourage kindness, empathy and understanding in every aspect of their life.