As a parent, finding out your child is a bully can be hard to swallow. It can raise fear, anxiety, insecurity and defensiveness. Here’s some advice on what to do if you find out your child has been bullying others.

Finding out

First thing you need to do is to manage your reactions and get the facts. Focus on staying calm. While it can be difficult, try to listen to what others are saying about your child. Don’t run to your child’s defence but also don’t condemn your child before you’ve actually spoken to them about it. Thank the parent or teacher for informing you and acknowledge how difficult it was for them to make the call. Tell the teacher or parent that you take this very seriously, and that if this is the case, you will do everything you can to get this behaviour to stop.  Write down as much detail as you can. Take contact details. Follow up if you need to get further understanding, or to discuss what you are doing to address the problem. Take time for yourself to process how it makes you feel, so that when you talk with your child, you are calm.

Communicate with your child & address the bullying

As soon as you have processed and are feeling calm, talk with your child.  In talking, try and demonstrate the behaviour you would like your child to mirror. No matter how upset you feel, communicate a need to hear their side of the story and potential cause of their behaviour. It is important to establish a framework for trust.  Avoid any shameful language and show your concern and make it clear they will be held accountable and suitably disciplined for their choices.

Determine the cause

Try to find the reason why your child is bullying. Is it school, issues at home or maybe impulse control or anger management issues? You need to find out why your child chose this behaviour and it is important to create a conversation that encourages your child to talk more openly. Depending on the cause, if your child is a bully-victim, you will need to deal with their bullying but also help them cope with the bullying they have endured. If your child bullied to seem popular or be accepted as part of a group, then you will need to address the importance of healthy relationships and resisting peer pressure.  It is important however, to not give your child an excuse for their behaviour.

Make sure your child knows that all feelings are acceptable but not all behaviours. They need to recoganize that no matter the reason behind their bullying – bullying was a choice they made and that they are solely responsible for their actions. Be sure that your child owns their choice and accepts responsibility. Part of that responsibility involves your child apologising to the bullied child. Sometimes kids refuse to take responsibility. If this is the case, keep discussing the situation until your child can communicate that they understand their responsibility.

Develop consequences

Every bullying situation is different and therefore the consequences will be different. Losing privileges is a popular form of discipline and is usually very effective.  It helps for the punishment to fit the crime – for example, if your child was using their computer or mobile to cyberbully others, then an appropriate consequence would be a loss of computer and phone use. If bullying occurred during sport you could have them suspended for playing for an appropriate length of time. If it happened while being part of a social group, you could keep them from spending time with friends who also participated in the bullying. The point is to demonstrate that bullying behaviour has consequences and will not be tolerated. Just be sure that once you take something away, you do not give in later. Also, be clear on the length of time that the privilege will be revoked.

Look ahead & teaching your child new skills

Help your child problem solve on how they can deal with the situation and change their behaviour. Suggestions include learning to apologise and teaching your child what to do in similar future situations.

Look deep into to the details of your child’s bullying behaviour. Are there skills (for example, anger management) your child is lacking that may prevent future bullying incidents? Or, is your child bullying to fit in or to get attention? Could this be a self-esteem issue?  Help your child see their value and worth outside of what peers have to say. If bullying is related to being in the “cool group”, help your child learn to identify and develop healthy friendships.

Try and instil empathy and help your child understand and learn the power of words and actions. Role playing can help teach how to appropriately respond to situations.

Make sure your child takes the time to really think about how they would feel if they were the one being bullied. When kids learn to see things from a different perspective, they are less likely to bully again in the future. Raising your child’s emotional intelligence and instilling empathy goes a long way in preventing bullying.  Encourage good and pro-social behaviour by rewarding it with positive praise and compliments. Children learn through modelling so you, as a parent, can model pro-social behaviour and set a good example. Teach your kids to treat others with respect and kindness.

If it’s a school bullying incident, work with the school and support them with their chosen punishment – supporting any discipline your child’s school makes shows that you aren’t there to rescue them from the pain of consequences. Keep in regular contact with the school. Inform the teachers and the principal of the actions you take as a parent regarding the bullying and discuss an action plan they can put forward at school.

Monitor the situation

Sometimes when bullying is caught early and addressed appropriately, it usually won’t happen again. But do not automatically assume this is the case. Instead, monitor your child’s behaviour and continue to discipline them if necessary. If given the right skill set, most kids who bully can change.  It just takes some time. 

Teenagers that engage in bullying behaviour are likely to need help in learning to recognise and manage their behaviours and emotions. As a parent, you can play a critical role in supporting your teenager to change. If the bullying is a significant problem, professional counselling can often help them to improve your child’s behaviours and social skills. Family counselling could be an effective intervention if the bullying is impacting your ability to keep yourself or other family members safe.