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Your kid is a bully? What do you do?

The statistics show that a staggering majority of children have, at some point, bullied another kid. Neil Hedley offers some perspective and some tips.
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Neil Hedley, July 29, 2013 1:24:08 PM

Have you ever looked at the statistics for something like, say, car accidents, random acts of violence or disease and simply assume that you were on the “good side” of the numbers?  That because certain things don’t happen to 100 per cent of people, you must be in the part of the population who can simply assume they’re safe?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.  But it’s remarkable how many of us as parents look at the sometimes staggering statistics about bullying, and assume that our kids could never be the aggressors.

And yet, you can’t argue with math.  According to one recent study, more than six of 10 girls, and more than eight of 10 boys have engaged in some kind of bullying during the school year.  So while it’s not a statistical lock on one side or the other, it’s more likely than not that at least one parent reading this item right now has a kid who’s a bully.  And it’s also entirely likely that the parent who has a bully for a child has no clue.  Ask yourself if you know for sure, and based on what evidence. If your only answer is, “Because I know my kid”, you’re making the same mistake as countless others.  Maybe it’s time to trust, but verify.

My daughter’s own case might be of interest here.  When she was in Grade Three, we got a call from her school telling us that some other kids were reporting having been bullied by her. We, of course, were shocked and appalled. After some more thorough investigation (including reviewing school bus video and a kind of “mass mea culpa”), it emerged that there was another kid ─ in Grade Five ─ who had some kind of vendetta against my daughter, and was forcing other kids to create stories about her so that she’d get in trouble.  And my understanding of the final resolution of the “case” was that the Grade Five boy had a crush on my kid, and this was his ill-advised way of trying to get her attention.  However, the whole incident jump-started us into “proactive” mode, and alerted us that we had perhaps been taking certain things for granted.

So if you’re willing to consider, for a moment, that perhaps your own kid isn’t the perfect angel they are 24/7 at home (ahem!), I’ve assembled some tips about the inevitable question: What do you do if it is your kid that’s the bully?

That first reaction? As Archie Bunker used to say, “Stifle It.”
If you’re like most parents, your disbelief is going to quickly give rise to one of two reactions: Offense or defense.  By that I mean that allegations of bullying will either seem entirely probable to you, and you’ll move quickly to the punishment phase, or you’ll defend with the “why are these people lying about my child” reaction.  In our family’s own case, my daughter’s reaction to being confronted with the allegations demonstrated that something didn’t quite pass the “sniff test”, so it was clear that we needed more answers.  It’s fine to have an “innocent until proven guilty” response, but a more appropriate version would be, “Seek irrefutable truth.”

It’s not about you
Most defensive reactions parents have when confronted with the notion that their child is a bully, comes from embarrassment that the accusation is some kind of indictment of their parenting skills.  Get over yourself.  It’s not about you, it’s about your kid.  You’ll never get to a satisfactory resolution if you can’t stop focusing on how it makes you look.  What’s more, those kinds of reactions can cause undue strain on friendships and relationships with other parents and family members.  Put another way: I’m pretty sure that even Cesar Millan’s dog has taken a dump on somebody’s rug.

Require apologies
This one might seem extreme, but marching your kid over to the home of the people she’s hurt (pre-arranged with the other parents, of course) and demanding that she apologize is, in some cases, the only thing that needs to be done and with a few kids, it only needs to happen once.

Consequences
Once you’ve secured a conviction (in your household court), it’s important that a loss of certain privileges and freedoms occurs.  One effective idea might be to stop relying on your school to send home notes, which of course can be accidentally or purposefully “lost” before they reach you.  Instead, see if your child’s teacher will provide you with daily updates in a verifiable form.  Perhaps it’s a daily email, or perhaps your child carries a written notebook with items written sequentially (not a new page for each day, but simply a new heading for a new day, to eliminate the potential of important pages going “missing”).  Praise steps forward, punish steps backward.  Work toward weeks and then months at a time of glowing reports from the teacher.

Teach empathy
This is a subject I’ve covered before in this space, but teaching your child to see the world through the eyes of others can yield a lifetime of rewards.  One quick example: While it’s swell that millions of people volunteer at the Food Bank or a soup kitchen around Christmas, I’ve never met a social worker who says “We don’t really need the help in August – nobody gets hungry until December.”  Doing it at Christmas might help you get on Santa’s “good list” and feel better about yourself, but it actually does little to help people in need.  Another idea – it’s great that you’re watching TV with your child, but are you helping them understand what’s happening on the screen?  Ask them how they think various characters are feeling in various situations.

Physician, heal thyself
News flash: Children aren’t masters of communication, or subtlety, or subtext.  When they see you treating others in a less-than-respectful way, they are learning lessons about how to treat others themselves.  And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Aunt Bertha who kind of smells like cheese, the woman across the street who’s probably having an affair with the plumber, or the actress on television who’s “had a little work done” – it could even be the times that you catch yourself in a mirror and say, “I look awful” or forget your keys and say, “I’m such an idiot.”  If they catch you in those moments when you’re not treating yourself and others with respect, you’re teaching them how to be a bully.  It’s inconvenient, perhaps, but it’s an absolutely irrefutable truth.

Having a kid who has bullied another doesn’t make you a failure as a parent unless you fail to act.  And it doesn’t make your kid a bad kid – it makes them part of the statistically overwhelming majority of children who have bullied other kids.  If our kids learn to stop being disrespectful to others, maybe adults can learn the same lessons, and the world becomes a better place for everyone.

MORE THOUGHTS FROM NEIL HEDLEY:

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