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Parents are often at a loss when they hear that their child bullies. Tips for parenting children who bully.
By Arundhati Venkatesh
The knee-jerk reaction when one hears of a kid bullying is to blame the child’s behaviour on exposure to violence or attention problems at home. However, is that all there is to it? What else could make a child resort to bullying tactics?
Sandhya Renukamba, a book-loving mom to a tween, says, “All children bully sometimes. Children who are unhappy for some reason, who feel powerless in a situation beyond their control are more likely to bully in an attempt to feel powerful.”
Pooja Yadav* who has a five-year-old son adds, “Younger kids do not know limits and try to test boundaries. Using their power over other kids seems like fun.” This may be because consequences have not been considered or a lack of empathy. In both cases, the root cause is a lack of maturity.
Bullying is a symptom of a deeper issue. Harini Venkat* a mother based out of Bangalore elaborates, “When a child behaves badly, it means he/she has met life’s conditions that overwhelm, that they are not capable of handling. We have all had this. Some of us reacted with silence, others with tears, still others with a strong facade, while some rebelled. When there aren’t examples in front of a child on how to handle emotion combined with a lower level of maturity/developmental age, a bully can be born.”
Children who are unhappy for some reason, who feel powerless in a situation beyond their control are more likely to bully in an attempt to feel powerful.
The bottom line is this – kids do well if they can. Children who bully are essentially good kids with unsolved problems and lack of crucial skills.
It is very hard for parents of a child who is labelled a bully. Harini observes, “There is social stigma as well as personal pain. A child who bullies is shamed and labelled.”
Harini says, “Has my child been bullied? Yes. Has he bullied? Yes. He modelled what he’d experienced, bad words and name calling included. Either way, his self-esteem is pretty low.”
Pooja, whose kid bullied when he was three, was confused at first. She discussed it with friends and read about it online before talking to him. She learnt that he had lesser control over himself when he was tired, sleepy or hungry. At such times, if he wanted something from another kid and was not getting it he ended up hurting him. Pooja watched out for signs that he was tired, hungry or over-stimulated, and stayed home if that was the case.
Pooja explains, “We also spoke about expressing these needs in words. ‘Use words, not hands’, ‘Keep your hands to yourself’ were some of the other mantras reinforced. We worked on sharing and empathy. Role playing situations like – ‘if I snatch your toy how will you feel?’ and ‘what should you do if you want something’ also helped.”
Sometimes, parents feel cornered and brush off incidents. Some common reactions to be avoided are:
– “Kids should learn survival”: Such a reaction validates aggression and is counterproductive. In addition to not setting limits for your child, this also alienates her from other children and their parents.
– “That kid gets bullied by everyone, definitely something to do with her”: Just as some kids tend to bully, there are kids who are prone to being bullied. However, that does not justify your child’s actions, and should not prompt you to overlook her behaviour.
– “My kid is the one who gets bullied. How can she be a bully?”: Kids who get bullied can turn into bullies. Do not dismiss an incident on the grounds that it is your child who is typically bullied.
Smriti Lamech, a freelance journalist, says, “Some parents tend to take it easy because it is not their child getting hurt. What they don’t realize is that in the long run they’ve contributed towards making their child unpopular and not equipped him with the life skills he needs to be a team player, a friend, a good human.”
Apart from spending time with your kids, giving them attention and minimizing exposure to violence, on-screen or otherwise, here is how you can help your children:
– Give your child the opportunity and the confidence that he can share anything with you without being judged.
– For younger children who are still learning to self-regulate, it might be a good idea for a parent to be present during play-time.
– Talk about friends, feelings and consequences.
– Carefully consider the examples you may be setting. How do you interact with your own peers and children? Do you motivate your colleagues and children with positive, confidence-building measures, or do you threaten to punish?
– Have a positive approach. Don’t treat your child’s misbehaviour as a reflection on you, or let your child feel rejected as a result. Let them learn from positive discipline [PDF].
– Rather than just managing the behaviour, find the root cause and try to address it. Assess for lagging skills and unsolved problems in your child and work towards solving them.
– Often, what sets off the challenging behaviour may not have occurred immediately prior to the event. Be empathetic and work with your child to gather information and understand the situation. Your child may have difficulty communicating that she thinks you’re mad at her; she may need some reassurance that you’re not.
– Work with your school to introduce your approach.
– Don’t let the bullied child/parents think you are doing nothing. If they know you care and are trying your best to work on the issue, they will feel better and you might help save a friendship.
– Watch this video with your kid, or demonstrate the paper crumpling for younger ones. Go on to talk about the impact of bullying.
– Jake Drake, Bully Buster by Andrew Clements is a sensitively written book appropriate for ages 7-11, a must-read for every child (bullied or bullying).
A Wisconsin city recently passed an ordinance allowing parents to be fined if their child is found bullying. Everyone I spoke to agreed that parents be made accountable in a different way rather than such a punitive measure. Sessions for parents (in addition to counselling the child) work better. “Parents also need resources, they do not know where to turn for help,” says Pooja.
This article is an attempt in that direction.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
*Photo credit: Eric Molina (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)