Did your heart sink just a little when you read that question? No parent wants to come to the realization their child is the one being mean, not sharing, being bossy or worse, being the bully to another friend in the class. As parents our first step is to accept that we cannot truly know what happens when we are not around. Even if we can watch unobserved from a far, we can’t hear every word they say or know the context of what is happening. As hard as it might be for us to accept, we cannot turn a blind eye and refuse to accept our child might be part of the problem.
If your child has been accused of being a bully, the first step is to talk to them. It is important to find a time when you have their full attention and they are ready to talk. This might mean you wait a couple hours after school or wait until before bed time when you can get them to open up. It’s important you are calm and unaccusing. Ask them to describe what happened. Ask them how they were feeling before and after the incident. How would they handle it differently now? It may be difficult for them to articulate their feelings. We must help them by introducing language to help them put words to their feelings. We then need to take it a step further by talking about how our feelings can influence our actions. Depending on the age of your child, it may take a little time for them to be able to tie the two together but if you keep talking about it, they will pick it up.
The child’s personal emotional state is not the only thing to look at when trying to figure out where this bully mentality is coming from. Kids can be largely unaware of how one action will lead to another and another. They don’t have the mental capacity to think of the consequences ahead of time, so often they react without thinking of what will come next (this is especially true of boys who act from the adrenaline rush and not from the consequence). Not only do they not think about the consequence, but they are not thinking about how it would feel to another person. Compassion comes easily to some children and not as easily to others. You can help develop your child's emotional intelligence by using this language on a daily basis. For example, “when you picked up your toys that made me feel very happy”. It may seem simple, but with each example they will begin to develop a greater awareness of emotional intelligence in every day situations.
Another thing to consider is your child may be testing the boundaries. I like to think of it as a child trying on a coat. They may have seen someone else acting this way, so they want to see what happens if they do it. They try on the coat to see how it feels and fits their personality. They want to see what reaction they get. They may wear this coat for a few weeks and then decide to take it off. As much as we would like to help our kids with short cuts, there are some things they must learn themselves. It is not easy to sit by and watch. If they are causing bodily harm, then we must step in, but in other situations, if possible, we must let them work out it out for themselves.
There are numerous resources out there for parents if you would like to go deeper on this subject. I have linked articles from Parents Magazine, Child Mind Institute and Huffington Post.
Lastly, be gentle with yourself. This is not the time to pile on the self-guilt that you should have done more to see this coming. Give yourself a break. All you can do is start from where you are now and move forward. It will not do you any good to worry about what might have happened in the past to contribute to this. All you can do is take small actions each day like spending ten minutes a day doing an activity of your child’s choice or while watching a show talk about how the character must be feeling. You will be surprised how quickly those small actions build on each other to create change.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.