No parent thinks that their kid is out there in the world being a bully. Of course your son or daughter is sweet and quiet at home — and they would never, ever wear a leather jacket or carry a switchblade comb. But while your head is in the sand, you may be missing the red flags that your kid is shoving other people’s heads in toilets.
Drs. Brian Johnson and Laurie Berdahl are the husband and wife team behind Warning Signs: How To Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims Or Perpetrators Of Violence And Aggression. They have some tips on how to figure out if A) your kid is bullying, and B) what to do about it. Just because they’re being a jerk today, doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be Pharma Bro tomorrow.
Is That Bullying?
“Some parents don’t even know the definition of bullying,” says Dr. Johnson. “It’s when someone with more physical or social power tries to physically, emotionally, or psychologically harm a targeted victim.” And it doesn’t have to be repetitive — even just one instance of bullying can do lasting damage. The other key factor is that it’s something the victim wants to stop. (Hint: “Horsing around” or “a joke” doesn’t end in screaming and crying.)
It’s important to take your kid’s age and developmental level into consideration before you ship them off to Scared Straight. “With kids who are in preschool, you can’t call it bullying because they don’t have full behavioral control over their impulses,” he says. “So to suspend a preschooler for engaging in bullying behavior is probably not an appropriate practice.”
The Big Warning Signs
There are some signs that cross age groups, like poor social skills, being quick to anger, laughing at people who are in pain or do something embarrassing, struggling academically, and having a strong need to “win.” Any sign alone might not be an indication of full-blown bullying, but together they can create a perfect a-hole storm.
“As they’re going through elementary school, hopefully they’re acquiring some social skills that allow them to resolve conflict without aggression,” says Dr. Berdahl. If your kid doesn’t pick those up, they’re more likely to go into rage-mode when something doesn’t go their way, because at younger ages they still don’t quite have enough impulse control.
When you really need to watch closely is middle school, as research shows that’s when bullying peaks. As kids get older, the behavior doesn’t just grow nastier — it’s also more subtle to pick up on. “When bullying is at its height, in middle school and high school, we see it go from more physical aggression to relational bullying,” Dr. Johnson explains. “Spreading rumors, talking behind people’s back, excluding people from activities.” Cell phones and social media have not only made it easier for kids to be dicks to each other, it made their dickery more creative. (There are emojis you don’t even know existed.)
Not In This House
Bullying a sibling is another huge warning sign, but one that’s often misunderstood. “You’ve probably heard that kids need to work things out themselves or just ‘have it out,’ but research is actually showing kids are more likely to bully a sibling than a peer,” says Dr. Berdahl. “And it’s much more damaging when it happens inside the home because that’s a place where you’re supposed to be safe.” If your kids are constantly going at each other, you need to do something about it. Yes, that means the family Octagon has to go.
It’s Not Just The Popular Kids
Every 80s teen movie makes it seem like bullies are the jocks rolling in packs with popular girls on their arms. In reality, no bully is winning Prom King. But that might not bother them. “Bullies don’t have a great sense of how they’re perceived,” says Dr. Johnson. If your kid thinks they’re ruling the school, but the other kids have stopped inviting them to birthday parties, that probably doesn’t mean your kid has high self-esteem; it means they don’t pick up on the fact that other kids don’t like them. Or they’re just afraid. “They might feel badly about themselves, but you’re not going to see it because they try to cover it up with the bullying behavior,” he says.
Teach Empathy With Empathy
A lot of what kids learn about empathy, they learn from watching you. “Families who mock or make fun of people with weaknesses or people who are different is a characteristic that increases the likelihood of bullying,” says Dr. Johnson. You also want to avoid conveying messages about always being “tough,” or that it’s shameful to back down from any conflict. (Unless you’re Tom Petty.)
What To Do If You Catch Your Kid Bullying
Put them in the victim’s shoes. Ask questions about how they think they made that person feel, and approach their behavior with concern, not with a smack upside the head. “We recommend saying to your child ‘Hey, we’re worried about you, and we want to help you be the best person you can be. Let’s work together to get this behavior under control,’” Dr. Johnson advises.
Dr. Berdahl also stresses it’s important that parents and teachers call a kid out for bullying, but don’t put them on blast in front of their peers. “Label the behavior and pay attention to the victim, make sure they’re OK, and then address it with the bully privately later on,” she says. Because public shaming is something that bullies do.