Ask a Therapist: Help! I Think My Kid Is a Bully

What to do when another parent says your child is the problem

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I invited one of my daughter’s friends to her birthday party and when the girl’s mom didn’t RSVP, I sent a friendly text communicating how badly my daughter wanted her to attend. The mom responded by saying her daughter wouldn’t be able to come because (and she admitted the awkwardness of this) her daughter told her that my child has been teasing, taunting and hurting her daughter’s feelings almost every day. I don’t know what to think because I don’t see what goes on at school…but if it’s true that my child is a bully, what should I do about it? — Liv, New Jersey

I think we should start by defining bullying behavior. As a society, we have gotten caught up in the word bullying, and the minute someone else might have a bad interaction with someone or someone is mean to them, they immediately label it as being bullied. Power struggles among girls are also a common occurrence and ugly though they may be, they don’t necessarily constitute bullying. It’s important to understand that, in the true sense of the word, bullying is a pervasive, consistent aggression toward another person, either physically or emotionally.

So, with that in mind, we need to identify whether your child is the bully. And how do you do that? 

First, Pick Your Jaw Up Off the Floor

That text from another mom landed like a punch in the gut. You thought your children were besties, but now your kid is being accused of behavior you’d never endorse and your knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no way, not my child.” 

When parents learn their child is showing signs of physical or emotional aggression, there are two common reactions: defensiveness (because no one wants to hear their kid described unfavorably) and panic to the tune of Oh gosh, what if my kid is a sociopath?! 

I don’t consider any child to be a sociopath and neither should you. If your daughter is being accused of bullying behavior by another parent, take a deep breath and keep an open mind, which brings us to your next step…

Be Open to Listening to the Other Party

Once you get over that initial shock, it’s time to start listening. The truth is that neither parent really has all the facts, but you can still gain valuable insight by listening to the other person’s experience because, details aside, those feelings are still real. 

Really, you just have to deal with the cringeworthy factor of hearing that your child was behaving in that manner, so you can be open and flexible and vulnerable enough to hear the other mother’s perspective on the problem, and then go tackle it. Ultimately, you will only get the information you need to go back and discuss this with your child if you are willing to listen.

Check in with Your Child

You’ve heard the other mother’s perspective and are open to the possibility that it might be true—if not completely then at least to some degree. Communication is key to addressing the problem, and that means communicating with your kid as well. This is when the family discussion needs to happen. Go back to your child to get a sense of what’s going on. Something to the tune of, “Hey, just want you to know I got a text from Suzie’s mom, and she's saying that Suzie is feeling awful in school and that you’re making fun of her…” Then ask your child to tell you what's going on.

This is when some information mining takes place and you’re going to want to get all the details from your child. Maybe your daughter says “Oh, I hate her, she’s so annoying,” or “we’re friends, but teasing her is just kind of funny because she’s so sensitive.” 

So, find out how specifically your daughter shows her dislike or teases this girl. (“She picks her nose and we all make fun of her. I got everyone to sing a song about it at lunch today and it was so funny. We were all laughing.”) Once you’ve heard those details, you’ll be in a position to formulate your response. 

If You Suspect Your Child is Bullying, Start a Conversation About Empathy

The best advice I can give is to try to keep shame out of the equation, even if you don’t like what you hear. Stick to an attitude of “you're allowed and entitled to have those feelings, but what you're not allowed to do is aggress towards someone else.”

Then, talk your daughter through the process of putting herself in someone else’s shoes; discuss new, positive skills she can use for coping with the aggressive feelings; and always lead the conversation with compassion for all parties, because bullying is almost always an indication of some sort of suffering on the part of the aggressor as well. In many cases, the reason a child resorts to aggressive behaviors like teasing a peer at school, is because they themselves feel victimized in a different context.

As such, this conversation will help your child understand the process of empathizing with another person, while also giving you the opportunity to model empathy and ascertain the source of your own child’s strife. 

And Then Keep Talking

Don’t expect this to be a one and done conversation—this kind of communication needs to be repeated and consistent to have an impact, and it’s wise to keep the lines of communication open with the other parent, too. If the behavior doesn’t improve over time—and it most likely will—you should consider reaching out to a professional for additional help.

Jennifer Kelman is a mental health expert on JustAnswer, where she has provided online support to those in need since 2012. In addition to her work on JustAnswer, Kelman has been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for more than 30 years and maintains a private practice specializing in relationships, parenting, and children’s mental health issues. She is also a children’s book author having written three books that delicately weave in themes of trust, vulnerability, and hope in her stories. Kelman has lectured extensively around the country and appeared on news and television programs covering a range of issues including relationships, parenting, body-image, eating disorders and children’s mental health.

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