Could Your Child Be a Bully? {Warning Signs and How to Help}

It can be disconcerting to find out your child is harming others. Here are warning signs of bullying and tips to help kids change their behavior to kindness.child bully

Bullying is unwanted aggression intended to upset, scare, humiliate, or harm victims or possessions, using verbal, physical, relational, and tech methods, by someone who appears more socially or physically powerful. Taunting, roughhousing, and fighting without fear or power imbalance, and preschool aggression aren’t bullying.

Warning signs that a child may be a bully

  • Repetitive aggression to exert power, meet desires, or make others miserable.
  • Frequent anger.
  • Need to win.
  • Unrealistic positive (or low) self-view.
  • School, family, or community disconnection.
  • Poor academic progress.
  • Poor social skills (or high charm).
  • Friends condone or are bullies.
  • Low empathy.
  • History of being bullied or maltreated.

Siblings are common bullying victims who fare badly because home is supposed to be a safe place. Thus, manage sibling conflict that constitutes bullying instead of letting kids “work it out.”

What if your child is the bully?

If your child is bullying, use concern for his or her well-being, not punishment or anger, to lower defenses and raise receptiveness to intervention. Ask, “What has happened to you (how are things going for you or, what are you thinking when you bully)?” Bullies may claim victims are to blame or lie about things, so check the facts.

Say, “I’ll help you stop bullying because I care about you. I’m afraid if you don’t learn how to be kind, you’ll have trouble keeping friends, family relationships, and jobs, and will end up unhappy or in jail.” Bullies are also prone to substance abuse and self-harm.

If happening at school, ask officials for a behavior plan to help your child stay in school and out of trouble and make restitution to victims. In your neighborhood, have your child apologize to victims and parents and say you want to know if it happens again.

Investigate underlying issues (hostile bias of people’s actions, very high or low self-esteem, anger, poor social skills, prior trauma, academic problems, or sibling jealousy). Discuss what your child gets or misses out on by harming others. Also do the following:

  1. Create a supportive, respectful, accepting home environment with clear rules and consequences: no meanness but only kindness.
  2. Label behaviors: “When you hit (threaten, etc.) to get what you want, that’s bullying”; “Helping someone in trouble is being kind.” Praise behavior changes.
  3. Use consistent, non-harsh discipline.
  4. Increase supervision.
  5. Intervene in bullying and support victims.
  6. Teach relationship building, conflict resolution, and empathy (ask how victims probably feel).
  7. Co-view and positively comment on media with pro-social, kind, cooperative, helpful behaviors and restrict violent shows and games.

For more advice, read Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, (August 1, 2016, Chicago Review Press, Warning Signs For Parents).

About Laurie Berdahl, MD & Brian D. Johnson, PhD

Johnson & Berdahl headshotDr. Brian Johnson grew up in rural South Dakota and received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Iowa. He is a licensed child and adolescent psychologist, parenting expert, and full professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) where he has served as the training director of the doctoral program. Counseling youth and their families for over twenty years, he became Director of the Psychological Services Clinic in 2015 and recently brought a community mentorship program for at-risk youth, including those on probation, to UNC in collaboration with the Weld County District Attorney’s office. This is his second book with wife Dr. Laurie Berdahl; their first award-winning title was 7 Skills for Parenting Success. Connect with Dr. Johnson on LinkedIn.

Dr. Laurie Berdahl obtained her MD from the University of Iowa and did her obstetrics and gynecology residency at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center after which she entered private practice. Sharing her husband’s interest in parenting education, she has published articles in the journals Medical Economics and Parenting: Science and Practice. She and Dr. Johnson are proud parents of their two adult children. In 2014, Dr. Berdahl retired from medical practice after almost twenty years due to developing a permanently disabling condition. She continues to write and speak on issues related to parenting and adolescent wellness. Connect with Dr. Berdahl on LinkedIn.

Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression [Chicago Review Press] will be available via Amazon and through other booksellers nationwide as of August 1, 2016. Learn more at Warning Signs for Parents.


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