Bullies come in all ages, shapes and sizes, and from any culture, gender, race or
religion. They may be cuddly and cute. And they could even be your child.
Dr Nicola Davies advises on the way forward when it’s your child doing the bullying
Much is written about children who are bullied and how they can be protected. But
what about children who bully? Who are they? Why do they do it? And crucially, how
can parents prevent their child becoming a bully?
Research indicates that some bullies may be naturally aggressive from the very beginning.
However, not all aggressive children become bullies. Children can learn bullying
behaviour, especially in
the following circumstances:
• They have been victims of bullying by siblings or other family members.
• They have a parent who is finding it difficult to handle conflicts and ends up
being aggressive towards their partner.
• Their every demand is fulfilled by their parents and so they feel entitled to everything
they wish for, even if it belongs to someone else. They feel it’s their right to
bully if it leads to them getting what they want.
• They have inconsistent discipline at home, with one parent being
overprotective and indulgent, while the other is authoritarian.
• They may be unable to cope with school stress and seek revenge on higher achieving
• They feel isolated or disliked by peers and believe they might win friends by controlling
DEALING WITH BULLYING
If the school informs you that your child has been bullying, what steps should you
It’s tempting to shift the blame or defend your child, but in doing so you will be
justifying the bullying, which is likely to have serious long-term consequences.
Don’t look for someone else to blame. Acknowledge what has happened and work on rectifying
it. Take time to process what you have just heard and then arrange to meet with the
school to devise a way to address the problem.
Working with the school will ensure children are supported rather than condemned
for their behaviour. Also, by supporting the school’s approach, your child is receiving
the message that none of you will tolerate this kind of behaviour in the future.
Stay in touch with the school to keep track of progress. You should also share
with the school any family problems your child may be experiencing so they can take
that into consideration while supporting your child.
If another parent brings to your attention that your child is bullying, how should
Your first instinct as a parent is likely to get defensive and deny that your child
is a bully, but try not to rush blindly to your child’s defence. You weren’t there
and you don’t know what happened.
At the same time, don’t condemn children before hearing their side of the story.
You need to know both sides before deciding on the right course of action.
Calmly and carefully listen to what the other parent says, just as you would hope
they might react if you were concerned that their child was bullying yours. Thank
them for letting you know the situation and assure them that you will talk to your
child. Take their contact details so that you can call them back to clarify what
really happened, and what course of action you will be taking. This will help to
reassure them that the situation is being managed, and that the bullying will stop.
Why do children bully?
As well as the environmental issues that may lead children to learn bullying behaviour,
there are some other fundamental reasons why children may bully. They include:
• They are witnessing the divorce of their parents and are trying to create problems
that will take the focus away from parental issues in an attempt to keep the parents
• Bullying is often used to solve social problems. When you bully, you don’t have
to manage your emotions or solve problems or come to an agreement with someone. It’s
an easy way out of situations.
• A bully may lack compassion and empathy and see weaker kids as easy targets. They
do not understand how others feel and may perceive situations inaccurately.
• They crave power and attention.
• They have low self-esteem.
• They have poor self-control.
• They watch violent TV shows or play violent video games.
Dr Michael Jellinek, Professor of Psychiatry and Paediatrics at Harvard Medical School
in the US, says: ‘Children tend to bully out of their own insecurity or lack of power.
They sense that this is the best avenue for interpersonal success, or the only avenue
given their low self-esteem. Also, many parents use physical rather than verbal approaches
to discipline by roughly picking them up or spanking them. This makes children feel
even more powerless and teaches them that hitting is a means to an end, or a way
Signs of bullying
It’s important to spot the seeds of bullying behaviour in order to catch it early.
Here are some signs to look out for:
• Your child doesn’t get along with other kids and doesn’t play with them.
• When confronted with a problem, your child takes it out on someone verbally or
• They throw and break things to feel better.
• They talk about wanting to ‘get even’ with others.
• They come home with items that don’t belong to them.
• They have difficulty expressing their own feelings and understanding others’ feelings.
• They are impulsive and often fight with their siblings.
• They don’t accept responsibility for their actions and often blame others.
• They react with anger or avoidance when asked to do a chore or if they are denied
• They start throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way.
Acknowledge what has happened. Talk to your child in a calm, firm tone and ask what
has happened and why. Emphasise fair treatment: ‘We don’t behave this way because
we are kind to others and want them to be kind to us.’
Focus on consequences.
Hold children accountable for their actions. Outline the consequences of bullying
and make sure they are enforced. You can reduce or eliminate TV time or ground them
for a few days. You can also ask your child to write an apology letter to the child
who was bullied.
Build social and emotional skills. Lack of social skills can lead to bullying behaviour,
so empower your child by teaching problem solving and conflict resolution skills.
Nurture self-esteem. Dr Jellinek recommends: ‘Parents should find ways to build their
child’s self-esteem, to give them more control over their lives and a sense of reasonable
Build empathy. Instil empathy in your child by turning the tables: ‘How would you
feel if someone did this to you or your sister?’ Role-play the situation so that
your child can learn the appropriate response.
Use positive reinforcement to encourage your child to adopt good habits. Praise them
when they show kindness or compassion for others.
Be a role model. Be careful about how you talk in front of your child and how you
handle your own problems. When you face problems, share with your child how you coped
with your feelings.
Spend time with your child. Listen when they want to tell you something. Talk to
Build positive sibling relationships. Avoid comparisons as this breeds unhealthy
Decrease exposure to violent TV shows and video games. If despite your best efforts
the bullying behaviour doesn’t stop, don’t hesitate to reach out to counselling services
for your child.
It’s unnerving to know your child is a bully, but timely intervention is the best
solution. It’s important to identify what is going wrong and to set it right immediately.
Your child can still grow into a kind, compassionate, healthy adult.