When your kid is the bully

Parents are wired to see their kids’ behavior as socially acceptable. Except sometimes, it’s not.

(David Flaherty for The Boston Globe)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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On Jan. 25, an 11-year-old girl was charged with assault and battery in three separate bullying incidents at a Waltham elementary school. In Newburyport, three 14-year-old boys faced charges this week in a cyberbullying case that led to another student being harassed over messages the boys allegedly posted in his name. Early last month, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley hanged herself after being bullied by a group of girls who taunted her with text messages and on Facebook.

The flurry of news has triggered an outpouring of support for the victims, as well as calls for anti-bullying legislation aimed at addressing such harassment, whether it takes place on school grounds or online. Parents, meanwhile, have been inundated with information about protecting their children from the taunts and attacks that seem to be all too common.

But what about the other parents, the ones who discover that their child is not the victim but the bully? And how best to confront such destructive behavior in your own child?

It can be easy to dismiss bullying as an inescapable part of childhood and adolescence. Connie Kennedy remembers when her youngest son, Mike, was being bullied two years ago by fellow fourth graders. The Alabama educator and mother of five knew that the physical and verbal abuse could continue as long as the boys attended the small Catholic school together, so she confronted the parents of the three bullies. The parents of two of the boys were horrified by their son’s behavior. The third merely laughed.

“ ‘Oh, you know [he] plays football,’ ’’ Kennedy remembers the mother saying. “ ‘The guys are just playing around. Boys will be boys.’ ’’

Parents are biologically wired to assume that their children are behaving normally, says Dr. Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College and the mother of three boys. While antisocial behaviors can be a warning sign of abuse or neglect, bullying in general is “not necessarily about abuses in the home, but with parents who are not responding to the fact that their child is showing signs of developing antisocial norms of behavior,’’ Englander says. “They think it’s just a stage, that they’re just being kids.’’

Jen, who did not use her last name in a post on the site, remembers what it felt like to be a bully when she was a child.

“It was a huge (and somewhat frightening) power trip to have everyone dislike someone at my say-so, and especially at that age to have boys on my side,’’ she writes. “Everyone turned on [the victim] quickly, and my fear was that if I pulled the plug on this vendetta, would they turn on me, too.’’

Peer pressure can also lead a child who is not a bully to start acting like one, Englander points out. “Nowadays, children who are popular and generally well liked are often actually encouraged or rewarded for being a little bit mean to their peers, for putting some kids down,’’ she says. “We know today that most of the psychological bullying which goes on - the lion’s share - occurs between children who are popular or socially successful and victims who are less so. That’s the power imbalance.’’

This imbalance of power is why mediation between a bully and the victim rarely works. “In mediation, both children have to want to change,’’ Englander says. “In a bullying situation, the child who is on top is not very motivated, if at all, to change anything, because they’re on top.’’

Parents tend to underestimate the importance of the social hierarchy at their child’s school, says Peggy Moss, former assistant attorney general in the civil rights unit of the Maine Department of Attorney General, associate director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, and author of anti-bullying book “Say Something.’’ Her latest children’s book, “One of Us,’’ about a young girl trying to figure out where she fits in at school, comes out in May.

“Kids know a lot about the framework in which they operate, and I think we make a mistake when we pull kids out of that framework and don’t acknowledge what’s happening,’’ Moss explains. Kids understand what’s considered “normal’’ by their friends - and what will happen if they break the peer-enforced rules.

“It’s important to acknowledge that though your child may have bullied someone, your child doesn’t automatically become a bully at that point,’’ says Moss, the mother of 12- and 9-year-old girls who runs workshops with students and teachers to prevent bullying and harassment.

“It’s really important to acknowledge that your child may have been a target yesterday, will be a bystander another day, and is going to be a bully one day - and we have all played all of those roles.’’

Some kids become bullies because it’s the only way they see to assert themselves after years feeling like a victim - at home or at school.

“What are your kids seeing?’’ Moss asks. “How do you deal with differences at home? Do you use power in your negotiations with your children?’’ The way parents deal with their kids and their partner - and the way they deal with you - can inadvertently frame bullying behavior as “normal.’’

One way parents can help stop their child from bullying is to make sure the youngster has an outlet, where he or she can be successful. Sports, art, or music allow children to be noticed and appreciated. In such settings, kids who bully can see that there are alternatives to the negative attention they get for acting out.

Experts suggest that parents talk to their child’s pediatrician about therapy or the possibility of a behavioral or psychological disorder if their child has been doing things that are dangerous, physically harmful, or destructive, or if their child starts exhibiting physical symptoms, like headaches and problems eating or sleeping.

But even when it comes to “just’’ taunting or teasing, what is often dismissed as “being mean’’ or “bullying’’ can be something more dire. Moss urges parents to make it clear that bullying is not acceptable and to deal with the immediate behavioral issues - but don’t stop there. “Find out what happened, and name it,’’ Moss says.

“We’re calling a lot of stuff bullying,’’ she says. “Anti-Semitic comment? Find out why, find out what’s going on. If it’s racist, deal with racism. If it’s sexual assault, call it sexual assault - don’t call it bullying.’’

Lylah M. Alphonse writes about parenting at Child Caring on Her new blog, In the Parenthood, debuts next month. E-mail her at