Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What if your child is the bully, not the victim?

Massachusetts is cracking down on bullying after the January suicide of 15-year-old Pheobe Prince of South Hadley. Last month, an 11-year-old Waltham girl was charged with assault and battery in three bullying incidents at her elementary school, and a trio of Newburyport teens were charged with identity theft in a cyberbullying case.

There's been lots of advice about what parents should do if they find that their child is the victim of a bully, but last month I took a look at another side of the issue in a piece I wrote for The Boston Globe's Living/Arts section: What about when a parent discovers that his or her child is the bully? Here's an excerpt:

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.’’ ... [More]

Along with the article, I wrote a sidebar about the red flags that parents can look for and questions kids can ask themselves to determine if they're engaging in bullying behavior. You can read the entire sidebar at, but here are the bullet points:

Red flags for parents

1. Look at how kids behave with their siblings. Whereas a normal sibling relationship “is an ambivalent relationship, it runs hot and cold,’’ MARC's Dr. Englander says, ongoing abusiveness of one child toward another is cause for concern.

2. Look at how your child treats his friends. Has he dropped old friends whom he’s played with for years? Does she talk about her old friends in a condescending or derogatory way?

3. Look at how they respond to troubling situations. If they’re watching a movie in which a character is being picked on, does your child respond with empathy, or do they justify the bullying behavior?

4. Tell the child how you would feel if you were the parent of the bully. If you find that they’re responding to a situation unsympathetically - saying “That loser deserved it,’’ for instance - tell them that no one deserves abuse.

Questions for kids to ask themselves

Jennifer Castle, creator and producer of “It’s My Life,’’ a website for tweens, offers simple questions for kids to ask to determine whether they’re being a bully:

1. Does it make you feel better to hurt other people or take their things?

2. Are you bigger and stronger than other people your age? Do you sometimes use your size and strength to get your way?

3. Have you been bullied by someone in the past and feel like you have to make up for it by doing the same thing to others?

4. Do you avoid thinking about how other people might feel if you say or do hurtful things to them?

And, over at Work It, Mom!, I have a different article on the subject, offering tips for helping your child, whether he or she is the bully or the victim:

Think of the word "bully" and two sterotypes often spring to mind: Big, burly,
meat-headed adolescent boy or pretty, popular, cruel "mean girl." But anyone can
be a bully -- and anyone, even seemingly secure or well-liked girls and boys, can be the victim.

"We're really big on labeling kids," says Peggy Moss, author of anti-bullying children's book Say Something and the mother of 12- and 9-year-old girls. "And 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. I think we do kids a real disservice by putting them in boxes." ... [More]

I heard many stories from people who were bullied as children, but considerably fewer people -- parents or not -- felt at ease enough to talk about having a child who is a bully, or having been the bully when they were children. Do you have a bullying experience you'd like to talk about? How did you handle yours, and what advice would you give someone else?

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