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Bullying 101: How to handle it when YOUR child is the bully

Even good kids can make bad choices. Understand the reasons and address the root problem to help stop bullying.
Sad boy in school hallway wearing backpack
Many children who bully others have been bullied themselves or are struggling with insecurities. Their behavior is an attempt to regain a sense of power and control.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Parents never want to hear, let alone believe, that their children are behaving as bullies at school or online. But all kinds of kids — including good kids, smart kids, sensitive kids and kids who have been bullied themselves — make mistakes.

An even sadder truth is that all kinds of kids can experience abuse or trauma that makes them lash out as bullies in a misguided effort to feel a sense of power and control. This tendency can intensify when young people are keeping their mistreatment a secret.

“You may have heard the expression, ‘Hurt people hurt people’ — and it may be a cliché, but it’s true,” Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told TODAY Parents. “Has a child been victimized? Are they dealing with insecurity? Struggling with self-hatred? It’s important to get to the bottom of the issue.”

Mental health professionals, child welfare workers and other experts offer these tips to help parents intervene if they’ve learned their children are behaving as bullies:

1. Have a wake-up call — with yourself.

“It’s so easy to say, ‘Heck no, my child would never do that’ ... but it’s important to acknowledge that anyone can be a jerk given the right situation,” Hinduja said. In some cases, parents may be quick to go into denial because modern-day methods of bullying, such as texting and online posting, can be tricky for adults to discover. Another possible issue: Many parents have become conditioned to a culture of name-calling, yelling or sibling-on-sibling violence in their own homes without realizing how much it’s affecting their kids. “Kids take a lot of their messaging from home,” Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told TODAY Parents. “What they see there is probably what is going to prevail.”

2. No matter how angry or disappointed you are, treat your child with dignity.

Your kid may have messed up, but remember: He or she is still just a kid, and it’s normal for kids to try different identities and behaviors on for size. “Your son or daughter isn’t the problem,” Hinduja said. “The behavior is.” For that reason, be careful not to label your child as a bully; instead, calmly call out bullying behavior in a direct, clear way and explain why it isn’t acceptable.

3. Recognize signs that your child might be in great distress.

In the most serious cases, children and teens who intentionally bully others have been intentionally hurt themselves. It may take the intervention of a mental health professional to determine whether a child has been physically or sexually abused. In other instances, a young person might be grappling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or another condition that calls for professional intervention. Saltz advised contacting the school’s psychologist or designated mental health professional as a confidential starting point.

4. Understand other reasons why kids might bully.

In less severe — but still troubling — cases, children may indulge in bullying behavior in order to get attention, fit in with a certain group of friends or combat low self-esteem. Some kids simply have assertive personalities and limited social skills. The underlying issues at play should affect how you talk about bullying with your child.

5. Bullying can be especially enticing for kids with high emotional intelligence.

Such young people can be quick to zero in on “who’s got the power, who’s got the popularity, who’s got the following,” Saltz told TODAY Parents. “Sometimes girls who are confident in their social abilities will ... use those abilities to be the center of the social circle.” This scenario can lead both boys and girls to pressure other kids to use drugs or alcohol, do something sexual in nature, or shame or shun another student. “By controlling the behavior of others,” Saltz said, “you exert that you’re the one with the power.”

6. Kids with untapped leadership potential can bully.

Sometimes bullying can be thwarted if kids have their natural leadership skills redirected in positive ways. “Being able to gather people to you and have them follow you can be achieved by bullying ... but this is not the model we want to see,” Saltz said. “Years of bullying can lead to increased rates of depression and anxiety disorders later. Bullying is not a good thing at all for the bully.”

7. Peer intervention is a powerful thing.

Since a bully derives power from the (often fearful) admiration of others, the bullying spell can be broken if just one young person stops being a silent, complicit follower. “When a kid is willing to say, ‘Enough,’ it’s a big deal because kids listen to each other,” said Chelsea Shackelford, program director for Eckerd Connects E-Nini-Hassee, an outdoor therapeutic school for girls in Central Florida. “Any kid who takes a stand can make a big difference.” Information about how “bystanders” can become “upstanders” can be found here.

8. Accountability is key.

“Bullying almost always stems from some sort of insecurity, and the turning point for these kids is accountability,” Shackelford told TODAY Parents. “They HAVE to be held accountable. ... When these kids really have to look in the mirror, there’s no measure to what they can turn around and change. They just have to choose to look.”

9. Put appropriate discipline and controls in place.

If, say, you find out that your child has been involved in cyberbullying, take away phone and internet privileges for a period of time that fits the crime. Make sure you have all passwords for your child’s devices and social media accounts so you can monitor all online activity — and make sure your child knows you’ll be doing that.

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10. Help your child make things right again.

An apology to the offended child can go a long way toward helping everyone feel better and move forward — but sometimes a forced apology can have a decidedly unhelpful effect. Still, your child can do something positive to move things in the right direction. Can he or she host a party or play a game that includes a formerly excluded child? Bake cookies for a group of students that includes the child who had been bullied? Brainstorm ideas that feel right, thoughtful and kind.

11. Cultivate empathy.

Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center noted that kids might not even realize they’re behaving as bullies because they don’t understand how their actions are making other people feel. “Sometimes a child doesn’t realize how cutting and deep something can be to that recipient specifically because it’s not something that would bother the child who said or did it,” Hinduja said. “Turn it around and say, ‘You’re sensitive about this or that. Think about how deeply hurt you’d be if someone said this to you.’ They can learn how to avoid pushing other people’s emotional buttons.”

For more stories like this, see's special section on bullying here.

Resources for kids and parents: