Please don’t tell me my child is a bully

The internal conflict and mixed messages we send our kids when it comes to bullying.

I recently asked my brother what he wanted most for his firstborn son who is only four months old.

“I want him to be happy and I don’t want him to be a bully,” he said.

Most of us have a visceral reaction to bullying.

It’s often because of difficult childhood experiences and what we believe a good person to be.

My brother (who doesn’t mind me sharing) was a socially awkward kid who struggled at school because of dyslexia. Highly intelligent, he learnt how to read thanks to early diagnosis and early intervention. However, he always struggled to convey his thoughts in decipherable, error-free handwriting.

So, at a time before teachers knew much about dyslexia, failure became a big part of his schooling.

Still, he always had an insatiable appetite for reading and dived deep into areas that interested him. This curiosity is what ultimately made him a great IT guy, then led him into games designing for the epic space-based, multiplayer role-playing game EVE Online published by CCP Games, who now have him working as a data analyst. Back at school, however, inhaling books like they were air made him an even greater target for teenage bullies, many of whom took the popular belief that learning is uncool.

As a result of all this, I’m sure the last thing my brother now wants is for his son to be bullied when he goes to school. But the idea of his son becoming a bully is even worse in his mind.

This demonstrates the complex, emotional response that we as parents and teachers bring to bullying and why we really struggle when we encounter it.

Studies show that all kids are capable of bullying – and that a majority of kids bully others at some point in their schooling.

Children who bully are doing what some adults do in the workplace and at home – using their power to control others and thereby assert or bolster their dominance and/or status. In an article entitled What Should I do if My Child is a Cyberbully?, researchers from the University of Queensland say that as time goes on, many children stop trying to control and harm their peers – while just as many continue.

Complicating matters, studies also say that many children who are perpetrators were once, or continue to be, victims. This is the case for at least 50% who bully, they say, which also puts these children at greater risk of mental health problems.

Parents and teachers have one thing in common: They deeply desire that all children have social as well as academic success at school. Most of us (parents and teachers) will do almost anything to protect a child who falls under the influence of a bully. Yet how do we react in circumstances where bullying is occurring? And how do we handle it when our child turns out to be the bully?

If we despise bullying so much, and reject it as a society, why have we been unable to stamp it out?

How we think, act and react really matters:

SCENARIO 1: Remembering that these are times of high stress – not just for my child, but for me and the other parent – I consult with the school and the other parent/s to work out the best solution to the problem.


SCENARIO 2: I won't put up with bullies because bullying can damage children and those who bully must be punished severely (even ostracised). I react in a highly charged way when bullying occurs.

SCENARIO 3: Realising that my child learns how to behave, I teach them explicitly (through discussion) as well as implicitly (through my own actions).


SCENARIO 4: Bullies are just bad people, and I believe that ‘once a bully, always a bully’.

SCENARIO 5: Talking to my child about the feelings that led to their actions, I ask them what they could have done differently. We discuss options so that my child gets into the habit of solving their own problems constructively.


SCENARIO 6: Refusing to accept that my child might have bullied another child, I look for ways to justify their actions: maybe the other child was frustrating them, or my child was only joking and the other child needs to harden up.

SCENARIO 7: Making sure my child understands what they have done wrong and why it is wrong, I make any necessary ‘punishment’ about the consequences of their actions.


SCENARIO 8: I demand unquestioning obedience from my child, punishing them severely when they do wrong and taking things away from them without explaining.

SCENARIO 9: Teaching my child that they are the only ones who can control their actions, I also teach them that they don’t need to control others.


SCENARIO 10: I demand unquestioning obedience from children. They do what I say because "I say so."

SCENARIO 11: Encouraging empathy for others, I ask my child to reflect on how their behaviours might make other people feel.


SCENARIO 12: Fulfilling my child’s needs and desires is my top priority. I do this even if it means that someone else has to go without.

SCENARIO 13: Taking charge of technology, I support my child in making good choices and in controlling their reactions if other people behave poorly.


SCENARIO 14: Giving free reign to technology use, I believe that kids can work it out for themselves.

It’s time to approach bullying in a level-headed, practical way. Families and schools need to find better ways to create vibrant, healthy, socially and emotionally intelligent environments in which children can learn and grow about work out how to get along with others.

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