What if your child was the bully? Would you know it?

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

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We all (or we mostly all) worry incessantly about our kids being the target of bullying. It’s hard not to given how much we rightly see about bullied kids in the news. We see how kids should be upfront about being bullied and that they should feel comfortable telling anyone if they experience this kind of physical or emotional abuse from other kids, from family or from complete strangers.

We see bullied kids on Facebook, we hear about them on the radio. We feel horrible for them and we rightly support their redemption stories or mourn their loss.

But would you acknowledge if your child was the bully?

Because there isn’t some magical island of parentless kids who apparate to schools or playgrounds or sports fields to torment smaller kids. The kids who are bullies are being raised by me and you. Can we look at these instances positively? Can bullying be a teachable moment in a way that doesn’t involve them standing at the side of the road with a sign we made for them that says “I’m a horrible bully.”

We’ve talked to our daughter’s teachers about instances of her talling us about being made fun of at school. Those conversations are hard because you realize how vulnerable your kids are to the influence of other kids. You realize thee’s no way you can be beside your kid all day long. That the best you can do is to arm them with as many positive messages as possible in the home and hope that armor is strong enough to withstand a barrage of insults until you can repair the armor again.

We preach open lines of communication with our kids because we want them to tell us if they’re being pressured to do things they don’t want to do. Or if they’re being told repeatedly that “they aren’t cool,” or that “their clothes look stupid.” Or any of the other things that kids will tell each other on any given day.

But when confronted with the opposite—when it’s us being told our kids are making life hard for other kids, we go on the defensive. We can’t picture the little kid who smile so much at home or who is so quiet so much of the time, ever being the source of trouble. When it comes to being bullied, it’s easy for parents to acknowledge and address IT CAN BE MY POOR KID! They can set up meetings, they can talk to other parents, they can take to social media. But when it comes to bullying, it’s easier to suggest IT’S JUST TEASING! or I DON’T THINK MY KID COULD BE THE BULLY.

This, of course, isn’t only unfair to the kids who have felt they’ve been bullied, it’s unfair to our kids. Because kids need to be told that they can also be the bully and that being a bully doesn’t mean they can’t be good people. And we need to be ready to be on the other end of the call from a parent looking out for the well-being of their child.

Being the bully is shameful we tell our kids. Bullies are big, tough, unchangeable kids who strive to make life difficult for other kids because they need to make themselves feel better. Bullies are hardened criminals on the path to nowhere. We shame them, we make them feel bad, we show them the damage they cause to other kids. It’s bad enough that I don’t even want to use pictures of my own kids in a post that addresses bullying.

And it can be shameful. But it’s also shameful that we can’t address this with our kids. It’s shameful that we’d rather imagine away a problem, or focus on how they too are being bullied instead of telling them “it’s okay that you’ve bullied, now let’s work to stop it.”

  • it’s just her sister, they’re just playing around.
  • it’s just a phase, that’s what kids do.
  • she doesn’t mean it.
  • she’s just like this when we’re around.
  • she’s too quiet to be a bully.
  • she’s a good kid.

These are all things we tell ourselves when our kids misbehave. But almost none of those are universally true. While we rationalize this, there’s a parent on the other end telling their kids.

  • you are very smart, don’t listen to them.
  • we’ll fix your clothes so there’s no more rip in them.
  • keep your chin up and tell a grownup.
  • tell me any time someone is mean to you.

Because my kid can be a bully and yours can too. I felt like I was bullied in school but there’s no doubt I also bullied in high school. I’d imagine if we looked back at our time in school many of us would be able to call up an instance of bullying both experienced and perpetrated. You can be both the receiver and the deliver of bullying. It’s actually quite easy to see how this happens too. After being bullied, after being told you’re inferior, it’s easy to lash out at someone else you’d identify as even more inferior. You don’t need to be the most confident kid in school to become the bully.

Likewise, a bully isn’t always someone who spends their whole day making someone else feel bad about themselves. From what I remember as a child, it takes one comment, one time to make another child feel terrible, to bring them to tears. Surely we can all picture our kids making one comment to one kid.

And surely we can imagine that our kids don’t know everything about the diversity of their friends at so young an age.

I very truly believe we need to change the stigma around being a bully so that more parents can see how their kids can be a part of the problem and that being part of the problem is normal. Ignoring it should not be.

There’s not a lot to brag about when it comes to being the parent to a child. You don’t want to take to Facebook and share the wonderful instance of them calling another kid “poor” or “ugly” or “fat.” But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. Parenting, as we all know, is about raising good people, not about raising social media status updates.

Our girls are barely halfway to the double digit ages and I already look at suicide rates. I focus so much energy on making sure our kids are confident in themselves that I don’t leave enough time to talk to them about the impact their words have on others. I don’t want my kids being the ones who bring tears to other kids, but I need to acknowledge that it can happen.

The bullies out there aren’t always wearing leather jackets. They don’t always have brass knuckles. They wear dresses, they have ponytails. They dress in a bow tie and have Batman shirts on. You can’t profile a bully and you can’t assume your child will never be one.

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