Bullying is an issue in our society like never before, with many pages devoted to the ongoing problem in schools, the added issue of cyberbullying, and the devastating affect it is having on a generation of children. Most parents worry about their child becoming a victim, but for every victim there is a perpetrator, so the other question to ask is how do I prevent my child from becoming a bully?
There is no simple “one size fits all’ answer, but there are steps that can be taken to help ensure that your child does not adopt bullying as a behavior. Many of the keys to thwarting this behavior rest with the parents and others who will help raise the child. It is essential that parents step in if inappropriate actions are demonstrated, not only to instruct that this is not acceptable, but to also show the child what is appropriate. Good behavior should then be rewarded with praise and encouragement.
Children start forming behavior patterns in terms of how they interact with others as young as two years old. They also start dealing with feelings of aggression about this time–which is normal–and it is at this point that they start needing help in channeling those feelings. Who has not seen children tussling over a toy or one child snatching a desired object from another? Most of us have, and most children will act this way at some point in time. The key is to make sure it does not become a habit. If a child thinks that taking items by force gets them what they want with no consequence, then this is the road they will choose. As the child gets bigger and stronger behavior that started as simple toy snatching can become more aggressive and troublesome.
In redirecting the behavior, it is important not to yell and scream and also snatch the toy away but rather speak firmly and calmly to the child, indicating that this behavior is wrong and restoring the toy to the child who had it first. The offending child needs to then be shown how to ask to play with the toy. Such redirecting will likely need to be repeated a number of times before it fully takes hold and parents will need to pay attention during playtime. During this period, any time the child is observed asking or indulging in a sharing of toys, he or she should be praised so they understand what is good behavior, not just what is bad.
Hitting may also be common among young children. In the beginning, they do not understand the consequences and are just releasing aggression and watching to see what the response is. Again, it is important to “nip this in the bud,” by firmly indicating that hitting is not acceptable. It may also be useful to try to ascertain what the child thought would be accomplished by hitting. Was it an issue of sharing? Did the other child hit first? Or was the child just out of sorts and taking out anger or frustration? Isolated incidents of hitting are typical, and while they need to be addressed, need not be cause for undue concern. But, if a pattern starts to develop, with a child using hitting as a way to get what he or she wants, then parents must be diligent about correcting this behavior and possibly getting expert advice on determining the source of the aggression and how to modify the behavior.
Teaching by Example
Children learn from their parents so it is critical that children see parents exhibiting good behavior when it comes to handling their anger or making requests. If children see parents acting in a bullying fashion, with one ridiculing or intimidating the other, or with hitting involved, then they will copy this pattern. The same holds true in terms of their parents’ interaction with others. If children see parents acting politely, fairly, and calmly even when someone else is angry, they will learn that there are better ways to deal with situations than through threats or yelling.
What If Your Child Is Already a Bully?
The professional consensus is that those who bully have significant emotional problems themselves. They may be acting out what they experience or see at home or in their community. These are often children with poor self-esteem, low self-worth, and chronic insecurities. Their lack of empathy or compassion for those they hurt often reflects underlying antisocial attitudes.
Families need to look inward to see how conditions and behaviors in the home may be influencing their child’s actions and self-perception. Professional help may be needed to help address the family dynamic and help the child improve their behavior. (If there is abuse or neglect within the home, social services may need to be involved.)
Bullies also need to have limits set by those in authority, so it will be essential to work closely with the child’s school or with other adults who may oversee activities the child is involved in.
Bullies need not be bullies for life. With proper counseling and encouragement, children can alter their behavior and enter a happy, fulfilling role in society.