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Thoughts about teens, tweens, parenting and this adventure of living on Earth in the 21st century.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

My child? A bully?!! Part 1

July 2, 2010

Me? A Bully? Yeah, right!

This won’t be an easy read. But if the title pulled you in, you may already have some suspicions (or hard evidence) that your kid engages in mean-spirited behavior that hurts others. No parent wants to admit their kid is a bully, but according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study, 77% of students nation-wide reported having been bullied, verbally, mentally or physically, in school in the past month. Lots of tormentors. Each one is somebody’s child. Would you know if (s)he was yours?

Hints that your child may be a bully:

1. You or your partner is a bully. The family is Ground Zero for learning about emotional responses and relationships. If a parent consistently yells or uses verbal threats, emotional blackmail or physical violence to manipulate family members, that’s what the child learns. And that learned aggression is likely to come to school with him/her. If you’re a bully it may be difficult for you to see it. If you’re wondering, ask your partner or your child “Do you think I’m a bully?” Hopefully they’re not too afraid to tell you the truth.

2. Your child is bossy at home. Is she demanding? Do things have to be her way or she throws a fit? Curses at you? Threatens? Gives you the silent treatment? Refuses to cooperate? Takes it out on siblings? If you made a short list of adjectives describing your child would you paint a portrait of someone you admire? If you admit she’s self-centered, controlling, insensitive at home, why assume she’s consistently caring and supportive at school?

3. Your child’s close friends are not the nicest people. You may not trust them without knowing why. Or you may have good reasons not to respect the choices these kids make.  If so, talk to your child (calmly and respectfully) about these friends. This isn’t about labeling or demonizing. And it’s surely not about getting into a power struggle with your child about who she can and can’t be friends with. This is about understanding your child. Be compassionately curious about his friendships and he’s likely to open up.  Your intent is to find out what your child likes about his friends and which ones, if any, your child may not be 100% comfortable with.

4. Your child makes rude comments about other kids. Tune in to conversations between your child and her friends. What kind of language do they use to describe other kids? How often do you overhear gossip, a rude put-down, or a “joke” being made at someone else’s expense?

Ask your child to tell you about the social hierarchy in her grade. Kids often like to display their expertise and you’ll be surprised at how detailed they get about who’s “in” and who is so not. Some kids will literally draw you a picture of the school’s social landscape! Listen closely as your child describes the kids who aren’t popular. Or the ones who are. Do you hear derogatory language? (“He’s such a loser.” “She’s such an ugly bitch.” “Fat!” “Retard!” “Whore.”) If your kid freely talks this way in your presence, there are no barriers to the hurtful words (s)he’ll say, text or post when you’re not around.

Parents of tweens and teens assume that their days of influencing their children are over. Not so! While it’s a fact that friends’ opinions are important, so are yours. You still have tremendous influence on your child’s values and behavior, and you always will. Even after your kids are grown with kids of their own.

If you are aware that your child is a bully or leaning in that direction, it’s up to you to provide a course correction. When each parent does their job… bullying problem solved.

Next week: What to do if you now realize that you’ve been contributing to a bully-in-the-making? How can you begin to help your son or daughter change… for good?

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33 Comments »

  1. Very thought provoking. Indeed every bully has a family. I’d love to see a picture of a school’s “social landscape”.

    Comment by Fayette — July 2, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Annie, this is such an important article. It’s full of common sense. Parents will have the clues they need to know if their child is a bully. Keep up the good advice!

    Comment by Jean Tracy, MSS — July 2, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  3. I work every day with families and the nicest families can have the meanest bully! BUT if the parents get involved with this child early on, they can change the problem. I say, let’s focus on the four and five year olds! This is when a child can make or break habits so easily. I would like to see parents be concerned in the early years and intervene so their child learns the correct way to interact. This means to parents, siblings and others that might live in the household.

    Comment by Julis — July 2, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  4. Thank you for a very interesting and eye opening article. Bulling has become extreme in todays society. Children and even adults have to deal with not only harassment at school or work but also online. From Facebook, Twitter and Myspace. It is up to the parents to teach our children right from wrong and eliminate friends which seem to be a negative impression.

    Comment by Scentsy Candles — July 2, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

  5. This is a very thought provoking and important blog for parents to ponder. As role models for our children, no matter how old they are, we need to notice how we speak about others too – if we talk about being tolerant and patient then swear as someone cuts us up on the roundabout in the car our kids will remember that far more than all the words we say !
    As a former Deputy head and teacher passionate about self esteem for all children we need to look at why the bully feels the need to steal another child’s self esteem to make themselves feel better.

    It’s not about finger pointing or beating ourselves up if we get things wrong but it’s helpful to imagine Percy Parrot is sitting on our shoulder for a week acting like a camcorder and recording what we say, how we say it and our body language so we can step back and see what we are teaching our kids…. it can be quite illuminating.

    Comment by Sue Atkins — July 4, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  6. I’m glad you wrote about this important topic Annie. I’m going to post this on my parenting page. Many parents of bullies are oblivious, and this article could help them see what they are doing.

    Comment by Jacqueline Green — July 4, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  7. Annie –
    What an important and thought provoking blog – you always seem to hit the nail on the head! I will share this with our parent groups, as well as school princpals – those folks that more often than not have the difficult task of talking with parents about the bullying behavior their child is exhibiting – and encountering just the resistance you mention! Thank you for putting such thoughtful work out here for all of us to access,Annie – you are a wonderful guide on this rather treacherous path for all of us!

    Comment by Linda Silvius — July 5, 2010 @ 4:31 am

  8. Hi Anni,

    Great blog – glad I found you!

    My husband speaks nationally on bullying. You might find his site interesting. (Does a lot of speaking in schools).

    http://www.paulcoughlin.net/

    Have a great day!

    Comment by Sandy — July 5, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  9. Thank you, Annie. Right on as always. In addition to your 4 questions, a parent can also search their heart. When my child talks mean, How do I react? Am I making it worse? Is it getting worse? How could I be making it worse? Am I actively trying to find out by asking other parents or people at school?

    Comment by Rick ackerly — July 6, 2010 @ 8:49 am

  10. Hi Annie,

    Great article. This is a must read by all parents. My daughter is in pre-school and I can’t believe bullying can occur at such a young age.

    Comment by Josephine Geraci — July 7, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  11. I just learned about your work tonight when I saw you on Twitter, and I wanted to applaud you for doing what you do. I’m especially interested in this blog and the overall topic of bullying. It’s pervasive in our society, so I think what you’re saying is a must-read for everyone, not just parents. I myself am the sibling of a woman with a disability, so even though I don’t have children, I’ve dealt with bullying all my life. My sister has gotten really smart about responding to people who try to cut her down, but it still stings when I see it happen. (I wrote about her in a memoir, Riding The Bus With My Sister, which became a movie.)

    Comment by Rachel Simon — July 7, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  12. Thank you. I spent much of my career working at “the intersection of substance abuse and family violence.” My particular niche was in program start-up. I mention this only because I cultivated a particular ‘way of thinking’ that follows me still. And I’m glad.

    As bullying becomes a ‘hot topic’ I frequently return to two questions:

    1) Are all cases of bullying so clear-cut that the assignment of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ is labels correct, necessary or accurate?

    2) More important, do our recommended interventions (tell an adult, travel in groups, ignore them, etc) set kids up for further isolation and additional harm? Aren’t the absence of those EXACT skills and resources part of what bullies consider when choosing a target?

    While some may choose to read it that way, I am certainly NOT blaming victims. What I am suggesting is that, in general, we may be addressing the wrong part of the problem.

    You might want to check out http://momsopposedtobullying.com Beth consistently makes a thoughtful contribution to this important conversation.

    I don’t claim to have “The Answers” but what I know for sure is that an effective solution cannot be achieved until the right questions are asked.

    I applaud you for directing attention to a long-overlooked part of the equation: people (of all ages) who feel that this sort of behavior is OK.

    Great job!

    Pingback by Andrea Patten — July 8, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  13. Your blog arrived in my Twitter feed and I was drawn to it because my HS son was bullied by friends he has been with since kindergarten. Strangely after everything came to light the parents of the boys will not talk to me after years of being friends. I am trying to understand their thinking that is is ok for their sons to humiliate another child and then Facebook about it.

    There was no question the bullying happened, so where are the parents in the healing process? Kids make bad choices, but where are the parents in setting a better example? The adult and the HS behavior is NOT ok!

    Thanks for the post and the conversation!

    Comment by Meg Ormiston — July 8, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

  14. You can really learn a lot by looking at who your child’s friends are.

    In my experience, when I’ve come across a kid in my home, at school or in sports who is mean or sneaky or manipulative or controlling, many times, when I meet the parents, I don’t particularly like them. They’re the same way, or worse. Other times the parents are really nice and I like them a lot … they may even be my friend, but their style of parenting is either way too restrictive or way too nonrestrictive. On rare occasions when I can’t figure it out because I like one parent so much, I can pretty much bet there’s more going on at home with the other parent than I realize.

    My son and I have talked over the years about how kids behave in our home. And we’ve talked about what it means parenting-wise. My son has noticed that some of the kids he thinks are mean are either running the streets 24/7 and they’re constantly manipulating their parents to get what they want, or they’re always grounded for stupid things. We’ve talked about the connection to how the kid acts.

    I am particularly thankful that my son won’t tolerate mean kids. So as a result, I really enjoy his friends. And on the rare occasion I see something in one of his friends that I don’t particularly like, we talk about it, usually with probing questions like, “Did you notice thus and such? What did you think of that?” On one occasion, with a boy we barely knew, as soon as he walked out of the house my son immediately said, “That’s the last time he’s coming over!!” I was thinking the exact same thing!

    Comment by Wendy Sheppard, MSW — July 9, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

  15. Late coming into this convo, even tho I’ve tweeted & shared among educators/parents galore, because as you know, I tend to tie much of this behavioral ‘social norming’ to media cues (the sassmouth/snippy put downs & ‘mean girl’ antics might as well be a ‘how to’ guide for some of the kids, whether it’s on the Disney channel, cartoons FB or Formspring!)

    I’m loving some of these comments as much as your great articles, as I DO think kids are ‘finding their way’ w/friend selection, and one of the media literacy ‘games’ we play w/kids to make them aware of relational aggression is a spoof we jokingly call ‘Survivor: The Peer Pressure Edition” about being “voted off the lunch table” and the feelings of isolation and dread that can prompt otherwise nice kids to be complicit by tolerating (or ignoring/not making waves) for fear ‘they’ll be next’…ugh.

    These complicated dynamics have gotten so sophisticated and almost surreal in their prevalence; again, imho, mostly because of the echo back of media (next time you watch a kids’ channel series; ck out how kids are portrayed in relationship w/their parent(s) if one even exists on the show…they’re often either absent, in the way, clueless, or to be ‘worked around’ and peers slam each other for sport with bodysnarking and sarcasm that’s become synonymous with ‘humor’…

    It’s no wonder parents/teachers themselves get bullied/disrespected by kids when it’s shown as ‘normative’ in the media portrayal as ‘standard fare’…All too often when called out for angry/cursing/yelling drama ridden behavior I hear kids say ‘that’s not as bad as so & so, s/he REALLY yells’ or something along the lines of “what do you expect? s/he’s just being a teen”

    Sorry, but that shouldn’t grant kids a hallpass for being a jerk to peers, parents, or people at any age or stage, ya know? Thanks for this, Annie…going in my must read/review regularly pile. If you want to crosspost/discuss further on Shaping Youth, let me know. Excellent points all around…

    Comment by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth — July 17, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  16. [...] “no parent wants to admit their kid is a bully,” educator and child development expert Annie Fox writes. But if you have even an inkling your child might be cyberbullying others, you have an opportunity [...]

    Pingback by Signs that your child’s cyberbullying | NetFamilyNews.org — July 23, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  17. [...] Fox (http://blog.anniefox.com/2010/07/02/my-child-a-bully/), an educator and child development expert in the US, has identified some telling and [...]

    Pingback by Is your child an online bully? « Family Blog – Martyn Wild — July 26, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

  18. [...] the record, more people read, tweeted  and commented on that blog than anything I’ve cranked out in the past 2 years. Lots of thumbs up and to my [...]

    Pingback by My Child? A Bully?!! Part 2 By Annie Fox | Cyber Safe Family — August 3, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  19. Great post! It is great that you wrote this, many parents only think about whether or not their child is the one being bullied. Since bullying does happen, somebody has to be the one doing it!

    Comment by GoGoStat Parental Guidance — September 24, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  20. Great blog post. I especially agree with your first point. Children learn most behaviors by observing others. I often find that if a child is a bully they have one parent or guardian who “bullies”

    Comment by Dave Bell — October 24, 2010 @ 6:12 am

  21. BRILLIANT!

    Comment by Kelly Karius — December 10, 2010 @ 7:29 am

  22. Unfortunately, I’ve found that when a parent is called out about their child being a bully they instantly deny it before even listening to the facts and that’s half the problem right there. Too many parents do not want to know what their children are really like. So what is the parent of a bullied child supposed to do then when the schools won’t get involved?

    Comment by Kate Pearce — March 14, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  23. Kate, parents can be wonderfully proactive once they realize their child needs a course correction. And they can also get defensive and dig in their heels. Regardless of what a parent chooses to do in these situations, the school does not have the option to “not get involved.” State law requires that schools deal effectively with children who bully others. It’s all about protecting the rights of students who are being harassed. If you’ve reported bullying to the school and you are not satisfied with their response (ie. the bullying behavior hasn’t stopped) then I suggest you demand to see the school’s ANTI-BULLYING policy. If they don’t have one, go to the PTA and/or the school board and demand that such a policy be put into place. Volunteer to be on the policy-writing committee! If you meet resistance, go to your local media, go to your school district office and meet with the Superintendent. Get on the phone and speak with the State Board of Education and/or the state legislature. This watch-dog org: http://www.BullyPolice.org/ advocates for bullied children and reports on the current anti-bullying laws on the book in each state. See what the law is in your state.

    Comment by Annie — March 14, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

  24. It can be determined that most parents want to believe that they have a well behaved child. Many parents hold a personal bias because everyone wants to believe that their offspring is a reflection of their self. If your child is the bully then it may be concluded that the parent of that child is failing. Thanks for these tips. I hope that parents are trying to find out more about their children. There is a fine line between invading your kid’s privacy and protecting them. I choose to use Mousemail, but there are many programs that help keep parents informed about their children’s actions while at the same time giving the ability to remain ‘ignorant’ to your child’s life.

    Comment by Jay — July 1, 2011 @ 7:08 am

  25. This is a good breakdown because there ate parents who are in pure denial about their own kids or their wouldnt be as many bullies. Parents need to be aware that their kid isn’t always the innocent one and needs to be probed! Good posts!

    Comment by MangoChutney — October 4, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  26. Annie, I agree with many of your points and I hope that this will be an eye-opener for many parents. However, speaking from my experience, I have a bit of trouble with “2. Your child is bossy at home.” Growing up, I was the oldest child with two younger siblings. And my home life was less than ideal (I won’t go into details, but things were rough). At school, I was ignored, bullied, quiet and shy. But when I got home, I yelled, I hit my younger brother, I tried to control everyone and everything. I was two different people: Callan-at-school and Callan-at-home. While a child’s home behavior may well be indicative of how they interact at school, I’d like to encourage parents to not jump to conclusions so readily.

    Comment by Callan R-G — October 28, 2011 @ 10:51 am

  27. Callan, you make an excellent point and I sincerely thank you for taking the time to post it. Maybe what we can all agree on is that a child who bullies others (whether it’s only at home, only at school or in both places) is a child who is having trouble. The behavior is a sign that something’s not right. The best we adults who live and work with kids can do is to try to discern what’s behind the behavior and help in any way we can. Thanks again for commenting here.

    Comment by Annie — October 28, 2011 @ 11:16 am

  28. Annie, thanks for this thoughtful post. I am especially interested in bullying because my granddaughter has had to change schools several times. She seems to adjust each time, but she’s headed for another change and I want to be able to “hear” if she faces cruel remarks.

    Comment by Myra McIlvain — December 4, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

  29. What a great post. It’s good to see this issue being tackled from this angle. I’m writing a collection of magical realism stories for teens and a bullying theme appeared without me planning it. Probably because I’m a teacher and the issue is always in my face. All info and angles on the topic is useful, so thanks.

    Comment by Tahlia Newland — December 31, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

  30. Yes, this is a tough read–but it’s even tougher watching your child being carried off to jail for hurting someone.

    While I don’t condone bullying, I’m also concerned about labeling kids as bullies, as well. With all the anti-bullying campaigns in the media, a child who is not necessarily a bad child, but displayed bad behavior, will be labeled a bully and marginalized. I don’t believe that most kids – including bullies – are unchangeable. I believe in speaking life into dead situations.

    While I don’t condone bullying at all, I’m concerned what these labels do to children. I also think that we might be doing a disservice to some victimized children by labeling them as victims. I just hope that those children don’t end up playing the victim for life. I hope that instead of labeling children, we give them the tools to make better choices, to learn how to resolve conflicts and communicate effectively, and to learn how to stand up for themselves without resorting to violence.

    Comment by Keek Weathers — February 10, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  31. Just wanted to add that sometimes a child who has been or is being bullied will begin to say and do mean things to other kids.
    I’m no expert, but I think it is a combination of reasons:
    First, it’s extremely common that people who bully do NOT feel good about themselves. So as the bullied child’s self-concept sinks lower and lower, they may turn some of that anger and frustration outward. Second, I think they sometimes begin to accept their bully’s view of how the world works or their definitions of what is “cool” and what is not. And third, perhaps just another way to describe it, is the old “kick the cat” scenario (The boss yells at and belittles Dad who comes home in a foul mood and snaps at his wife. She then takes her hurt and frustration out on the nearest child who walks out of the room and kicks the cat….. )

    I think when that happens, it is very important to catch it as soon as possible, and even more important HOW it is handled. First, it is important that no one gives the victim the message that they somehow deserve the bullying or brought it on themselves. Just telling a victim to stand up for him/her self sounds a lot like “you should be able to handle this yourself.” Second, you have to work toward correcting the child’s opinion of him/her self. Find ways to encourage and value their strengths, and find ways for them to use their strengths. Maybe find ways that they can help someone else, for example, visiting retirement home; volunteering at food bank, pet rescue, or church nursery; or help with a project at home. Quick comments to praise or just appreciate the helpful, kind, thoughtful, patient (etc.) things they do help them to see themselves as a good person (with the *choice* to help or hurt). Third, I think you cannot ignore the unkind things they do. Every time, I think you have to call them on it, being careful to describe the action, NOT the child. Often it is not necessary to even label the action; just asking the child to think about and express how the other person might have felt when they did ____ and assuming (as you always have) that your child does not really want to cause that kind of hurt in someone else.
    In my experience (as parent, and as teacher at elem and at jr high) when a child sees themselves as a capable, good person, they tend to act that way.

    Comment by Cyndy — March 21, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

  32. My daughter along with several children were being bullied by a classmate as early as kindergarten. I couldn’t understand how such a young child could act so aggressively. I felt sorry for him as much as I did for the little victims of his verbal and physical abuse. So, I wrote “What’s Goes Through a Bully’s Head.” I feel we need to address what is evoking the bully’s behaviour (especially in such a young child!) as much as the consequences it has on everyone around him or her. In such a way, we can hopefully deter the bully from continuing the behaviour throughout the growing years. You can read this short story here: http://www.gn-st.com/2010/03/what-goes-through-bullys-head.html

    Comment by Michelle — January 10, 2013 @ 3:26 am

  33. Thanks for the link to your article, Michelle. And thank you for recognizing that socially aggressive children are children and their behavior is a red flag that something is hurting in that child. Kids with aggression issues need help… for their own well-being and for the well-being of everyone around them.

    Comment by Annie — January 10, 2013 @ 9:55 am

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