When Your Kid’s a Bully: Why Bullying The Bully Is Never The Answer

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There’s a new post going around Facebook, in which a mom outlines the response she had when she learned of her daughter participating in the bullying of another student.

Mom must have been devastated.  Let me just start there.  As a parent, it’s incredibly hurtful to know that your child was the cause of someone else’s pain.  I feel for this mom.  But her reaction, while no doubt well-intentioned, was… misguided, at best, and will only serve to contribute to the cycle of bullying.

Here’s what the mom shared, what kind of effect it’s likely going to have on her daughter, and what I would have done differently:

The first thing she did was “pull(ed) over in the middle of the street and whoop(ed) that ass.”  Next, she walked her into school, and forced her to apologize to the girl she’d bullied.   Then, she made sure she was kept inside from recess, where she had to write a letter of apology to the girl’s mother.  Finally, she shared the whole story online, so I’m assuming others could “learn” from it.  In short, she 1) used physical violence to solve a problem, 2) shamed her daughter in front of her friends/classmates, and 3) shamed her daughter online.  If any of those three things were done by another child, we’d all recognize it for what it is: bullying.  Why do we have such a hard time recognizing it in adults? And why, when there are so many other options available, do we not only accept said behavior coming from a parent, but we praise it?  This mom is now being lauded as mom of the year.

Incidents like this one (and indeed, it’s unfortunately not unique) shine a light on the ever-present hypocrisy of mainstream parenting. Your kid physically hurt someone?  Physically hurt them back.  Your kid shamed someone?  Shame them back.  Your kid humiliated someone?  Humiliate them back.    In as simple of terms as I can put it:  This does not discourage bullying behavior.  It enforces it. The saddest part of this is that the mom realizes that the key to stopping bullying begins with us as parents… but ironically fails to see how she’s contributing.  She ends her post with this:

Parents teach your kids that bullying is not okay!!!
Kids are committing suicide these days!!!
I WILL NOT RAISE BULLIES AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU!!!
IT STARTS WITH US…. LETS BE AWARE!!!

She and I agree on these points to be sure.  Kids do need to learn that bullying is not okay.  The suicide rates are staggering and alarming.  It does start with us.   But you cannot bully a kid into not being a bully.  It doesn’t work that way. Bullying your child erodes your relationship, breaks your trust (at a time when they need it more than ever), and overtly teaches them that  bullying is okay. Your children learn far more from how you treat them then they could ever learn from your words.   Physical punishment, forced insincere apologies, and public humiliation cause more disconnect, more resentment, and more self-esteem issues…. issues that will no doubt surface later in a possible myriad of ways, one of which being:  yup, bullying!  Hurt people hurt people.

As parents, we have a choice.  We can take all our own issues, and baggage, and hurts out on our own kids, and effectively continue the same negative pattern. OR, we can be the grownups, do the work we need to do, and treat our children how we’d like to be treated. The cycle can be broken.

And I know what many of you are thinking:  Well that’s all well and good in theory, but WHAT DO I DO if my child is bullying someone?

It’s a fair question, but it’s unfortunately not one I can answer definitively for anyone else.   There are no surefire prescribed steps to curb bullying. Kids are different, relationships are different, circumstances are different.  If it were my kid though?  This is where I’d start:

1)  Find out why it’s happening.   Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Is someone bullying them?   A classmate, a teacher, a sibling, a parent?  Are they feeling unheard?  Anxious?  Stressed out?  Feeling poorly about themselves?  Is it peer pressure?   Is something going on at home, or in their lives in general?   You cannot even begin to help them until you understand why it’s happening.

2) Listen.  Keep an open, safe, line of communication between yourself and your child.  Hint:  One of the best ways to halt healthy communication is to come out of the gate with harsh words and punishment.  If your child is hurting someone else, chances are he’s hurting too.  Let him tell you about it.  Be his soft place to fall.

3) Talk about how the other person must feel, help your child understand empathy, but don’t force apologies.   You can’t make your child feel sorry until/unless he IS, and forcing the issue is going to cause even more resentment (possibly towards you, and possibly toward the one to whom he’s delivering the apology)  An insincere apology is just empty words.  If my child was unkind to someone else, *I* would be sure to apologize – because I would absolutely be sorry – to both the child and the parent.  I would tell them I was sorry, and let them know that I wasn’t going to ignore the situation.

4)  Model appropriate relationships and kind behavior.  I will say it again.  Your kids learn far more from your behavior than from any words you could ever say.  Show them what kindness looks like.  Show them what friendship looks like.  Show them what respect looks like.  Don’t make fun of others.  Say you’re sorry when it’s warranted.  Treat people (including your own children!) the way you’d like to be treated.

5)  Connect.   Above almost all else, a child who is bullying someone else is needing a healthy connection.   Be that person for your child.  Be the person that your child trusts with his big scary feelings.  Be the person your child can count on, unconditionally, no matter what.  Be the port in your child’s storm.  Nurture your relationship.  Make it a priority.  Make your child a priority.

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A child who is acting out with unkindness towards someone else already has some pretty big upheaval going on.  He NEEDS you to stay calm, he needs you to help him problem solve, he needs you to talk to him, to listen to him, to love him.  He does NOT need to be shamed, or humiliated, or physically harmed.  Most of us recognize that that wasn’t the right course of action for the daughter in this story…. so why on earth would it be the right course of action for a parent?

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1 Comment

Filed under bullying, gentle parenting, parenting

One Response to When Your Kid’s a Bully: Why Bullying The Bully Is Never The Answer

  1. Samantha

    Preach!