How to Tell if Your Child Is the Class Bully
You may not want to entertain the idea, but given what’s at stake, swallow your pride and take a good hard look at your kid's behavior
What if your child isn’t the victim of a bully? What if your child — gulp — is the bully? C’mon. Haven’t you ever had that icky feeling once in a while that your kid could be, well, mean?
It’s not easy to acknowledge or even recognize bullying behaviors in our own child, and not just because it’s our child. Bullies tend to be secretive and good at hiding offensive behaviors from adults, according to educational consultant and bully expert Edward F. Dragan. He is author of “The Bully Action Guide: How to help your child and get your school to listen.”
This doesn’t mean parents are as helpless as it sounds. There is, in fact, a single question to ask: How popular is my child?
“With popularity comes power,” says Michael Thompson, child psychologist and author of “Best Friends, Worst Enemies.” “Power tends to corrupt. The bully is often the very popular kid who gets carried away with his or her own power.”
So ask yourself: Is my son a strong athlete? A good student? Handsome? Is my daughter the head cheerleader? Is she pretty? A leader? These are the kids who are popular. These are the kids who have power.
What’s more, parents often inadvertently ignore the tip-offs. “It’s exciting to have a powerful kid. It makes you proud,” Thompson says.
The behaviors to look for can surface as early as second or third grade. They tend to peak in middle school. There are gender differences — girls are most likely to exercise power behind the scenes by being exclusionary, boys are more direct and often physical. Thompson said those distinctions are disappearing as schools get better at identifying physical bullying.
What to look for
Classmates curry your child’s favor by waiting for his pronouncements (“What do you want to do?”) or doing favors for him. Your son might tell you, “I don’t have to do that, Mom. Ian’s doing it for me. He owes me.” Translation: Ian doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of your son’s wrath.
Friendships turn on a whim. Now, let’s be clear. Kids are kids and their friendship groups are often in flux. But if there are 12 girls in your daughter’s fifth grade class and she’s only inviting 11 of them to her party, “that’s a form of bullying,” says Thompson. (Don’t get into a negotiation about it — she’ll have rational-sounding reasons. Just say, “Everybody or nobody.”)
What to do
1. Be watchful. “Lack of tolerance for differences is often a precursor to bully behaviors,” says Dragan. On the other hand, just because your kid is popular doesn’t mean she’s a bully. It just means the potential is there.
2. Address ugly behavior head-on. Thompson gives this example: You’re driving carpool, overhearing gossip. Your daughter is Queen, the girls are her court. “Pull over, stop the car, turn around, look them in the eye, and call it what it is: ‘What you’re saying is mean and ugly. I can’t tolerate that from any of you.’”
3. Privately, acknowledge your child’s power and challenge him. “I know you’re popular, that’s OK, but it comes with responsibility. You have a lot of influence. When you say nasty things about Tim, all the other boys will dismiss him. That’s a lot of power. You need to figure out a better way to use it. If you can’t be kind and understanding, at least be respectful.”
4. Examine the dynamics in your family. What are you modeling? Mean behaviors are often learned.
Not every bully is a popular kid, of course. Some bullies are what researchers call the “victim-bully:” a person who has few friends, is typically angry, not emotionally well-adjusted and comes from a troubled home. This child uses meanness to gain power because it’s the only way he can feel success.
If you suspect any of this, should you talk to the teacher? Absolutely, “if it’s a teacher you trust,” says Thompson, who consults to independent schools nationwide. Here’s what he suggests saying: “I’m worried my child has too much power with her friends and that she’s not using it well. I’ve spoken to her. I hope you will, too.”
Then he adds: “You have no idea how grateful a teacher will be to hear a parent acknowledge that.”