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Could This Be Your Child?

What to do if your kid turns out to be the bully.

You get a call from the principal at your son's elementary school. There's been a fight and now your boy's in the office, nursing a black eye. You're halfway out the door when you ask the principal, "So who's the bully? I hope he's getting punished."

"He is," the principal says. "I've decided to suspend him for two days. And you're on your way to pick him up right now. It's your son."

The principal keeps talking, but you're in disbelief. My son? A bully?

Yes, it's possible. Consider the statistics: The Committee for Children found that 78% of 3rd through 8th graders polled had been bullied in the previous month. Somebody's doing the bullying. And it could be your child.

Clearly, bullying and teasing can have a tremendous impact on the victim. But children who intentionally hurt other children—whether with their fists, their words, or their actions—also need help from the adults who love them. We parents need to be willing to recognize that even our own precious angels can sometimes hurt other children—physically or emotionally.

If you discover that your child has been antagonizing other children, try to root out the cause of your child's behavior even as you work to change it. Here's how:

Accept Responsibility

Almost universally, school administrators say parental involvement is critical in changing a child's behavior. But first, parents have to be willing to admit there's a problem.

"Parents often refuse to accept that their child could be a bully," says Dr. Jerry Daniel, administrator of Trinity Christian School in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Naturally, we want to think the best of our children, but we have to be willing to listen to other adults in our children's lives. We need to recognize that nearly every child is capable of cruelty.

We also need to understand that bullying is more than just an occasional harsh word or hit; most kids will have conflict of some kind during their school years. But the bullying that should lead to concern is a pattern of behavior that results in frequent peer problems at school. If a teacher, administrator, or parent reports that your child has recurring conflicts, it's time to step in.

While it's important to let your child explain her side of the story, you're unlikely to get a contrite confession. Dr. Daniel says, "Research shows that most bullies are blind to their actions. They don't see themselves as bullies and are able to rationalize their actions as justified." Steve McChesney, who runs the Bully-Free Kids website (www.bullyfreekids.com), notes that bullies often blame their victims. In fact, parents of bullies may even find themselves blaming an outside source. "Parents, just like children, fall into the 'transference of blame' syndrome," says McChesney. "I've heardvarious excuses from parents, like the father left the family, there is a new baby in the house, or kids pick on their kid."

In order to help your child take responsibility for his actions, McChesney suggests encouraging your child to use "I" language. He says, "When ever I ask a child why they bullied someone, the answer is usually 'Because he or she …' I stop them there and say that their answer has to start with the word I. They will begin again with 'They were …' I stop them again and say 'Start with 'I,' until they finally start with 'I was …' That is a major breakthrough in getting to the resolution."

Once you get your child talking about his reasons for bullying, you can dig into the real issues behind his behavior. Many bullies are acting out their own fears of rejection, a low sense of self-esteem, or a need to exert control over others. Really listen to your child when he talks about a bullying incident. Find out what else happened at school or during the play date that may have built up the emotions in your child. Talk to your child's teacher or the parents of his friends to find out if they're seeing similar behaviors in other situations. Enlist their help in finding ways to help your child meet his need for attention, friendship, or control in more appropriate ways.

You'll also want to think about the ways your family handles conflict. If there are frequent arguments at home, if Mom has a hot temper or Dad yells at drivers who cut him off in traffic, children will pick up on the use of anger as a way of solving problems.

Lance Johnson, dean of students at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, is convinced that strong ties between parents and teachers can change the course of a child's life. "When we determine there's a problem," he explains, "I want to make sure the teacher and parents are talking every week. With that policy in place, we've never had to go beyond a first confrontation with a student; they learn what's wrong with the behavior, and they have a strong support network helping them to change."

Julie, a single mother of two, was stunned to find out that her daughter, Kylie, had been picking on another child regularly during recess. Rather than ignore the problem, Julie tackled it head on. She says, "Kylie would come home every night, and we would sit down and talk about her day. I asked her about the other kids, what went on during recess, everything. I couldn't be afraid to ask her about everything, even if it meant finding out things I wasn't ready for."

Because children don't always recognize their behavior as bullying, you might need to probe more deeply than usual to get to the root of things. If your child sees herself as the victim, ask her to tell you about the response of the other child. Watch your child for nonverbal cues that suggest she's still feeling angry about a situation or indifferent to the pain she may have caused. If something isn't adding up for you, keep asking questions until you get some clarity.

Make a Plan

Even as you start figuring out the root of your child's bullying behavior, take steps toward dealing with the behavior itself. For more than 25 years, Stan Davis has been traveling to schools, using storytelling and magic tricks to illustrate the effects of bullying. He also runs a website, www.stopbullyingnow.com, offering tips for parents and students. Davis stresses that continued parent/child communication is a key factor in helping to curb a bully's behavior. This provides a level of accountability for your child and helps her recognize that she is ultimately responsible for her behavior. Davis says, "Focus on the bullying behavior as a choice your child made. Next time someone bugs them or everyone else is picking on someone, what are they going to do differently?"

Help your child establish a plan of action for dealing with stressful situations. Talk through the issues that seem to spark bullying behavior in your child. And if those issues are in your home—even involving you as parents—address them right away. Discuss appropriate ways to handle her frustrations or anger. If she is acting up because she feels left out, set up one-on-one play dates with classmates she'd like to get to know better. If she's teasing or hitting to gain control, help her discover her strengths as a student or a friend. These can then become areas where she gains the respect and attention she craves.

Parents can also curb bullying behavior by giving children a glimpse at how their actions affect others. Talk about how it feels to be hurt or picked on. Help your child imagine what the other child is experiencing as a result of her actions.

Davis recommends paying particular attention to the way your child treats her brothers and sisters: "Don't let any kid be rough with his or her brother or sister. We think, Oh, it's just sibling rivalry, but don't let one kid hurt another. There should be consequences for hitting or name calling, even at home."

Look for Negative Influences

"Our son, Monte, loved playing youth baseball," says Tracy. "Over the years, he'd had some wonderful coaches. But when he turned 7, he started a new team with a different coach who would get right in their faces and yell at them. He even screamed at his own son on the field."

Tracy and her husband noticed a difference in their son, too. Every time the coach would yell at him, he would clam up and withdraw, sometimes staying sullen long after practice. They were concerned that he would start to emulate the coach in order to stay on his good side. "He didn't know how to handle the yelling, and we didn't know whether he would start to believe that was the way he was supposed to act," says Tracy. "My husband took the coach aside and told him something had to change. After some effort, we were able to convince him to go a bit easier on the kids."

Once the coach started treating the players with more respect, Monte returned to his normal, happy-go-lucky self. Fortunately, Tracy and her husband had the time to identify the problem influence before it affected their son too strongly. But often, parents aren't aware of the influences that can tempt a child to bully others.

You'll also need to keep in mind that sometimes the biggest problems are closer to home. Julie was surprised to find out how much Kylie was picking up from Julie's fianc裬 Eric. A fun-loving guy, Eric wasn't afraid to mock people at the grocery store, at the park, or even at church. Kylie eventually told her mother that she really liked the way everyone laughed at Eric's jokes, so she had started to make fun of people on the playground. Says Julie, "Learning what was behind her behavior allowed us not only to help her change her ways, but to help Eric understand what being a father would mean."

Stan Davis notes that there are pressures to tease and ridicule others everywhere. If your child is prone to bullying behavior, keep her away from these influences. Pay attention to what she watches on TV or in movies or video games. Notice how her friends act and what passes for "cool" among her peer group.

Seek God's Help

When a child misbehaves, parents go through many emotions: anger at people who may have influenced their son or daughter, embarrassment at the pain the child has caused, even a sense of hopelessness over their parenting skills. That's why it's essential for parents to remember they aren't in this alone. We have a great God who can help.

Children don't always understand the need for standards of behavior—they are impulsive creatures who are still learning to express their emotions in appropriate ways. But as Christians, we can help our children recognize that, as God's people, we are to show God's love and respect for others. Talk to your child about the way Jesus treated people, especially those who were different. Have her think about why Jesus chose to be compassionate, even to people who were mean to him. Together, think about ways your child can treat others with kindness. Pray together for patience, compassion, and understanding.

Showing grace to a child who has bullied is also important. Steve McChesney advises parents to avoid calling their child a bully; instead, he encourages parents to use the term "bullying behavior." "The more you put the label out there," he says, "the more likely your child will feel that's what he is and can't change." Let your child know you believe he can make different decisions about how he acts. Tell him you're proud of him when you witness a positive interaction with a sibling or friend. Continue to pray together, asking for God to help your child make good choices.

You can also remind your child that sinful behavior is part of everyone's life, and that his struggles to do the right thing are not unique. In Romans 7:18-19, Paul mused about whether his sinful nature or God's will would win in his life: "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature … For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."

If your child is hurting others, remember that they will struggle with sin just like everyone else. Help your child hold on to God's promise of redemption in Isaiah 1:18: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool."

If the phone rings at your house one day, and you discover that your child is bullying others, remember that experts can theorize endlessly about what's behind that behavior, but the Lord is the one who can change a heart. As Dr. Jerry Daniel says, "The Holy Spirit can accomplish what an army of behavioral scientists cannot."

Alicia Corts is pursing a Master of Arts in Teaching. She lives in Minnesota.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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