Parents naturally want to protect their children from bullying, but what happens when your own kid is the one doing the taunting?
“For children who do the bullying, parents very rarely know that it’s happening,” said Dr. Wendy Craig, the head of the psychology department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and the scientific director of PREVNet, a bullying prevention organization.
“They’re not going to hear it from their children.”
Bullying is a real problem in Canadian schools, research shows, and it can have serious consequences.
In a classroom of 35 students, between four and six kids are bullying others and/or are being bullied themselves, according to research published by PREVNet.
While it takes different forms, bullying is targeted abuse that is often repeated. Children who bully use power and aggression to hurt or control their peers.
Bullying has negative affects for both victims and perpetrators: children who are bullied can develop mental health issues, suffer low self-esteem, have academic problems and even attempt suicide.
For those who bully, the harmful behaviour can lead to academic problems, difficulty in relationships, substance use and delinquency, PREVNet noted.
Warning signs your kid is bullying others
While most parents don’t realize their child is bullying, experts say there are warning signs.
Craig says kids who bully tend to be aggressive with others, or have combative ways of solving conflict.
“They might be become emotionally disregulated,” she said. “So they get angry quickly, and they might have a perception that is ‘everybody’s out to get me.'”
They may also have items in their possession that do not belong to them, Craig said.
“They may not be able to give you a good explanation as to why because they might be involved in extorting or taking things from other students,” Craig explained.
Because bullies abuse power to exert influence over others, child and teen bullies may be socially skilled or popular at school.
Parents should watch out for “asymmetrical relationships” with peers, said Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canada research chair of children’s mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa.
These unbalanced relationships mean a child may have friends who seem “to give in” to all their requests and demands, Vaillancourt said.
There’s also factors that put kids at risk for engaging in bullying. These including challenging home situations, witnessing bullying or coercive behaviour modelled by others, or being victims of bullying themselves.
It’s important to note, however, that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to identifying bullying behaviour in your child, said Toronto-based child psychologist Joanne Cummings.
A lot of parents only discover their child is bullying when school staff informs them, Cummings added.
“Every person who bullies is different,” Cummings said.
“That’s a really big point because we sort of stereotype and think bullies do it because they are insecure or they feel gratified , but that may or may not be true in every case.”
How to deal with your child if they’re bullying others
Before you talk to your kid about bullying, it’s important you process your own emotions, Cummings said. It can be very hard for parents to hear their kid is harming others, and they often are in denial.
Vaillancourt adds parents may also become defensive, which inadvertently rewards their child’s behaviour.
“You cannot fix what you don’t acknowledge,” she said.
If a teacher or principal is the one informing parents of a kid’s behaviour, it’s important caregivers work with the school to solve the bullying problem, Craig said.
“Engage with the school — they’re experts and know how to deal with it. They can also refer and support you in getting the supports in place that you need for your child,” Craig said.
“You should also come up with a progressive discipline approach so that your child has a clear idea of what your expectations are and what will happen if they violate these expectations.”
You may also want to talk to the parents of the child your kid is bullying, Vaillancourt adds. Though this rarely happens, she says reaching out to parents can help deal with the situation.
“The parents of targets would be comforted to know that you acknowledge that your child’s behaviour is not appropriate, and that you are taking steps to remedy the injustice,” she said.
Listening to your child and having an open and honest conversation is key, said Craig. Talk to them about what bullying looks like and why it’s wrong.
These conversations should not be one-offs, but ongoing.
“We need to be open to what our children do and recognize children as individuals who are learning how to engage in relationships in positive ways,” Craig said.
“You need to be observant of your child’s behaviors and how they treat others… Have you noticed a shift in their behaviors? Have you noticed that they’re aggressive? Do you intervene? You need to be consistent and supportive.”
Will bullying stop?
These conversations can help reduce the risk that a child will continue to engage in bad behaviours. Cummings says many children partake in bullying behaviour at some point in their development, and most outgrow it.
“They get caught, they get lectured, then their empathy is raised,” she said. “They come to an appreciation of why what they did was wrong and they move off that behavior.”
Still, to ensure a child does outgrow bullying, parents need to be engaged in their lives. It’s not enough to assume a kid will stop on their own — especially if they’ve repeatedly bullied others.
“When you have a student who has been identified as bullying others in at least three situations, that’s when you should start thinking about if it’s chronic,” Cummings said.
In such cases, a child should see a professional such as a psychologist to address the underlying issues. If the bullying continues, victims can be seriously harmed.
“Kids who have had real peer victimization — they’ve been injured or humiliated in a really severe way — it becomes as adverse of a stressor as child abuse or other forms of abusive relationships,” Cummings continued.
“The child’s coping mechanisms for stress in their brain and nervous system get reset. They’re always looking for great danger.”
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