What To Do If You Discover Your Child Has Been Bullying Others

8 min to read
A parent discussing bullying with his child.

Many parents worry that their child may be bullied. With 28% of middle school and 19% of high school students reporting that they have been bullied, the effects of bullying can be devastating. Students who have been bullied suffer academically, and they are more likely to skip school or drop out of school entirely. They also experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. 

Parents have a natural instinct to want to protect their children from experiencing any of that. But what if you discover that your child has been bullying others? 

It’s something that no parent wants to hear. But for every child that is being bullied, there is a child that is doing the bullying. Just like being bullied affects a person’s mental health, being a bully also has negative impacts that can follow a child into adulthood, so addressing the behavior is important to avoid long-term problems. 

While your initial reaction may be one of shame, denial, or anger–or all three–take a deep breath and approach parenting a bully from a place of calm to first understand why they are bullying. Then working together, you can develop strategies to help your child change their aggressive behavior.

The Elements of Bullying

When you get the news that your child has been bullying others, it’s important to understand what bullying is–and what it isn’t. Bullying goes beyond a single, isolated incident such as an argument with a classmate. It involves repeated negative behavior over a period of time. 

There are 3 elements of bullying: 

  • Aggressive behavior that causes the victims fear and/or pain 
  • Repeated negative and aggressive actions that form a pattern of behavior towards others 
  • An imbalance of power, where the child that is the bully is perceived to have power over the child that is being bullied, which could be due to physical strength, socio-economic status, or other factors 

Bullying can happen anywhere–at school, in your neighborhood, and even on your child’s sports teams or extracurricular clubs. More than half of U.S. teenagers report being bullied online

Students supporting a victim of childhood bullying

Why Do Kids Bully?

The perception that bullies are just “bad kids” is just not true. Even well-behaved kids who have never been in trouble before can engage in bullying behaviors. There are many reasons that could drive a child to bully others, such as:  

  • They are trying to fit in. Students who bully may do it because they want to fit in with a group of friends who are also bullying others. They also may bully because they want to impress a peer group that they want to join. 
  • They have low self-esteem. Bullying can make a student feel powerful over the person they are bullying, which can mask their own feelings of insecurity or low self-esteem. 
  • They don’t realize the harm their behavior is causing. Bullying behaviors are at one end of a social spectrum, which can be hard for some kids to understand and navigate. They may not realize their words or behaviors are hurtful. 
  • They haven’t fully developed empathy. Empathy is a learned behavior, and kids that bully often don’t have a strong sense of empathy. They may be unable to fully grasp how their behavior is making the other person feel.  
  • Their school doesn’t address bullying. Schools play a critical role in combatting bullying. If schools don’t have an action plan for dealing with bullying, kids can think their behavior is acceptable. They also know they won’t face any consequences for their actions. 
  • They may also be victims. Bullying is often learned behavior. Kids who are bullied can turn into bullies themselves to regain a sense of power that they have lost due to their own experiences. Kids who are bullied may turn the tables on their bully and start bullying them back. 
  • They have underlying mental health issues. Children who have experienced trauma or who are suffering from mental health issues may turn to bullying to ease their own suffering.

Mental Health Impact on Kids Who Bully 

Just like when kids are victims of bullying, kids who bully others themselves can experience long-term mental health issues unless the negative behavior is addressed. They may have trouble making friends or forming healthy relationships with significant others. They are at higher risk of abusing alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. 

Addressing the underlying issues as to why kids bully is critical to avoiding long-term consequences. Families can help their children learn empathy by modeling caring and compassionate behavior towards others at home. They can also teach kids anger management strategies, healthy coping skills, how to resolve conflicts in a positive way, and how to regulate their emotions to help them grow into well-adjusted and happier adults. Seeking the support of a mental health professional now could also avoid issues later in life. 

A parent discussing bullying coping strategies with her student.

Signs Your Child May Be Bullying Others

It’s important to stay vigilant and watch for changes in your child’s behavior that could indicate they are bullying others. Signs include: 

  • Getting into physical or verbal fights
  • Becoming increasingly aggressive
  • Getting in trouble at school  
  • Having unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • Blaming others for their problems
  • Excessively worrying about their reputation

Advice for Parents of Kids Who Bully Others

When you first learn your child is bullying others, opening the lines of communication quickly is critical. Talk to your child calmly about what you have learned about their behavior. Give them the opportunity to explain what is going on from their point of view or what might be driving their behavior. 

While it is critical to listen to their side, it’s also important for you to let them know that you have zero tolerance for bullying behaviors in any situation. To drive that point home, ensure your house is bully free, and that you set positive examples on how to treat others. Model kindness and empathy to help your child learn those behaviors. Understanding why your child is being a bully will guide your next steps in getting them to stop acting aggressively towards others. 

Here are some tips for helping a child who is bullying others at every academic stage stop aggressive behaviors. 

Stopping Bullying Behavior in Kindergarten through Second Grade Students

It’s hard for both the kids doing the bullying and the kids being bullied to express themselves about what is going on at this age, which is why it’s important to play an active role in your child’s life. Set aside time to talk to them every day about the interactions they have with other kids. Ask questions about what they say to other kids or what they do with them during downtime. 

If you learn your child is bullying others, it’s critical to address their behavior and not brush it off as kids just being kids. Steps you can take include: 

  • Setting expectations about their behavior. Remind them that it’s not nice to hit, push, or tease other kids. 
  • Asking them to think about what the other child feels when they act aggressively toward them. Roleplay to help them learn empathy and healthy interactions. 
  • Setting meaningful consequences if they continue their behavior, such as losing TV privileges.
  • Making them apologize to the student they were bullying. Come up with something nice they could do for that student, such as drawing them a picture or inviting them to play on the playground.  

Being a bully at this stage could affect their ability to make friends, which could have lasting impacts on their social and emotional well-being. Equipping them with the tools they need to stop acting aggressively now may lead to more positive interactions as they go through school.

Stopping Bullying Behavior in Third Through Fifth Grade Students

Helping your child in late elementary school overcome aggressive behaviors will help them significantly when they move on to middle school. Steps you can take include: 

  • Setting expectations about their behavior. Explain why their behavior is hurtful and remind them how important it is to be kind. Let them know how you expect them to treat others. Remind them that you have a zero tolerance for bullying. 
  • Talking to them about empathy and asking them to put themselves in the shoes of the child they are bullying. Roleplay ways to be kind to the other child. 
  • Writing an apology note to those they were bullying. Brainstorm ways to do something nice for those children.  
  • Setting meaningful consequences if they continue their behavior.
  • Seeking therapy if your child continues to engage in aggressive behavior. A therapist can also help your child learn how to regulate their emotions and avoid outbursts that lead to bullying. 

Stopping Bullying Behavior in Middle School Students

It’s probably no surprise that more kids report being bullied in middle school than in any other grade. Kids at this age are trying to find their way and they want to fit in, which could cause them to act out of character and bully others.  

It’s critical to try to keep the lines of communication open with your middle schooler, even as they try to push you away. If you learn your middle school child is bullying others, talk to them about why they are doing it. Address any issues related to their insecurities. If they are bullying others to fit in, have candid conversations with them about the impacts of following the crowd, especially a crowd that engages in bad behavior. If you discover that your child is bullying someone that has bullied them, let them know that bullying behavior is not the answer to dealing with bullies. Encourage them to talk to an adult at the school about what is happening. 

Other ways you can guide your middle schooler to stop bullying include: 

  • Setting clear expectations about how they should treat others. Talk to them about kindness and inclusiveness. 
  • Teaching them to be empathetic. Ask them how they think the person they are bullying feels. Ask them how they would feel if someone treated them the way they are treating the person they are bullying. 
  • Having them make amends by apologizing to the other person and offering to do something nice for them to help make amends.
  • Setting meaningful consequences if they continue their behavior. Losing a phone at this age can be devastating but can also show how serious you are about changing their behavior. 
  • Seeking therapy if your child continues to engage in aggressive behavior. 
A parent discusses ways to stop bullying behavior in his high school student. 

Stopping Bullying Behavior in High School Students

While incidents of bullying drop slightly in high school, it is still a significant problem. The consequences of their behavior could have a greater impact. They could experience suspension or be excluded from participating in teams and clubs based on their school’s policies.  

If you learn that your high schooler is bullying others, talk to them about why they are doing it, and let that guide your response. If they are engaging in cyberbullying, let them know you are monitoring their online behavior. Other ways to help stop your high school student’s bullying behavior include: 

  • Helping them develop empathy by not only having them think about the impact their behavior is having on other kids but having them do volunteer work. Helping others builds a strong sense of empathy and can lead them away from aggressive and unwanted behaviors. 
  • Having them make amends by telling the other person they are sorry and doing something nice for them.   
  • Setting meaningful consequences for their actions, such as grounding them or taking away their car privileges. 
  • Seeking therapy if they continue to engage in aggressive behavior.

Children who bully as a coping mechanism become adults who continue using that behavior. With the right support and guidance, kids can move away from aggressive tendencies.  Helping them build healthy conflict resolution skills and learning emotional regulation now can help ensure they have healthier relationships and better overall well-being later. Your child will likely benefit when you get involved and help them make positive changes. 

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