Any parent would be up in arms and ready to battle to defend their child against a bully. But what do you do when your child IS the bully?
Most parents don’t want to think of their child terrorizing a smaller or younger person. It must have been a misunderstanding, they say. But bullying takes place in classrooms, locker rooms and family rooms every day, and parents must be willing to recognize and acknowledge the behavior if there is any hope of helping the bullying child.
We typically think of bullying as a big, hulking kid who backs up half-pint against the school locker and threatens to do bodily harm if the little one doesn't cough up his lunch money. But bullying comes in many forms, and it continues to evolve.
Cyber bullying, for example, which has developed along with technology, is intimidating, harassing, or embarrassing others by using cell phones or the Internet—particularly social media sites. The National Crime Prevention Council says that over 40% of kids have been cyber bullied in the last year.
Then, there's subtle bullying that doesn't involve physical force and doesn't use technology, but it's bullying all the same. This “psychological bullying” takes place when one person demeans another through insults that target the victim's weakness.
I know a lot about psychological bullies because I was one when I was growing up. As a young teen, I had the ability to zero in on someone's vulnerability, whether it was how they dressed, their level of intelligence, their weight, or their lack of athleticism. Anything I could do to make someone feel small by making fun of them, putting them down, or scaring them, I would.
Teachers didn't see what I did. My parents didn't know. It wasn't until I matured that I stopped being a bully. Now, as a parent, I clearly see what I did and why, and I know that it is essential for parents to understand why a person becomes a bully in order to begin to address the issue.
For me, like many bullies, putting someone down was my way of making myself feel better. Growing up in the poor side of Washington, D.C., I struggled to fit in. My mother was white and my father was black, and I tried all through my young life to figure out which race that made me. It didn’t help that my mother was a drug addict and my father was an alcoholic, which left our home void of structure, supervision and consistency. It also didn't help that I struggled in school because I had dyslexia.
Plenty of people probably have challenging family issues and learning disabilities but don't become bullies. But for me, the confusion, pain and lack of self-confidence I felt was only soothed when I made someone else feel just like me.
And that's the key to remember: bullies are often in pain too.
It's an understandable reaction to punish a bully. Hit the kid who hit the kid. We want that bully to feel the same pain as the victim. But some bullies (like me) may actually feel bad about what they're doing—yet they can't stop. That means traditional ways of handling bullying are ineffective.
Punishing the bully doesn't necessarily help relieve that pain and end the behavior. Instead, society needs to take another approach.
Many schools take the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying, and that's good, but it needs to be carried over to all aspects of kids' lives. That means as parents, we need to be aware of and learn to recognize the different types of bullying behavior. Also, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach should apply to behavior on teams, whether school-related or not, as well as activity groups and within families.
When we see bullying occur, we need to address it, not through punishment but by recognizing the underlying issues causing this behavior. It's difficult for a parent to find out that his child is a bully and even harder to find out his child is suffering. But unless we're willing to open our eyes and look beyond the behavior to the underlying issues, we will continue to leave the child in pain.