Lots of kids test out being mean — even your little angel — but you can stop the [behavior] that has them acting like a bully.
Mom of three, Isabelle Moore* still remembers the day she found out that her son Ewan* had bullied someone. “This [behavior] has got to stop,” her friend Jessica Lapin* said angrily into the phone as Moore listened, confused. Nine-year-old Ewan was friends with Lapin’s son, Sam*.
According to Lapin, Ewan had been calling Sam names, which intimidated him. Now he’d thrown a stone at Sam — not only was Sam physically hurt, but he also didn’t want to go to school. It was clear Lapin was very upset.
Moore’s first reaction was denial. Ewan had been acting like his usual self, and he hadn’t said anything about having problems with Sam.
It wasn’t until the school principal confirmed that Ewan had been teasing Sam and disrupting class by arguing with teachers that she began to accept there was a problem with his [behavior]. “I was taken aback,” Moore says. “It was a real shock, because I had been thinking, ‘My child wouldn’t do that.’”
Joanne Cummings, a psychologist and a director at PREVNet, a national organization dedicated to stopping bullying, says Moore’s initial disbelief is typical of parents when they learn of their child’s bullying [behavior].
To be clear, Cummings defines bullying as “aggressive [behavior] within a relationship in which one child holds greater power than the other,” and it comes in three forms: physical, such as punching, pushing and hitting; verbal, such as mean teasing, name-calling and threatening; and social, such as leaving a child out, spreading [rumors] and telling others to avoid someone.
Most parents don’t like to think that their child would act aggressively toward others. But research from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that in 2010, 53 percent of students in grades six to 10 reported having bullied someone. Another study of younger children, published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology, found that in grades one to six, bullying occurs in school playgrounds every seven minutes. “Lots of children test out bullying and many, at some time or another, are involved in using their power aggressively,” says Debra Pepler, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto who was involved in the latter study.
Six-year-old Joshua Shea* is one of them. His mom, Dianne*, was recently stunned to find out that Joshua made a girl cry at school by saying cruel things about her weight and that he had licked some older boys on the playground. While Shea had noticed a change in Joshua’s [behavior] — he was scribbling on his homework, getting angry when she picked him up from school and complaining about having to go to school in the mornings — she assumed he was just having a rough time transitioning from kindergarten to grade one. She was heartbroken to hear from the school that he had been hurting others’ feelings and acting out. “I was not sympathetic to my son at that point,” she admits. “I was disgusted and profoundly disappointed with his [behavior].”
For Moore, finding out that Ewan had upset Sam and was disrupting class time left her with feelings of shame, embarrassment, worry, and guilt. She didn’t even want to be on the school playground, nervous about what others thought about her and her family.
It’s hard to know what to do when your kid is acting badly toward others. You have to delicately balance your own defensiveness with the other family’s feelings while steering your child’s [behavior] in a positive direction. Here’s how to navigate the rough waters.
1. Stop Blaming Yourself
Cummings says it’s normal for parents to feel shame and guilt when they find out their child has been bullying others, but it’s helpful to understand that learning how to act in social situations is one of the hardest things for a kid to figure out. “Just like some kids struggle to read and we give them extra support, other kids struggle socially and also need extra support,” she says.