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What to Do If your Child Is A Bully

By Dr. Cathy Moser

The day after the American Election I was asked by two television stations to interview on the question of what to tell your child about the fact that Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. One of the issues that was looming in the minds of parents was 'how to tell your child that sometimes, the bully wins - that a majority of people in one of the more powerful nations in the world admire a man that has spoken to many people in an abusive manner and has shown utter disrespect to women'. The interview was difficult to do. I had no problem formulating my own opinions - because I find Trump's treatment of others frequently demeaning, degrading, reprehensible, and completely unacceptable for a public figure. The difficulty I had was speaking to a television viewership that was comprised of both Trump supporters and Trump haters. I resolved the dilemma by recognizing that clearly, there are a very large number of Trump supporters that are not fundamentally bad people. I am hoping that they are supporting one aspect of the person who they believe will strengthen the economic and political position of the United States. I am also hoping that their 'values meter' is set off with loud alarm bells when Trump makes derogatory statements about women, immigrants, and others who are in a position of less power (I know - I am delusional; I still question how it is possible for intelligent people who have watched civil rights revolutions occur turn a blind eye to the fact that there is a thin membrane covering racism and hate, and all it takes is one individual to ignite and unite a spark of hate that has taken decades to push below the surface). What I hear from non-racist Trump supporters is that they are supporters of his politics, not his personal manner. That is not a good enough answer for me, because let's face it - heads of state are role models, and it is incumbent upon them to consider the impact that their behaviour has on those that they lead. This includes both verbal and non-verbal messages (like mocking a disabled reporter's mannerisms). Thank goodness for reporters and celebrities like Meryl Streep who challenge unacceptable 'bullying' behaviour.

The main message that I gave the news reporter in my interview back in November was this: you have four years to introduce your child to 'reality TV'. This is reality - sometimes, the bully wins. Hopefully, it is in the short-run. But winning and coming out ahead are not my top priorities, and I have made that abundantly clear to my children from the time they were born. There are other values that are more important to me (like kindness, acceptance, happiness). Those that are like-minded now recognize that they will have to work harder in the next four years to convince Trump supporters that America can't be great if it is necessary to kick others out (or down) to raise itself up. I suggested to viewers that NOW is the time to take their child to the Human Rights Museum, and to show them that all humans have rights and deserve to be treated respectfully. Now is the time to show their child that if you are privileged to live in freedom and security, it is important to use your 'power' to advocate for others who don't have a voice. Now is the time to show their child how to become a 'leader' by being kind and accepting, extending your hand to those that are not as well-liked as you, and standing side by side with those who offer you their trust.

What happens if despite your best efforts to raise your child as a responsible citizen of the earth, you get a call from the school or from another parent telling you 'your child is bullying....'. The first thing to do is take a few deep breaths to keep your blood pressure from skyrocketing. No parent wants to hear that message - even if your child has been bullied by another child. The second thing to do is to go on a fact gathering mission. It is important to find out the behaviour that is being described - different people have different definitions of bullying, and knowing what they are referring to is critical. The definition of bullying is 'unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated over time. There are three types of bullying: verbal bullying (e.g., repeated teasing, threatening); social bullying (e.g., telling others not to be friends with someone; spreading rumors; embarrassing someone in public); and physical bullying (hitting, pushing, pinching, spitting, taking or breaking someone's things). While many people focus on physical bullying, EACH of the above should be treated as equally unacceptable. They all have significant long term consequences on the social and emotional development of both the targeted child AND the bully. Research has shown that both bully and bullied are more likely than others to experience school failure, depression, violence, and other problems.

Next step: have a fact-exploring conversation with your child - with the goal of getting their perspective of the incident and situation, and understanding their feelings. Start off reminding yourself that it is important to keep your emotions at bay, and that this is a perfect learning opportunity. The result of the conversation should not be to exonerate or execute; it should be to explore, illuminate, and educate. There are many reasons why children bully others, including: mirroring role models (hopefully, it is a Donald Trump-like character and not a parent); being bullied themselves; trying to fit in with a peer group that encourages bullying; lacking empathy; having strong needs for control; lacking appropriate social skills; and, releasing feelings of frustration, depression or anger by taking it out on others.

Follow up by: a short-term plan to address the issue (e.g., if appropriate - apologies, restitution); a method to monitor the changes that are made (check-ins with the parent of the bullied child or with teacher); and, a longer-term plan for skills development in areas that are weak (e.g., if your child has limitations in empathy, they may need coaching in sensitivity training and encouragement to volunteer with vulnerable others on a more long-term basis; if your child is controlling and has strong needs to be in charge, they may need to work with a therapist). Finally, if one of the parents or significant others (e.g., sibling, grandparent) in your child's life is a poor role model, family therapy should be sought.

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What to Do If your Child Is A Bully

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