Help, My Child Is a “Bully”
An interview with Dina Olivas, LCSW
When I was 5 years old, I was often on the receiving end of a playground bully. I remember hugging a child in the sandbox only to be shoved down and teased. The act left a lasting mark on me. Now, as a parent, I work to give my kids the tools to appropriately respond to bullying — but what would I do if my child was the one doing the shoving? We talked with Dina Olivas, LCSW, about how to help turn the tide for a child prone to bullying and lessen the impact of parental guilt and other emotions brought on by the behavior. – Christina Montoya Fiedler, TMC Web Content Producer
How do you age- appropriately explain bullying to a child so that they understand what bullying is and how it affects others?
We all remember the first time our toddler hit us, whether out of anger or just because, and our immediate visceral reaction. This usually leads to a dialogue about how we want others to treat us and how we treat others. Our job in guiding our children on how to handle bullying takes place as “teachable moments,” which present themselves at each developmental milestone. We always want to keep in mind two things when addressing any social-emotional learning opportunities: 1) what developmental task is my child trying to master at this age and 2) what is my child feeling at that moment. Are there any physical needs and triggers (i.e. hungry, tired, lonely etc.), and what is the appropriate behavioral expression of intense emotions for them.
By teaching children how to self-regulate their emotions and their behaviors, we are preparing them to handle any situation including living with aggressive peers or learning how to stop themselves from bullying others. We do that through teaching new social-emotional skills with every new situation, encouraging desirable behaviors through praise and positive attention, and managing misbehavior through modeling and reinforcing pro-social behaviors. Our kids will mirror our behavior, which presents an opportunity for us as parents to regulate our emotions and behaviors as the ultimate teaching tool.
How can you start to teach empathy to a child that is prone to bullying from an early age?
Social-emotional intelligence is incremental and we are constantly building our children’s skill set. The foundation of empathy is teaching children to identify and label feelings and triggers. This process of understanding our “internal selves” starts in infancy. Infants read emotional cues and attempt to get in attunement with their parent. Toddlers often hit in reaction to an emotion or in asserting their needs as they are learning to “use their words.” The more we model appropriate reaction to events in daily life, the more we have the opportunity to also show our kids appropriate behavioral expression of our feelings. Our kids are watching every behavior we display and are able to integrate empathy as they witness adults and peers display it daily through language and actions.
What tools can you give your child to stop bullying if he sees it happen?
Peers play a powerful role in stopping bullying and creating a culture that will not tolerate that kind of behavior. By agreeing not to tolerate bullying and vocalizing disapproval, our kids help create a culture that is kind and accepting. We need small groups of peers to stand together and back each other when they are “calling out bullies” on unacceptable behavior. We need to pull in their teachers, yard duty staff, school administrators, and afterschool program staff to make sure that schools have a proactive response to preventing bullying and a swift response to inappropriate behavior. Our kids look to adults to create an environment that is safe, that listens to children’s fears and concerns, and will not tolerate retribution for asking adults for help.
Role-playing with our kids on what to say when they witness or are a victim of bullying is vital. We have to teach our kids to get out of dangerous situations through use of language, humor or physically creating distance with aggressive peers. Teaching our kids to observe social situations can often help them in anticipating a situation that could become a bullying opportunity. Even practicing how to ask an adult for help can prepare our kids to take action when needed.
How can a parent reconcile with other parents if your son/daughter has “hurt” their child?
It is very evident when a parent of an aggressive child is receptive to discussing an incident. As parents, we often get defensive and feel ineffective when our child acts out on their peers. This can often thwart a frank discussion. Informally dialoguing with other parents about the challenges of raising a child and how aggression impacts your child can happen at the park, school activities, or even at a birthday party when we often see children’s most difficult behaviors. A non-judgmental approach and showing empathy for the “bully” is what is needed to keep their parent’s receptive to dialogue.
When safety is involved, parents need to work with school or childcare program to ensure their child is protected. Sometimes the extent of other children’s behavior and the impact it is having on your child is not really known. Remembering that a “bully” is a child who has not yet learned to regulate their emotions and behaviors is helpful. Their parents often are struggling with how to address this and may seek help if it is offered. Schools and other programs for children can often provide support and a positive behavioral plan to help that child with aggressive outburst.
What advice do you have to the parents of bulliers for dealing with their own feelings of remorse and, perhaps, guilt?
As parents we have to accept quite early on that even young children are individuals and have a will of their own. This will save us from that often useless “parent guilt” and move us into learning strategies for managing behaviors. When we are confident and clear with our children, we can often implement effective parenting strategies that suit the needs of children. Confidence in parenting techniques can be learned. All parents struggle with behaviors and getting concrete behavioral management techniques from books, taking a parenting class, or getting some support from a counselor is helpful. Many parenting curriculum exists and can truly help in building confidence as a parent.
When we understand our child’s triggers for aggression and that they react not to both internal emotions and predictable social situations, we are better able to give them concrete techniques to manage. We often notice that some kids are more adept at reading social cues, are sensitive to feelings of others, and quick to and use appropriate responses to triggers. These social skills are teachable and directly impact children who are victims of bullying and the actual “bully”.
Dina Olivas, LCSW, has spent the past 27 years working with children, youth and family as a clinician and in developing and implementing community-based programs for at risk children and youth. She frequently speaks and trains others about topics such as family violence, cross cultural counseling, community and school-based mental health programs, spirituality and mental health. Past experience includes work at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Huntington Memorial Hospital/Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles Unified School District, California Institute of Technology, and her current position at Ventura County Behavioral Health.
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