As parents, it can be upsetting and confusing to see children intentionally hurting each other physically or emotionally. When bullying occurs, we search for simple explanations and solutions. We label the bullying behavior as “wrong” and the person who bullies as the “problem.”
While steps are rightfully taken to support the child who was bullied, the bully’s behavior is usually met with anger and punishment. Far less consideration is given for needs of the youth doing the bullying. However, the presence of bullying behaviors may actually be a sign that help is needed.
Who Is Likely to Be a Bully?
Children who are overly concerned with views of popularity or a desire to dominate others are more likely to demonstrate bullying behavior. On the flip side, some bullies may be more isolated socially or have difficulty connecting with others.
Bullying could be a product of the environment. It is often modeled by adults or other children in their life. Especially when there is a history of abuse, children may be highly reactive or aggressive when they encounter conflict or stress. Furthermore, bullies can be the victim of another’s bullying actions which further increases the likelihood of negative outcomes.
What Are Some of the Negative Outcomes Linked to Bullying?
Compared to other children who are not involved in bullying, children who bully are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and are at elevated risk for suicide.
Some bullies struggle to understand others’ emotions or lack empathy for victims. Others use bullying to exert control over friends or classmates. Emotional problems underlying bullying behavior can include:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy
- Stress or conflict in the home
- History of trauma or abuse
What Are the Signs I Should Look for If My Child Is Bullying Others?
- Over-concern with popularity or being “in charge” of others
- Feelings of social isolation or difficulty connecting with others socially
- Aggressive or reactive when easily frustrated
- Difficulty handling conflict with others, including blaming and “using” others
- Negative view of others
- Rule-breakers or children who struggle to follow rules
- Positive view of violence/aggression
- Friends who are bullying others
What Can I Do to Help a Child Who Is Exhibiting Bullying Behavior?
- Talk with your child often and listen to what they have to say. Let them know you care about them and are there to help. Check-in regularly to increase the chances that they will share with you.
- Model and teach empathy and positive behaviors to your child, including respectful and kind actions, as well as healthy conflict resolution.
- Monitor your child’s behavior at home and with peers to provide positive reinforcement (praise and rewards) for pro-social changes to behavior or immediately and calmly address aggression when necessary.
- Establish and reinforce clear, consistent rules and appropriate consequences about bullying in your home. Be realistic and patient in your expectations of behavior change, as these things can take time but will get better. Let them know you love them, even if they make a mistake.
- Collaborate with your school on addressing concerns you may have about bullying. They can be your allies in helping your child improve behavior and identifying concerns for emotional distress.
- Find ways to encourage your child to build their support network and involve them in activities at school or in the community to foster connection and feeling valued.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your child is struggling to change their behavior or demonstrating symptoms of depression or risk for suicide, resources and Behavioral Health services are available to help.
What Is the Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide?
The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex. Evidence suggests that bullying is one of many risk factors for youth suicide. Suicide is not a typical reaction to bullying and thoughts of suicide or self-harm suggest that the child is in a great deal of emotional pain. It is also critical to note that suicide is largely preventable with awareness and the right tools, and there are steps you can take to reduce this risk and support a child who is bullying others.
If you or your child need immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741-741. If there is an immediate safety concern, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.