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Is My Child a Bully?

Signs of bullying behavior—and what schools and parents can do about it

 Getting a phone call from your child’s teacher that your child has been engaging in bullying behaviors may be one of the most uncomfortable, embarrassing situations a parent can encounter. 

“No one wants to think of their child as a bully,” says Celia Heppner, clinical psychologist at Children’s Health and assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.  

Even the term “bully” elicits negative feelings. “Many parents may associate shame with this topic and are resistant to speak out even if the child got help,” says Fort Worth Independent School District director of counseling services Kathryn Everest.  

Anti-bullying campaigns often focus on the victims, and rightfully so: Victims of bullying suffer from lasting harmful effects. But talking about the kids who bully—the kids whose actions these campaigns are trying to change—is taboo. In fact, local school districts contacted for this story couldn’t or wouldn’t contact parents or teachers to speak on the topic of children bullying others. For some districts, it’s a privacy issue that’s hard-coded into their anti-bullying policy.  

“For obvious reasons, we could not identify a parent whose child had been accused of bullying,” Tim Carroll, Allen ISD spokesperson, told me. 

“I understand where you’re going with it but a school won’t contact a parent with that request,” said Lesley Range-Stanton, spokesperson for Plano ISD. “I would not be able to connect you with a parent for your story.” 

For some districts, it’s a privacy issue that’s hard-coded into their anti-bullying policy. Arlington ISD, for example, must make every possible effort to “respect the privacy of the complainant, persons against whom a report is filed, and witnesses” of a bullying complaint. 

But it’s not just policy that’s keeping educators and families quiet. Though Everest tracked down a family in Fort Worth ISD for the story, she said “they are so ashamed” that they didn’t want to speak to reporters.  

No wonder parents may be reluctant to admit that their child is a bully—when a child exhibits bullying behaviors toward others, the parents have to deal with not only their child’s behavior but also the shame associated with the label. 

But there are important steps parents can take to change their child’s behavior, and that includes working with school officials to get their child the best help possible. 

Imbalance of Power 

There isn’t a single reason kids bully, says Denton ISD director of counseling support Amy Lawrence. But generally, a bully tries to intimidate another person with the goal of seeking attention or power. 

By definition, bullying refers to the use of strength or influence to intimidate or harass someone into doing something. Often, there is a size or power imbalance—and not just physical power. 

For that reason, bullying doesn’t always come in the form of physical conflict, says Heppner. 

“The common perception of bullying is a physical thing, but it’s much more common for kids to experience verbal bullying,” she says. “Some kids may [only] experience verbal threats, but these are still really scary and traumatic nonetheless.” 

Other forms of bullying include spreading rumors and intentional exclusion—think Mean Girls

When these tactics are used through electronic communication, it’s known as cyberbullying, which is becoming more common as kids increasingly use messaging apps and spend time on Instagram and other social sites. 

Because bullies tend to seek power or status, Heppner says there are two groups of children who are at higher risk of bullying others: kids who are more popular and have more social power among their peers, and, ironically, their opposites—kids who feel more isolated from their peers.  

A meta-analysis published in School Psychology Quarterly in 2010 found that both genders engage in bullying behavior, but boys do so more than girls. 

The study also revealed that children who lack social problem-solving skills and have academic troubles are more likely to become bullies. Bullies may have been bullied themselves at some point, or they may experience abuse or other problems at home.  

Even if a child’s home life contributes to the behavior, the bullying usually happens away from the home and the watchful eyes of parents. 

“To some extent, parents won’t see how [their kids] engage with their peers at school,” Heppner says.  

However, there are some warning signs that parents will notice at home indicating that their child might be engaging in bullying behaviors, Lawrence says. For one, aggressive action at home may signal aggressive action at school or online. 

“They might get in lots of physical altercations,” she explains, or they may see verbal aggression as a normal way of interacting with others. “They don’t accept responsibility in their actions,” she says. 

“The common perception of bullying is a physical thing, but it’s much more common for kids to experience verbal bullying,” she says. “Some kids may [only] experience verbal threats, but these are still really scary and traumatic nonetheless.” 

Heppner adds that kids who bully may come home with extra money or other things they’ve taken from other kids, and parents may get phone calls that their child is getting in trouble at school—even if the word “bully” isn’t explicitly used. 

Parents can also look to their child’s friends—if a child’s best buddies are bullies, the child may be too. 

These are all signs that something’s wrong, experts say. And by joining kids in their extracurricular activities, asking them about their friends and school life, and regularly speaking with teachers, parents have a better chance of being clued in to possible behavioral issues.  

After all, teachers have a front-row seat. 

Within These Walls 

A fifth-grade teacher at Arlington Independent School District, whom we’ll refer to as John, says bullying is a behavioral issue that affects the entire classroom. (John spoke with us on the condition of anonymity because the district did not approve the interview.) 

“If they are bullying others, you’ll see them in close proximity to others, hovering over other students, constantly badgering others and trying to intimidate them,” he says. “A lot of it’s verbal.” 

In some cases, he says, bullying is the result of something completely meaningless. Last year, for example, he says one child was relentlessly bullied after he bought a Batman-branded pencil at a book fair.  

Many times, the same child engages in a pattern of bullying, and ultimately, this behavior creates a classroom disruption. “There are times we have to keep kids 10–15 feet away from other students,” John reveals. “Sometimes we can’t even put them together in the same room, and we have to make modifications for [art and music classes]” if one child repeatedly displays bullying behavior toward another. 

John says the district’s anti-bullying policy offers guidance to teachers when a bullying incident happens. “We contact parents and get a hold of counselors so they can speak to kids,” he explains.  

But in meetings with parents, John says he avoids using the word “bully.” That’s because this word prompts additional documentation and paperwork that could lead to the child’s removal from the school. “We try to avoid that as much as possible because anytime the student is outside of the classroom, they’re not learning,” he says. 

While there are no federal laws on bullying (beyond federal anti-discrimination laws), individual states do have laws for how school districts should react to bullying behavior. Per the Texas Education Code, each independent school district must create its own anti-bullying policy that includes procedures for reporting bullying, investigating bullying claims, and informing parents of the victim and the bully. With the passage of David’s Law last year, anti-bullying policies and procedures must address cyberbullying too. 

What those procedures look like is up to the districts. 

Under Arlington ISD’s anti-bullying policy, teachers and principals are required to document each instance of bullying behavior so that the school can conduct an investigation. Following this procedure communicates that “we’re taking action to prevent bullying action in the classroom and throughout school,” John says. “If we mention [the behavior] to the parents and the parent gets angry because of that, we have to make sure documents are in a row.”  

That means anytime a child makes fun of someone else, or makes physical contact or does anything else that could be construed as bullying, teachers must file paperwork. After a pattern is observed, John explains, the child may be required to see a school counselor, receive extra monitoring of their behavior, be moved to another classroom, or temporarily attend Turning Point Alternative Elementary School.  

Sometimes this process can take months, John reveals. “Last year, there was a bullying situation where one student was constantly bullying three students,” he says. “It took close to three months to get sent to Turning Point after eight or nine office referrals and two parent complaints from the [parents of the] child that he was bullying.” 

Usually it doesn’t get that far. If John observes bullying first-hand, or another student tells John they’re being bullied, John first speaks to the student directly. Once the child knows that an adult is aware of the situation, the bullying tends to stop.  

If not, parents are called. “I keep it very straight and to the point,” John says. He tells the parents, “‘We had a verbal or physical altercation. This situation was brought upon by…’ If the parent asks me, ‘Do you think it’s bullying?’ I don’t say yes or no. I tell them I’ve noticed it before.” 

The Home Front 

Despite the fact that much of what we call bullying behavior happens at school, parents are one of the most important factors in preventing it. But parents can’t prevent what they don’t realize or admit is happening in the first place. 

The first step is acknowledging that there’s a behavioral issue, John says. “I get a lot of parents telling me, ‘Boys will be boys … weren’t you like this when you were a kid?’”  

Parents may be reluctant to believe a teacher’s report, or to acknowledge that their child’s aggressive behavior should be labelled “bullying.” There’s that feeling of shame associated with the term—parents must overcome this in order to deal with their child’s behavior, Heppner says. 

“One thing that helps is to think of it less of a label and more of a behavior: ‘Your child was involved in bullying,’” she says. 

It also helps parents to realize that bullying behavior is unfortunately more common than we all would like it to be. “Some people think that bullying is a really major behavioral problem, but [studies show that] 20 percent of kids are involved in bullying another kid at some point in their childhood,” Heppner reveals.  

That’s not to say bullying isn’t serious. Engaging in bullying behavior can have long-term consequences—and not just for the victim. According to researchers, kids who bully go on to participate in other aggressive, violent behaviors as teens and adults, such as homophobic name-calling, sexual harassment and dating violence, among other crimes. That’s why experts agree that invention needs to happen as early as possible. 

Once parents acknowledge that bullying is taking place and understand the importance of addressing the behavior, John says they usually ask: “What is my next step?” 

Many parents start noticing the patterns after that, even if they’re still unsure of why the bullying is happening or how to respond.  

“Parents aren’t always sure what to do or how to understand their kids’ behavior,” Heppner says, and that’s OK. But parents can start by considering the severity of the bullying, how long it’s been going on, the age of the children involved, and how this behavior fits into their child’s personality and environment. 

In taking stock of the environmental factors that may be affecting their child’s behavior, parents may need to take a long, hard look at themselves. After all, kids often learn their behavior—both good and bad—from parents and other family members. 

This also means that parents can help their child by modeling how to appropriately treat peers and build healthy relationships. Parents should put a stop to any bullying among siblings, as tolerating that behavior in the home sends a message that it’s OK elsewhere too. 

Lawrence says that open communication in the family is key to changing a child’s bullying behavior. And she adds that parents do not have to go it alone. They should take full advantage of in-school counseling opportunities for their child and, depending on the severity of the behavior, consider outside counseling too. 

“What we provide in schools is brief, solutions-oriented help, but often they need more support,” Lawrence says.