Why Kids Bully, and How We Can Address It

Bullying is a sensitive topic for kids, parents, and those of us who work closely with young people. It seems like everywhere you turn, there are news stories, TV shows, and podcasts discussing high-profile cases of bullying and articles for parents desperate to help a child who is being bullied—or intercede if they suspect their child is doing the bullying.

What Is Bullying?

When I thought about how to approach this post, I asked my kids to define bullying.

My daughter, who is in the first grade, said, “Bullying is doing mean or hurtful things over and over. Like saying, ‘Hey, shrimp! Hey shrimp! You’re a shrimp!’”

She honed in on the word I’d told her kids had used when I was a child, and was picked on for being small for my age.  I loved her response, and then clarified the difference between teasing and bullying. She also mentioned “standby bullies”—a person who doesn’t intercede when they see bullying. (I enjoy her take on the bystander bully.)

My eight year old was more pragmatic—he sighed, “We’ve been taught not to bully. And you have to stick up for the person being bullied.”

What is bullying, at its core? Research tells us that it’s about power.

Kids who bully have often been taught by experience that bullying allows them to gain or keep power. It’s also a way for kids who feel isolated or on the outskirts of social groups to claim power—the “hurt or be hurt” philosophy.

Many of us grew up in an environment that told us we should take our lumps and deal with bullying (though it wasn’t referred to as that) on our own. For some people, that philosophy works. But for others, they carry the message that they are less-than (or unsafe) into adulthood. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about bullying in the open now, and that schools are playing a larger role in addressing the issue by educating students on what bullying is and how to take steps to prevent it, or stop it when they see it. They also help identify children who might be at risk for peer aggression or abuse in education plan meetings. It’s helpful for parents to know that the load is not fully on us to tackle this problem. I have to say I felt some relief myself when my children shared their thoughts.

What Should Parents Do about Bullying?

There is so much advice out there that we may feel numb to the question. But let’s take a breath and consider: What do we really want for our children?

For most parents, our goal is to have our children feel safe, to feel comfortable approaching trusted adults if they have a problem, to eventually be able to stick up for themselves, and to be kind to others.

There is no manual for any aspect of parenting, including helping a child who is bullying or bullied.

But some general guidelines for parents could be:

Let your child raise the issue: As with most things, the more a parent pushes a child to open up or talk about something, the less likely they are to engage. Ask open-ended questions, but don’t push too hard. Try to be okay with the message, “I don’t want to talk right now.”  Give them invitation to bring it up if they ever want to. Your patience can be a valuable sign of respect, and can help them feel in control. The ironic part is this: the more space you give, the more intimacy you get….as long as it is attentive and caring space (versus ignoring).

Don’t get caught up in the shoulds: Your child should be able to stand up for themselves. Your child should not be bullying. You should have noticed the problem before the school called. Don’t put that much pressure on yourself and it will make noticing issues—and addressing them with your child—easier.

Turn toward the bully: I am moved by the story of an African tribe (Baemba) that deals with those who act unjustly by ceasing work and sharing stories of all the good things the person has done. Understandably, this idea may be hard to swallow for a parent of a child who has sat with the pain that can result from being the target of aggression, but I feel like this tribe really has it right from a prevention-of-an- epidemic perspective. Violence is often a result of shame. We manage shame; we manage aggression.

Bullying might really be tempered if we find different ways to become curious about, and then care for, teach, and empower the one who feels he or she must act this way. It can be difficult, but it’s part of the work.

Samantha O’Connell, PhD, is Chief Psychologist and Director of the Employee Assistance Program at Aspire Health Alliance.

For additional resources for youth, check out South Shore Health’s Youth Health Connection.