What if you received a call from your kid’s school that said…

Your kid was given detention for bullying another kid. Or worse, a suspension. 

What would you do? 

Would you believe it? 

It’s hard to think of our kids as bullies. Sure, they may not be super sweet all the time, and yeah they give attitude and back talk at home, but bullying another kid? It’s hard to imagine and stomach. 

The truth is Canada has higher bullying rates than 2/3 of the rest of the world. 

Statistically, that means that there is a pretty good likelihood that your kid has been involved in a bullying incident and they weren’t on the receiving end. 

Before you jump to the conclusion that you somehow failed as a parent (we banish those assumptions from this newsletter!) let’s explore why bullying happens and what it means about what your kid really needs from you.

Are bullies just mean, bad people?

This is the message coming from many anti-bullying campaigns; That a bully is someone who has no qualms about hurting someone else physically, emotionally, or socially. They are just mean. They don’t care. That we have to teach bullies to be kinder because they don’t know how. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Bullying is a behavior not a personality trait. “Bullies” are not bad people. They are just people who hurt others because they don’t know how to handle their own internal hurt. 

Does that make bullying OK? Not at all. But it does give you a direction to start with if you suspect your kid may be engaging in some of these hurtful behaviours. 

Here are some behaviours that are considered bullying: 

  • Talking behind someone’s back
  • Name calling
  • Judging someone  – their appearance, mannerisms, choices, intelligence etc. 
  • Making fun of someone/mocking someone/imitating someone
  • Intimidating someone 
  • Ignoring someone’s boundaries or requests
  • Invading someone’s privacy
  • Unappreciated “pranks” or “jokes”
  • Forming “alliances” that cast aside one person socially
  • Laughing at someone or smirking at them
  • Physical, emotional, social, sexual, or financial violence (considered abuse)
  • Whispering about them when they are near to upset them or make them question whether you were talking about them
  • Lying about someone or spreading rumours
  • Setting up situations to make someone look foolish
  • Damaging friendships or reputations
  • Racism, homophobia, ableism, fat phobia, transphobia or making disparaging comments about one’s culture, religion, beliefs or values
  • Embarrassing someone
  • Using social media and text messages to hurt someone

And more…

It’s a pretty ugly list. 

And unfortunately, we’re all a little guilty of doing something on this list at one point or another. 

And we’re not bad people. But we made choices that hurt others. Think back to why you made that choice?

Did you feel left out yourself?
Did you feel that you had to play along to fit in?
Did it make you feel good, accepted, or popular?
Did you not like the other person? Why? What emotions did they bring up in you?
Were you envious or jealous of them?
Had they hurt you at one point? Did you want to get even?
Were you in emotional pain yourself?
Did you feel unwanted, unloved, unlikeable – socially or at home?
Were you bullied growing up? Abused?
Did it gain you some social power or approval/attention from someone you were trying to impress?

There are many reasons why people bully. But the most common one is people bully because they feel lonely, unwanted, unacceptable, not good enough and powerless. 

The second most common is to avoid getting bullied oneself. It is easier to throw someone else under the bus then risk getting dragged under yourself. Bullying sometimes is a matter of social survival when there don’t appear to be other options. 

If you feel not good enough, having social accolades and inclusion can fill a void (temporarily) to make you feel secure in yourself. Bullying in this sense is about survival. You feel if I don’t bully, I will become bullied and I cannot handle that.

As you can see, people who bully are hurting. 

Of course this isn’t a newsletter saying that the people who do harm are the “real victims”. That’s very complicated. People who do harm 100% need to recognize and be accountable for their treatment of others and make appropriate reparations and amends. 

The damage of being bullied on one’s self-worth and wellbeing is grave. People who are bullied absolutely take priority in terms of needing support and care. 

But we also need to go to the source to fix the issue of bulling. And if your kid is involved at the source, the first step is to understand WHY they may be seeking social acceptance, power and self-worth in these hurtful ways and then help them emotionally and socially regulate. 

So if you have overheard your kid talking behind someones back, mocking a classmate, sending nasty text messages, using slurs, or excluding a peer – it’s time to step in. Chances are your kid is simply going along with what everyone else is doing and doesn’t intend to bully. They may not even realize that what they are doing is considered bullying. But the person on the receiving end of their behavior is hurting. As parents, this is one example when our wisdom, clear instruction, and advocacy is well warranted.  

There are three steps you will want to take: 

1) Get to the root of your own kid’s pain. What are they feeling and what are they hoping to achieve by engaging in these behaviours? Do they need reassurance that they are loved and cared for? Are they feeling misunderstood? Can you help them socially and emotionally regulate? 

2) Help your kid see the impact of their behaviour on others and help them make more empowered choices. How would they feel if the tables were turned? Do they feel good knowing others are hurting? Is there a different option they could choose that would enable them to still feel socially accepted that doesn’t cause pain to someone else? Can they set a new social standard at their school or at least for themselves?

3) Set concrete rules about how others deserve to be treated. Make clear what words, actions, omissions, and behaviours are simply not acceptable and not part of your family’s value systems. Point out what your family values are (e.g. inclusivity, kindness, showing support, asking for help etc.) and compassionately remind them (and help guide them back) when they cross those values. 

Typically I don’t adopt a “rule” based approach to parenting, however when it comes to the welfare of others, we need to have clear guidelines on what is and isn’t acceptable treatment of our fellow humans.