Is My Kid OK? -- When Your Child Bullies
Q: There is much talk about kids being bullied these days. However, my dilemma seems to be from the opposite side. There are times when my daughter seems to be the one doing the bullying. Sometimes she is just not nice to others. I have also noticed several times that she and her girlfriends can be very exclusive. We have always tried to be role models of kindness and respect in our home, but I am suspicious that there are times when she is mean to other girls. What should we do?
A: All behavior has a reason, and most of those reasons have to do with meeting needs. This is true for adults as well as children. When your infant cries (a behavior), it is a need to be fed (a basic need). When your boss takes credit for your idea, it is in order to meet his need for achievement. When a child bullies, it is usually to meet one of his or her basic needs such as safety (being seen as "tougher" than another child and therefore less vulnerable), acceptance (being a part of the "cool" crowd) or the respect of others (even if it is based in fear). Spreading a rumor about a classmate may ensure that the aggressive girl has more friends. Telling others they cannot play with a certain child forces kids to choose and "proves" the aggressive girl's superiority.
There is a fine line between helping your child and doing for her. Young girls need to learn to handle conflict, whether they are on the giving or receiving end. However, they need parents to teach them. As you mention, modeling is an important component of teaching. Parents who talk badly about others or gossip to one friend behind another's back may soon see their actions mirrored in their child's relationships. Notice how you meet your own needs for safety (of mind, body and property), power, and acceptance. It is likely that your child will learn these as coping skills as well. This does not mean every mean child has mean parents, or even that most of them do. It simply means that our children pick up our behaviors and sometimes multiply them in their interactions.
Beyond awareness of your actions, communication is key. Children who learn their family's values in a relaxed and respectful way are likely to shape their behaviors after these values, so it is important to find opportunities to impart your belief system to your children. This does not mean just religion, but anything you believe strongly. When your child is watching TV, you could sit down with her and discuss the conflicts in the show during commercials. Engage your children at dinner or during free time in discussions of what is going on among their friends. Elicit thoughts about the way people are treated and really listen, then let your child know your thoughts as well.
Confronting mean behavior is a positive thing. For example, if your daughter comes home from school and says she is Jane's best friend and they wouldn't let Sally play with them, let her know that is not OK. Explain in an even tone that Sally was probably sad about that and brainstorm with your daughter ways to be more inclusive. As she grows, continue to talk to her about our society's way of treating one another. Rather than lecturing, have regular discussions about how people get power and how they can use it to help or hurt. Try not to be punitive about small things, but always reinforce a kinder way to act. If the bullying gets to be more serious you may need to seek out intervention. Some kids have a harder time developing empathy than others. In this case, counseling may be helpful to explore reasons that a child is not connecting emotionally with others.
In any case, children need to be taught that harming others, physically or emotionally, is not the way to get ahead in life. Under pressure children turn to what they know in order to cope, so do your best to ensure that what they know is kindness.
Regina Alexander is a licensed clinical social worker. Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by emailing email@example.com.