Bullying: When Your Child is a Bully

What does it mean to bully?

Children who bully act aggressively toward others. The aggressive acts can be physical, sexual, or verbal. Those targeted are called victims.

What are types of bullying behaviors?

Physical bullies may hit, pinch, kick, shove, bite, or pull a victim’s hair.

Verbal bullies may insult, start or spread rumors, tease, and make threats. Cyber bullies use texting or the internet to spread gossip or make threats.

Sexual bullies may make sexual comments or threaten unwanted sexual acts. The goal is to humiliate the victim. Sexual bullying may also include unwanted touch, such as snapping a bra strap.

How can adults tell the difference between horseplay and bullying? It helps to look at the actions from the victim's point of view. Does the victim consider the aggressive actions to be fun? Or is the victim distressed or in physical or emotional pain?

Why do children become bullies?

Children and teens who bully do so for many reasons. They may be bored and want excitement. They may once have been victims of bullying and now bully others to feel powerful. They may seek revenge. They may pick on others to become more popular. They dislike differences and target anyone they see as different. Bullies simply do not care that what they are doing or saying is hurtful to the victim.

Many children who bully have parents who verbally or physically abuse them. Some children who bully have parents who allow them to do anything they want. When parents give in to their child's demands, they show their child that bullying works.

Males are more likely to be physical bullies and females more likely to be verbal bullies. Bullies are likely to be poor students. They are also more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Bullies are typically not loners and misfits. They are usually popular and often get others to go along with them.

What can I do to help my child stop being a bully?

Here are some ways to prevent or stop bullying:

  • Avoid yelling or becoming physically aggressive with your child.
  • Accept that your child could possibly have been a bully. Take the time to get all the necessary information and listen to the people involved.
  • Look at your own behavior. Do you belittle, intimidate, or become aggressive with others? Are you showing your child how to be a bully?
  • Watch your tone and the words you use when talking to your child. Criticize the behavior, not the child. It is not a good idea to label your child as 'good' or 'bad'.
  • Resist being overly permissive, particularly when your child is demanding something from you.
  • Clearly tell your child that bullying actions must stop. Let them know the consequences for future bullying actions.
  • Help your child understand how it might feel to be bullied by others, and that other people dislike bullies.
  • Develop healthy ways for your child to display angry feelings without taking them out on others.
  • Change unhealthy family patterns when needed, especially how family members express anger.
  • Insist your child apologize to their victim(s) and replace any damaged property.
  • Catch your child being good. Remember that the most important way to change behavior is to notice and reward your child when they express anger in healthy, acceptable ways.

It is important for your child to see that the adults around them (particularly parents) are following the same rules. You cannot teach children to stop bullying if they are being abused or scared by adults.

What about professional help?

If your child continues to bully others, get help for him or her as soon as possible. Treatment works better if it is started early in life. Individual, family, or group psychotherapy may help.

Your child can learn new ways of behaving toward others, and better ways of thinking about goals. Sometimes medicine may be prescribed to help decrease aggressiveness and irritability.

Without help, bullying can lead to serious school, social, emotional, and even legal problems. Ask your child's teacher, principal, school counselor, or healthcare provider for a referral.

Written by Pamela Daniel, PhD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-28
Last reviewed: 2010-06-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.