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How to Handle It When Your Kid Is the Bully

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When your child is the bully, how do you handle it? One grandma shares her story.

My daughter called me upset one day on her way home from work to tell me about a problem she’d been having with her 6-year-old son, my grandson. He’d been acting out at school, she said, behaving aggressively towards his classmates. She mentioned pushing, grabbing toys, and after a fun classroom activity, she said he announced to the entire class, “That was so boring!” My daughter says his first-grade teacher told her, “It was as if he just wanted attention all of a sudden.”

It was only the second week of school and already they’d met with the principal and feared expulsion. “We don’t know what to do,” my daughter told me. 

According to new research, about one in four kids experience chronic bullying — in elementary school. If it’s a regular event, imagine if the 6-year-old doing the bullying was yours, what would you do?  

When Your Child Is the Bully

Brenda LoPresto, principal at Pioneer Elementary School (not theirs) in Glendale, Arizona, says my daughter already did two things right. She initiated open dialogue with both her child and with the school. 

That’s the beginning of a fix. It might be a quick one or it might take several months, according to the experts. But what you don’t want to do is take the problem personally. LoPresto says recognize it exists and understand at that age it’s most likely a stage. 

Experts agree that some pre-kindergarten through first grade level kids need a little extra help transitioning from home to school. If it’s yours, don’t expect much more of a response from the child than, “I don’t know why I did that.” 

Dr. Russell Horton, a pediatrician with Banner Health Center in Queen Creek, Arizona, said it’s a common problem at the start of the school year, and it’s one he’s dealt with at home with his own son. 

“Change is especially hard [for 5- to 7-year-olds],” he says, “and they may respond with aggression. It’s normal for their age.” 

A few situations he says that could cause problems at school: the child himself is being picked on, he’s not clicking with the teacher, his best friend isn’t in his class, or he’s experiencing some developmental issue. 

“Boys might be even more aggressive than girls, because they bond by touching and interacting physically with each other,” says former teacher/school administrator Katey McPherson, executive director of the Gurian Institute, an educational consulting firm that focuses on brain development and learning.

“Boys like to take risks. They’re impulsive. But kids [this age], in general, don’t know how to set their own limits yet. Their brains are not fully developed.” 

While the natural qualities used to get what you want in childhood — control and manipulation — are the same qualities that make excellent leaders, it can be difficult to deal with, and the really smart kids are master manipulators, McPherson says. “They know exactly how to maneuver the adults in their lives…to see what they can get away with.”  

Beware of Labels

But McPherson, who is also co-founder of a bullying prevention program called BE THE ONE, is wary of labels. Kids internalize labels, such as “bad” or “bully,” she says, which only encourages more of the behavior you don’t want.

Instead, she says, spend time working with your children at home on how to solve and cope with problems. This could include simply discussing how the child is doing with the character-building programs schools now use to foster safe and responsible behavior. Of 39 scientifically studied, 33 were found to be effective. LoPresto’s school district also shares a “Parent’s Guide to Bullying” pamphlet that offers tips. One tip for the young kids having trouble transitioning, it suggests setting a timer for practice. They get a set number of minutes to work on one project or activity before moving on to the next, just as they would at school. 

One-one-one attention at home helps make sure parents are meeting the child’s need to be seen, heard and loved, says McPherson. 

“If he’s missing out on any of these attachment needs, that can show up in behavioral issues at school… All children need one-on-one attention, but some need more than others until they move on to other things that interest them more, or they outgrow this developmental phase.” 

Dr. Horton agrees. Behavior that might be deemed “bullying” is complicated. “There’s not always a quick fix,” he says, “You have to dig in to find out what’s happening at school. Is the child hitting, yelling, insisting on being first all the time?” 

He encourages parents who may get the ominous written note from school to reach out to the teacher and other school officials right away to discuss what’s going on. 

McPherson says a face-to-face meeting gives parents the opportunity to advocate for their child and share insight on any changes at home that might be the root cause of the problem at school. Is there a recent divorce, a move, a new baby? Is the child behaving like this at home? 

“It’s going to be different for each child,” says the pediatrician. 

When Your Child Is Accused of Bullying: What to Ask

“There’s a reason for every single behavior. The parent’s job is to find out what it is,” McPherson says. Questions to ask during a parent-teacher meeting include: 

• What exactly was the behavior?
• When did the behavior occur?
• How often has it been occurring?
• With whom did it happen?
• Is this before lunch or after lunch?
• Who is supervising?
• How was it handled?

To get the clearest picture, she recommends working in tandem with the school to chart what’s happening on campus 10 days in a row. Then you can take that information to the pediatrician for a proper assessment. 

Horton says these issues are definitely part of his profession’s wheelhouse. Pediatricians have insights into child development that parents and teachers may not have. They can offer suggestions and strategies for improvement, initiate tests and make recommendations to take back to the school for further evaluation and assistance, if needed. 

“The problem is never about the behavior itself,” says McPherson, agreeing with Horton to look beyond behavior in order to get to the root cause. With clear data, parents can determine if the child is angry, frustrated or afraid, and about what. Perhaps he’s lashing out because he doesn’t understand a project and is embarrassed. The child could be fatigued, have a food allergy, low blood sugar issues, problems with eyesight or eye-hand coordination that slows him down. It could be hormonal. Kids might even be spending too much time on tech devices, not getting enough sleep or eating right. There could be an acute crisis going on at home that the teacher’s unaware of, or an undiagnosed disorder that might require treatment. And don’t rule out a classroom management problem.

McPherson says the documentation and evidence will help the entire team find a positive solution.

“If it’s a simple fix, it can be corrected in a week,” says Horton, “but if it’s developmental, it could take months...If it’s a recurring problem, I recommend a child therapist to work with the family for long-term success.” 

One of the biggest challenges LoPresto sees with kids these days is too much time on their “tech toys.”

“Time on technology means not having meaningful conversations with others, both peers and adults,” she says, recommending you shut down the toys, especially at dinnertime. Instead, use that time at the dinner table to discuss what’s going on. Find out what the incident looked like to your child and also what it might have looked like to the other person involved. “This is one way we learn empathy,” says the school principal. 

Bullying Behavior May Not Last

“It’s also important for families to understand that an experience in school like this is not a lifelong sentence. It’s a learning opportunity,” LoPresto says. 

Developmentally, kids this age don’t reasonably handle every challenge, and you can’t expect them to,” says Horton. They may not deal with disappointment well, either, especially if they are catered to at home. At school, they won’t always get the toy they want, win the game or understand an assignment right away. 

“They have to learn to deal with let-downs,” he says. Parents, teachers, pediatricians, therapists and principals can work together to help the child move on from these disappointments without letting emotions take over. The good news is a lot of this is age-related. As they mature, Dr. Horton says, kids generally outgrow the problem. 

This article was written by Jackie Dishner.

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