Is YOUR child a bully? Psychotherapist reveals red flags

Is YOUR child a bully? Psychotherapist reveals why ‘always being a leader’ and having a ‘competitive’ streak could be a red flag – and the 8-step plan to tackle the issue

  • Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley shares signs your child might be a bully
  • Explained children who are ‘strong leaders’ might be manipulating others
  • Said other children might go out of their way to try and please a bully
  • Also offered her eight-step plan for tackling the issue without raising your voice 

Discovering your child has been bullied is like a stab to the heart. But finding out your child is the bully responsible can be even more distressing.

The knee-jerk reaction is often to jump to your child’s defence and insist there must have been a misunderstanding; your little one couldn’t possibly be the problem. 

But the reality is that this mentality is not helpful for you, your child or, crucially, the other children who might be suffering as a result of their behaviour, Irish psychotherapist Stella O’Malley explains. 

In her new book Bully-Proof Kids, O’Malley offers advice to children and families on how to deal confidently with bullying, both in school and online, including how to deal with ‘mob mentality’ and how to teach empathy. 

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL, O’Malley has shared the early warning signs every parent can look out for if they fear their child might be a bully, from a strong ‘leadership’ streak to other children going out of their way to please him or her. 

She also shared an eight-step plan to tackling the issue, starting with accepting that your child is the problem. 

‘We prefer to pretend to ourselves that everybody has it wrong and little Johnny is just being boisterous,’ she explains. ‘But it is actually very helpful to your child, and to everyone else, if you have the courage to admit that little Johnny has lost his way and needs some guidance about how to behave in a kinder manner.’

Here, O’Malley’s advice on how to do just that. 

In her new book Bully-Proof Kids, O’Malley offers advice to children and families on how to deal confidently with bullying, both in school and online, including how to deal with ‘mob mentality’ and how to teach empathy. Stock image

Warning signs your child might be a bully 

Your child is always the leader 

Be vigilant about how other children act around your child. Perhaps your child’s friends seem nervous or wary around your child? Or maybe your child always seems to have very sensitive and emotional friends who are distressed by your child’s actions?

If your child’s friends seem to be emotionally heightened when they are in your child’s company this suggests that your child is an intimidating presence. 

Likewise, if other children are over-eager to impress your child or very intense about putting your child’s needs first this indicates that there is a power imbalance that needs correcting. 

It can be valuable to interrupt the power-balance between your child and their friends and see how they cope with somebody else being the leader; if the group can only handle your child being the leader then you might probe the situation further.

Your child is competitive in friendships

Your child’s attitude to other children is a key method to figure out whether your child is a bully. 

If your child is dismissive or contemptuous of others or if he/she speaks about certain kids as if they are barely human, then parents need to be alert to the idea that their child has slipped into bullying behaviour. 

If your child describes relationships in terms of winning or losing and friends almost like troops in an army, then parents could do worse than exploring things further. 

Another red flag to watch out for is that if your child is puffed-up with a sense of power about their friend groups and sometimes seem to have a gleeful, competitive way of interacting with their friends.

Your child is regularly involved in conflict 

O’Malley’s new book about tackling bullying. She offers tips exclusively to FEMAIL

Ask your child about friendship dynamics and figure out your child’s pattern of behaviour. 

Some children are always involved in conflict of some sort with their friends. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bullies but it does suggest that parents should engage with the situation and try to figure out the typical pattern of behaviour preceding the conflict. 

We can learn much more by examining our children’s patterns than by focusing on today’s problem. Parents often make the mistake of focusing on the ins and outs of today’s issue rather than taking a leaf out of therapists’ book and focusing instead on the pattern.

Maybe your child likes to be the centre of attention and overpowers the group trying to force them to allow her to be the leader? Or perhaps your child can only handle one particular friendship at any given time and so he freezes out a third companion? 

Through asking your child questions about the issue at hand you will soon figure out the common theme that links all the issues.

Other adults speak about your child

Parents should listen carefully to other adults when they speak about your child. When a parent first hears that there has been a complaint about their child, our instinctive reaction is to defend our child. 

However the wiser response is to stay quiet and listen as it is only in listening that you can hope to get the full story. 

Active listening involves asking open questions such as ‘What happened then?’ or ‘How did it first start?’ so the speaker will be encouraged to speak further rather than more closed questions such as ‘Whose fault was it?’ or ‘Are they feeling better now?’ that leads to one word answers rather than more elaborate, nuanced answers. 

Parents can use the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking as a way to remind themselves that it is usually better to listen than to speak when other adults are talking about your child. 

Your child has been blocked online 

O’Malley says it is essential for parents to keep a close eye on their child’s online communications. If there is any dramatic change, it might be because they are a bully

If your child is often blocked from interacting with others or if they suddenly can’t access certain chats this is an indication that all is not well and perhaps your child needs to be taught to behave in a more civilised manner. 

As the writer Robert Ardrey tells us, ‘we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels’: children need guidance if they are to behave well and it is the parents who provide the majority of the guidance. 

This is why parents should have access to their children’s online activity and be able to monitor their interactions when necessary. 

The more parents help their child with their strengths and weakness, the more likely the child will be able to have self-acceptance and awareness that sometimes we lose our way and require some guidance to behave with kindness and humanity.

What to do if your child IS a bully

If these statements are ringing true and you think there’s a chance your child might be a bully then don’t panic, there are steps every parent can take to address the issues. 

1. Accept the evidence

It is very frightening when a parent realises that their child is bullying other children and many of us look away and refuse to accept the evidence.

In this context, the parent needs to find out the facts by speaking to everyone involved, without getting defensive. This can be very difficult but if you can gather all the information then you’ll be able to better understand why your child is behaving in a bullying manner and be able to help them behave in a kinder manner.

2. Do not shout

‘There is no need to rant or rave or try to shame your child for embarrassing you – this is not helpful for anybody and significantly increases the likelihood that your child will become an even bigger bully,’ O’Malley says. Stock image 

There is no need to rant or rave or try to shame your child for embarrassing you – this is not helpful for anybody and significantly increases the likelihood that your child will become an even bigger bully.

It is much more helpful to state the facts of what has been happening and to allow your child the time give their own version of events.

Your child’s narrative might not be true at all but it is valuable to allow them give their side of the story as it will likely present you with some insight into why your child has chosen to engage in bullying behaviour.

3. Work out your child’s motivation 

Most people bully as they are seeking power on some level. Parents of bullies need to figure out what it is that their child is searching for when they target someone. 

Perhaps your child feels like they are failing at school and so tries to regain a sense of power at lunchtime by acting aggressively towards others? Perhaps your child is looking for attention and hasn’t been successful in getting attention in a positive manner? Some children are more assertive and impulsive than others. Does your child need to rein in their impulsivity? 

Unhappy children can be paranoid and believe that others don’t like them and so they act in a hostile manner as an act of retaliation.

Many children who bully have not developed a sense of empathy and perhaps you need to teach your child how to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes? Essentially, hurt people hurt people, and the more you can help your child feel less hurt, the less likely they will be to bully.

4. Teach your child empathy

Stella O’Malley, pictured, shares her tips on how to approach bullying with FEMAIL

Some children do not have much empathic understanding of other people. When your child is in the playground, in the shop, or any social context, point out different body mannerisms in strangers and explain to your child the likely emotions that the person is feeling. 

Teach them how to read facial expressions; explain how you could see the shop assistant was feeling tense as you could tell from their tone of voice. 

As they learn empathic understanding, you might ask your child to tell you about a bullying incident first from their point of view, and then from the target’s point of view. 

5. Teach your child better coping skills

Many people bully as a way to manage and control their distress. If this is the case with your child then you need to first of all figure out what is causing them distress and then find some healthier ways to cope with the distress. 

The child might be over-competitive and can’t handle it when other people beat them, or perhaps they are a perfectionist and become incredibly agitated when things aren’t perfect? 

Some children learn to use positive self-talk. For example, repeating mantras in their head such as ‘Good enough is good enough’ or ‘It’s more important to be happy than to try to be perfect’, while others find that exercise or distraction works better for them. 

It really doesn’t matter what the coping mechanism is – slow breathing, yoga, positive self-talk or exercise – so long as the coping mechanism is healthy and doesn’t hurt anyone else.

6. Reflect on if there is bullying behaviour at home 

It might be necessary to think about whether your child has learnt to be unkind from interactions in the family home. Perhaps you and your partner have experienced a rough patch or don’t handle your anger in a very healthy manner?

Your child’s behaviour might be the warning bell that you need to evaluate the interaction within the household and consider how this is impacting the children. 

You might also need to consider whether your child is unduly influenced by other role models such as characters in video games or people they see online.

7. Punish them in a meaningful way 

Parents need to find meaningful punishments that make sense to the child and will motivate them to behave better in the future. 

If your child is engaging in cyber-bullying then you might remove their phone for a number of days. If the child has been cruel to a person who is not as lucky as they are then you might insist they take part in some charitable event that helps other people. 

The main point is that the child is taught that actions carry consequences and that they will not be able to avoid these consequences.

8. Improve and monitor the situation

This is the hard bit: you may need to allow people to have their say and they might be very cruel about your child.

We often say we will take a bullet for our children, well the bullet you have to take might be for you to nod along silently and apologetically as other people rage about your child’s terrible behaviour. 

Equally, your child might need to be extra kind to many people as they have hurt lots of children’s feelings. This can be a family effort as you help your child improve their interaction with other kids. 

Your child might need some sympathy and understanding as it feels easier for them to be a bully than to be kind. 

Check in with your child and reward them when they manage to continue to behave in a kind manner; otherwise they might revert to a more destructive way of being and you will feel you are back in square zero.

Bully-proof kids: Practical Tools to Help Your Child to Grow Up Confident, Resilient and Strong by Stella o’Malley published by Swift Press, £12.99 paperback original

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