How to Intervene When Your Kid Is the Bully
Most resources on handling bullies focus on how to help the kids who get picked on. Which, on the surface, seems fair: More kids seek help for being bullied than for being bullies themselves. But getting the call that your child has been teasing or excluding another kid can be just as emotionally charged—and important—to deal with.
Educator, school consultant, and family counselor Kim John Payne has coached hundreds of parents and children on mitigating teasing, exclusion, and other relational difficulties—what he calls “socially controlling behavior.” (This phrase better identifies the root of the problem than the word “bullying,” he says, which is too loaded to be helpful.) For parents, Payne emphasizes that stopping this behavior is all about effective communication and letting kids know you’re really listening. With kids, he focuses on exercises to humanize the victim of the teasing. He insists that defensiveness and shame need not be part of the process.
A note: Bullying involving physical violence and threats of violence is beyond the scope of this story. While the strategies here might be helpful in talking to your child about social aggression, further measures may be required in extreme cases.
For more from Payne, you can listen to him talk about creating a value-centered home on The goop Podcast or check out his latest book, Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst.
A Q&A with Kim John Payne
I’ve coached parents on how to talk to their kids for twenty-plus years. What I find most important to tell parents about bullying is not to fall victim to harmony addiction, where every day has to be a rainbow and if it’s not the most wonderful day, then something is wrong. All children go through friendship problems, social difficulties, and isolation. It’s very important that parents realize that these issues are an essential part of children’s learning. And it’s our job to help our kids navigate this tricky part of their lives—and hopefully learn a bunch about themselves in the process.
The two approaches we cannot take: First, shaming and blaming. And second, standing back and saying, “Oh, kids will be kids. That’s a part of life.” It is certainly a part of life, yes. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about it.
Usually, you get a call from the school—either from a teacher or the school counselor—that something’s not going so well. Other times, you’ll get a call from another parent. In either case, do your best to remain calm. These are difficult calls for school counselors—I often hear that they hesitate to call parents because parents will freak out or say something untrue or just hang up the phone. Remember that social difficulties are a normal part of growing up, and there’s no shame in it.
If you do get a call from another parent, a majority of the time that parent is trying their best to be diplomatic, but you might happen to get this super elevated, angry call. If you get a call from another parent, remember that their first job, like yours, is to protect their own kid. It probably took a lot for them to pick up the phone and call you. If you can understand and empathize with the other parent, you can have a much more productive conversation. Don’t argue about who is speaking the truth or tell other members of your community: That leads to conflict between the parents, making the kids’ situation much more likely to get worse.
The first thing to do is ask questions and listen to the answers. And don’t just listen but go along with your child and validate their experiences. If you don’t listen to them, they’ll likely stop telling you the truth.
1. “The school’s been in touch” or “So-and-so’s parents have been in touch.”
It’s good to be transparent about where this conversation’s coming from.
2. “Can you help me understand what’s going wrong?”
This is a key question. Try to stick closely to these words. They’re very simple, but they’re setting the ground that you, as a parent, don’t know more about the situation than your child does.
3. “What things do people at school do that annoy you?”
Most of the time, kids engage in socially controlling behavior because they feel annoyed or frustrated with other children. Start by asking them how they see the situation and—this is important—go along with what they say. If they say something is annoying, you can validate that. Note that it’s best to do this without singling out the targeted child. Instead, frame it generally as “people.”
4. “When people do that annoying thing, you probably handle it pretty well most of the time. What do you usually do when you feel frustrated with people?”
You want to acknowledge that your child probably often gets it right. It’s important to let them know that you’re separating their actions from their identity. If it sounds like you’re saying they never get it right, they’ll be less likely to tell you what they really think.
5. “What are some examples of things you do that get you into trouble or hurt someone’s feelings?”
Once you’ve established what it means to handle a frustrating situation well, you can talk about what ways don’t go so well. This is where seven or eight out of ten kids will say something like, “We were just joking around.” They’ll try to normalize and minimize the incident. They might say they talk to their friends like that all the time and their friends don’t get upset about it. Again, go along with them. You might say, “Yes, that’s true—they’re your friends and they trust you.” That’s where I would talk to them about crossing the line.
6. “Where does joking around cross the line and become teasing?”
I tend not to use the word “bullying” with kids. Because, boy, that makes them clam up. So I ask about crossing the line and teasing instead. This is a neat question because you’re not talking about something they’ve done wrong. You’re just asking them to recognize when a situation isn’t fun anymore. Acknowledge that yes, it can be hard to know when you cross the line. It can help to ask when somebody else crossed the line and hurt their feelings, or you might tell them a story about a time you were naughty as a child. Remind them that we’ve all done things that have made another person unhappy—we’ll do it, we don’t always mean it, but it happens. Acknowledge that it’s not about blame and shame.
Bullying can exist only in a culture where the victim has been dehumanized. So one of the key steps is to rehumanize the child who’s being picked on in the eyes of your own kid. The goal is for your child to notice things about this person beyond what they get picked on for.
I start this exercise by having a child tell me about their best friends. Who are they, and what are their different sides? They’ll say something like, “Kiefer is quiet in school, but when you’re on your own with him, he is so funny.” Go through a few friends you know your child likes; get them talking. Ask for details. Then you talk about the kid who’s getting picked on. You can even start by saying, “We know they have an annoying side. But what about all their other sides?” It’s possible your child has an answer to that, but more often than not, they’ve been so focused on the annoying side that they don’t know what that child is like at other times.
Give them an assignment to find out one thing about that child that is completely different from the annoying side. They can start simple: Do they have brothers and sisters? What’s the color of their pencil case? Hold your child accountable. Give them this assignment in the morning, telling them you’re going to ask about the answer after school. Be clear about the point of this exercise—that it’s helpful to see different sides of people and not just their annoying side. And that seeing only one side of someone leads to trouble. (That’s true for everyone, not just kids.)
Identifying what it feels like to be frustrated or angry. What I hear most from kids is that when they’re angry, everything goes really fast. The solution often has to do with slowing things down. Maybe they notice that in the moment, their legs get tight, or they get an itchy feeling, or they feel like the color red. If they know their own warning signs, they have a better chance of stopping the feeling before it gets them in trouble.
Stopping the angry feeling. Deep breaths into the belly really do help. I have each child come up with an “inside talk” sentence: something to say to themselves when they are irritated. They might decide “Take it easy” works for them, or maybe it’s “I’m not going to say anything angry.”
Identifying hot and cold words. “You,” “always,” and “never” are all hot words—words we tend to use when we’re inside a big feeling. Hot words normally make statements and demands. Cold words are the ones we tend to pick when we’re on the outside looking in—ones that are logical and can help put a fire out. We usually use cold words when we’re asking questions. Ask your child if they can come up with a list of words that are hot and another of ones that are cold.
Noticing that not every problem has a perfect answer. Acknowledge with your child that it’s frustrating when a situation is not exactly the way we want it to be, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they’ve done it wrong. Tell them if they can enjoy an activity or situation that didn’t go their way, people will respect their effort.
With kids, there’s often a lot of pressure to be part of a tight peer group. Often, the way these groups get and stay together is by strictly defining who is in that group and who is not. The way the group stays “us” is for there to be a clear “them.” Typically, there’s a child who is very central in the group. They’re usually not the one carrying out the bullying, but they do sign off on it. If a child wants to remain part of that group, they have to navigate that pecking order. It creates an environment of social conformity and cohesion where it becomes difficult not to join in when bullying happens.
For kids who engage in bullying because of that pressure to conform, I have them come up with ways to start to loosen the grip of the social group. Some kids decide they’ll remove themselves from the situation; maybe they’ll pretend to be distracted by something else and walk off. Other kids might remain with the group but not say anything to the targeted child. I’ve heard other kids say, “What I’m going to do is just say hi to Jonah when nobody else is around.” I think that’s great. That shows a lot of strength.
Now, these are very small steps. If you ask your kid to stand up for the targeted child, it puts them in a complicated social dilemma where they might not do anything at all because the action you’ve asked them to take is too large. So focus on ways they can at least inwardly activate themselves. They might get to standing up for others eventually, but it has to start with little steps.
All of the above advice applies to situations where a child is teasing or excluding another child. Those are the kinds of social difficulties that are solvable by gradually building empathy and humanizing the person they’ve been teasing.
If a situation has become extreme and a threshold event—like a threat of violence or some other severe action—has occurred, that’s a different story. You still want to go to your child and say, “You’re my child, and I’m here with you even though that was unacceptable.” But then you may have to consider withdrawing the child from the environment or putting them under very close supervision while you seek professional help.
Kim John Payne, MEd, is the founder and executive director of Simplicity Parenting and the founding director of the Center for Social Sustainability. He has spent nearly three decades training families and schools to better support children through social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Payne is the author of several books on mindful parenting, including Simplicity Parenting, The Soul of Discipline, and Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst. He is finishing up his latest coauthored book, which will include a collection of stories to help young people deal with teasing, bullying, and exclusion; it’s expected to be released in 2022.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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