Avoid cliches. Generalizations sound like static to kids, who don’t apply morals and have heard the “don’t bully” screed delivered in the same monotones by the same authority figures all their lives. But specifics help, and authenticity matters. Names, events and situations anchor vague morality tales in practical terms. Sincerity can bring real empathy to a subject that all too often is artificial.
So be specific. That will show understanding and open the conversation up to your child. The good-faith personal stories will ground the issue in something concrete. Bullying is too often treated in the abstract, but talking in specifics can make the conversation and its results much more tangible.
Remember the purpose of bullying. To understand bullying, you have to view it from a child’s perspective. Bullying, for many kids, is affirming. It provides a feeling of force and power that is frankly intoxicating, and puts into action the dominance that they, as children, lack in the outside world.
Bullying can also make a kid feel cool. That’s the whole point. But it is wrong, mean, cruel and painful. Talk with your child about morality and power. The opposite of a bully, as I tell students, is a leader. Redirecting that ambitious energy, that need for dominance, in a positive way can pay lasting dividends.
Bullies often don’t know they’re bullies. When a child is engaged in bullying patterns, they’re lashing out at a perceived irritation — a student, a speaker, a policy — with internal justification. They think it’s everyone else’s fault. If your child has a long list of enemies and frustrations, that should be a warning sign that they may be lashing out in response. But when you remove the bullying, you’re left with a kid who is annoyed, bothered, angry and sad.
Talk with your child about how they feel. Work with them to remove the external pronouns: “He annoyed me” is a responsibility-shirking projection, but “I’m annoyed when …” is an honest, emotional expression. It emphasizes adapting internally, rather than blaming external conflicts.
Bullies are often eager to grow up. Bullying is frequently a rebellion against childhood niceties and an attempt to access and embrace power. Bullies are mimicking what they consider strength. It’s also a neat binary between the sensitive-snowflake culture of childhood and what they imagine adulthood to be: a scary, mean place of warfare. If children fear the world is a war, some will make themselves soldiers.
Oddly, you may be more successful in combating bullying if you’re less sensitive with the perpetrator. Being treated with kid gloves can provoke real frustration for bullies, who are often seeking dominance and maturity. Respectful, serious reproach is much more honorable to a certain type of bully. Leveling with them honestly and clearly can be much more helpful than an overly gentle approach.
Let them know that this isn’t what strength is, that it isn’t right, and that you know what they are doing. Kids often think they can get away with anything. Letting them know that they can’t could pave the way for more positive modeling of what it means to be an adult, with an emphasis on inner strength, rather than on external strength cruelly applied.
Internal problems may become external ones. An insecure older child may lash out at younger kids, eager to distinguish himself in a social plane where he feels like he has more leverage. A young girl who is overly worried about her appearance may deride others in an attempt to maintain a position in a social structure. A student struggling in a class may attempt to disrupt it, preferring to show disdain for a concept rather than admit his difficulties.
Remember that, as a parent, you most often see your child in a family structure, where they feel safe confiding their struggles. You don’t necessarily see how they cope with those feelings in a more social setting.
Bullying isn’t a judgment. Parents can be embarrassed for thousands of perceived shortcomings, but bullying is, unfortunately, timeless. Don’t view your child’s bullying behavior as a moral referendum on your parenting skills. Concern yourself with the verb, not the noun. Fear of labeling, and its connotations, causes many parents to avoid talking about bullying with their children. But remember: Children only learn when you teach them.
Good kids bully. Nice kids bully. Smart kids bully. When parents look away, it does their children — and their children’s classmates — a disservice.
Teach them how to repair. One of the central issues of bullying is that it feels good in the moment. One of the other problems is, similarly, it can be painful and humiliating to apologize. Some bullies will bristle, but many others will break down, even cry, at the prospect of making amends, because that is framed in shame.
Shame and guilt can keep a child running from a painful acknowledgment. If your kid is bullying someone, help them find a solid, sincere, tactile and prideful way to repair the relationship. Forcing a child to say “sorry” embitters and embarrasses them. Empowering them to do a fun, good deed — making cookies for the class, throwing a surprise party, making a present — can teach the same lesson in a powerful, positive way.
Lev Novak is a former after-school teacher who, for better and worse, was treated by his students as an equal. His debut Young Adult novel, “Black Sabbath,” releases with Soho Press in September 2017.
Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can sign up here for our newsletter. On Parenting can be found at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.
You might also be interested in:
Protecting your kids online takes a lot more than tracking their devices
Telling our kids not to be bullies when we’re surrounded by them this election season
8 ways you may be encouraging your child to be a bully