Dear Dr. Wes & Samantha: You’ve talked about how to handle bullying before. What do I do if my child is the bully? My child hasn’t been exposed to this kind of treatment, so please don’t warn me about that. My child just seems to like power, and that isn’t making life easy.
Wes: As readers know, this is just about my least favorite topic. But it’s very refreshing to get a letter from a parent concerned that her child is bullying others. The only way this ever gets solved is to start with you. While the underlying issues aren’t so straightforward, your response has to be. Samantha has some good interactive suggestions, so I’m going to focus on the tough-love part.
Get very specific. Compile a list of complaints others — teachers, friends, etc. — have about your child’s conduct. Words, actions, texts, hateful looks. Sit down and go over them item by item and state clearly that the behaviors will not be tolerated. Then lay out exactly how the consequences will go down. I find the best way to discipline oppositional kids (which usually include the bullies) is to make the punishments really annoying. For instance, take away only the favored video games or DVDs and leave the ones they’re bored with. Turn off text messaging, but leave the phone. Put a timer program on the computer so it shuts itself down after a pre-set number of minutes (that’s actually a good one for any parent to do). Then set it to about 15 minutes if bad reports come in. You can be especially hard on violent video games, not because there’s any evidence that they contribute to bullying, but because you’re making a huge metaphorical point by saying, “I guess you’re not mature enough to understand that this isn’t how real people act in society. Get back to me when you are.”
Take your child out of circulation so you can spend a lot of quality time together. This solves two problems. He’s not exposed to other kids, and you get to reprogram him. Watch some nice movies about good and evil. Superheroes, teen comedies, “Schindler’s List.” It doesn’t matter, as long as you get to sit down and say, “Look, your treatment of others reminds me of that prison guard. How do think his victims feel?” I realize this sounds over-the-top, but the core element of bullying is sociopathy — a lack of empathy for others and the pain you are causing them. Media is a great resource for stepping back and seeing how these things look and turn out.
Release your child back to the community only after she can state a clear understanding of the nature, quality and wrongfulness of her behavior. Not just lip service. Be patient and keep at it ‘til she does. Then keep a close eye on the bullying situation. Make sure teachers and administrators know you’re dead serious about this and that you want to know if the behavior is continuing. If your child blows it, just start all over again.
Bullying is almost by definition secretive, so feel free to use espionage to monitor what’s going on. In other columns I refer to this as having “reasonable suspicion” that authorizes you to step up your supervision. Let your child know that you now have the right to access his private affairs — Facebook, e-mail, texting — until he shows himself capable of being humane to others.
Yes, it’s that serious, not just to the victims but to your kid. If she’s acting out this way, now is the time to stomp it out. If you don’t, I can assure you the rest of society will. So thanks for taking your job as a parent seriously. The rest of us appreciate it.
Samantha: Wes is right. What you do as a parent right now is crucial. You need to teach your child how to be a good friend and discuss with her how a healthy friendship works. However, if you try to shove morals down her throat, you probably won’t get anywhere. You need to work through this problem in stages.
Stage 1: Discuss. I know that you think your child has never been bullied, but he could have some unresolved insecurities that are causing him to behave this way. Have him make a verbal list of his favorite and least favorite personal qualities. Pay close attention to the least favorite qualities.
Stage 2: Observe. Encourage your child to invite friends over to your house, and try to stick around as much as possible. Keep track of specific examples of meanness. Also note the reactions of the other kids. That way, when you tell your child she treats her friends badly, you’ll have the specific examples Wes suggests to back it up.
Stage 3: Confront. Tell your child you have noticed that he treats his friends cruelly and you’re worried that he will lose them. Throughout the conversation, sprinkle in examples as necessary. However, don’t throw them all out at once. Your child will immediately take the defensive. Ask him why he feels the need to dominate his friends and be in the power position. Is it about being popular? Is your child scared that his friends would leave without force? Also find out who your child feels he might have hurt with words and discuss these regrets with him. The more your child can identify as right and wrong on his own, the better.
Stage 4: Plan. Help your child create a plan for change. Give her suggestions of how to make amends with people she’s hurt. Talk about thinking before she speaks, and give her strategies to hold back snappy, cruel comments.
If the behavior continues, consider taking your child to a counselor to work out these issues and help you find more strategies to enforce better behavior.
Next week: As spring slowly arrives, we muse on the beauty of young love.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to email@example.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.