By Emily Parks
The first step in helping a child end aggressive bullying behavior is trying to better understand what that child is feeling.
We all remember bullies from our school days—the boy who shoved other kids and stole their lunch money, or the girl who spread nasty rumors and called other girls mean nicknames.
Today, bullies have even gone high-tech. Cyberbullying, as defined by the National Crime Prevention Council, occurs when children use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.
According to recent surveys by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as many as half of all children are bullied at some point during their school years, and at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis.
So, what makes a child start to bully other children?
Dr. Michael Nolet, a psychologist with Green Valley Psychological Associates in Towson, says it’s difficult to provide a simple characterization of a “bully,” because it is challenging to formally measure the various characteristics bullies share.
Dr. Alison Dunton, a psychologist with The Family Center in Ellicott City, agrees. She says she’s “seen bullies who are quite different from each other” and adds that, while some bullies may struggle academically or socially, she’s seen just as many who are bright and socially accepted.
But Nolet and Dunton note that some bullies do share a few characteristics, such as a lack of empathy, a need to be in control, and a tendency to use violence to solve problems.
Dr. Catherine Busch, a child psychologist with a private practice in Columbia, explains that bullies often want to dominate other kids, because “they don’t really have empathy,” and “they kind of enjoy making people afraid of them.”
A Need for Control
With bullies, “a lot of times, there’s this need for control or this need for power,” Dunton says, adding that this may be due to “a lack of control or power in other aspects of their life.”
Nolet notes that some bullies may also have learned that violence is an effective way to solve problems.
“If I’m a bigger kid or an angrier kid, and I threaten, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you to do, I’m going to beat you up,’ and if that’s effective, the bully is more likely to engage in that behavior,” Nolet explains.
Busch warns parents that, if they act aggressively to solve their problems, their children may follow suit. She describes how, one time, through her open office window, she heard and saw a parent yelling and swearing at another person over a parking spot. This was the same parent of a first-grade child scheduled for a therapy session with Busch for having pushed and hit other kids.
“This parent was demonstrating that it’s okay to be aggressive toward other people,” says Busch. “The child was sitting in the car, observing the parent’s aggressive behavior—the same behavior the child is getting in trouble for at school.”
Adds Nolet: “If their parents are aggressive with them, and if they see that [aggressive behavior] works, that’s what reinforces behavior. For the child who yanks a toy from other children and sees how he gets what he wants when he does that, aggressive behavior is effective.”
In addition, bullies may have trouble dealing with difficult situations or may lack strong social skills and therefore act out on other kids.
“Some of these kids don’t know how to cope with stress,” Dunton explains. “They might lack more adaptive coping strategies, so they lash out at other kids.”
So, how can parents help change their child’s aggressive, bullying behavior?
Busch suggests that, if parents need assistance with parenting and discipline strategies, they may want to involve a mental health professional who has experience working with bullies.
“A mental health professional can work with the parents on how to establish consequences and reward appropriate behavior, while helping the bully learn some real empathy for the victim,” she says.
Busch further explains that teaching the child impulse control and anger management skills should help him or her become less prone to hurt others as a way to deal with frustration.
Dunton also encourages parents who suspect that their child may be bullying to open the lines of communication with that child to try to identify a possible issue he or she may be grappling with.
“Is the child being left out socially? Is it low self-esteem? Is he struggling academically?” she asks. “Understanding what is going on is the first step to helping your child deal with the underlying issue.” BC
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. September 2010