My child might be a bully — what should I do?

She was informed that her daughter was to be suspended because – ironically – she was bullying another girl. Online.

Judy drove to the school in shock. “How could she?” she thought.

As she sat with the principal she asked her daughter why she would do such a thing. “This is another human being!” Her daughter responded indifferently and unapologetically, with “It’s all true,” and a shrug of the shoulders.

Judy was at a loss. She removed privileges from her daughter, grounded her and took her phone and computer. Nothing worked. The animosity between them grew. They barely communicated for several weeks and what communication did exist was primarily screaming, defensiveness and slammed doors.

What are we supposed to do when our kids are involved in bullying – as the bully?


Research shows us, quite clearly, that kids model what they’re taught. Parents don’t need to be physically aggressive for their kids to learn to be bullies by watching them (although this is certainly a risk factor). Instead, parental use of psychological control is a key predictor of whether children will bully others. (Other research also links parenting style to increased risk of kids acting as bullies here – particularly parent-child conflict.)

Peers also have an impact on our kids. The same research showed that children whose peers are aggressive towards other children are increasingly likely to bully others.

But what if you’re actually being really good?

We can’t always blame parents and friends for bully behaviour. Other factors associated with bullying include our children’s under-developed executive function (planning, behaviour inhibition, ability to consider consequences) and kids’ non-verbal intelligence. Narcissism and high self-esteem are also experimentally linked with bullying-type behaviour. This article identifies a range of other predictors of bullying behaviour.)

So what do we do?

Our natural reactions to finding out our children are bullying are likely to be just like Judy’s. However, Judy’s experience (and a significant number of research studies) clearly shows that this response is usually the wrong one. Our anger, threats and control techniques are, in fact, the very essence of bullying. And we can’t bully our kids out of bullying.

Instead, it seems something is missing. And that something is empathy.

Judy’s story doesn’t end with arguments and slammed doors. As time went by, Judy and her daughter began taking long walks together, talking about nothing and everything. Her daughter began to become the girl Judy remembered her being before the ‘incident’. Their relationship slowly improved. And Judy bought a puppy – Foxy – to help her daughter learn more responsibility.

Her daughter adored her puppy. One day Judy asked, “Would you want anyone to be mean to your dog? Throw rocks at Foxy?” A predictable ‘No!’ was the response, to which Judy replied, “Bullying other people’s kids is just like that. How do you imagine those parents feel when they see you figuratively throwing rocks at their children?” Her daughter broke down and cried as she gained that new empathic perspective.

Is there one right answer?

There are scores of articles on the internet proclaiming the variety of responses we might have to our children’s bullying behaviour. They range from punishments, to having our kids apologise, to calling meetings or even having parents become involved in mediation. While some of these may be more effective than others, it seems that a couple of other factors may be the most useful:

It is through helping children learn empathy and associated virtues such as respect, kindness and compassion that we have our most powerful response to bullying in all of its toxic varieties.