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When Your Teen is the Bully

Teen_BullyAs a parent, it’s a scenario you probably dread: A school administrator calls to inform you that your teenage son or daughter has been bullying other students.

By Lisa A. Lewis

Your first reaction is most likely disbelief—not your child. You instilled values in your child and raised him or her to respect others. Besides, your teen is well-behaved and never has problems at school. So it seems inconceivable that he or she could possibly bully other students. There must be a mistake.

It’s only natural to feel doubtful—even shocked or upset—when you receive this type of news, but don’t go into denial. You need to take the problem seriously and act immediately. Society’s perception of bullying has changed over the years, and the attitude that “kids will be kids” and that bullying is a “normal” part of growing up that all children experience no longer applies. Bullying is a very serious problem. And the accessibility and popularity of the Internet and electronic devices have made the problem even worse. Cyber bullying is not limited to school grounds; it allows children to use Facebook or text messaging to bully others anytime, anywhere. So even though you may want to ignore the problem and hope it goes away by itself, you can’t. Ignoring the seriousness of this type of behavior is probably the worst decision you could make.   

“I think that bullying is more of a problem now [than in the past] for two reasons: awareness and technology,” says Brad Engel, assistant principal of Kent Island High School. “Columbine, which happened in April of 1999, changed things because the perception was out there that the two boys, Dylan and Eric, were bullied. So that is when all the awareness programs were created. I don’t think the amount of bullying has changed—it has gone on forever—but I think because of the awareness of teachers and parents, it has become more of a problem for schools. And technology has made it easier to bully.”

“I am not sure that bullying is more of a problem, but I do think this problem is receiving more attention, which is a good thing,” adds Dr. Gayle M. Cicero, Coordinator of School Counseling, Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “I believe that the cyber aspect has changed the dynamic of the problem and means that it is harder to escape the negative messages. Students who may not participate in bullying have taken up cyber bullying because they cannot see the person right in front of them who they are being cruel to. Cyber bullying is so hard to deal with because it has no boundaries, is a 24/7 behavior, and the adults dealing with cyber bullying are not as tech savvy as the students are.”

Addressing the Problem at Home

In order to help your son or daughter, you need to be aware of and understand the situation completely—who your teen is bullying, why the bullying is occurring, what triggered the behavior and why he or she feels it’s acceptable. Talk to your child, and ask if he or she is having any problems at school or conflicts with other students. Listen carefully to his or her side of the story, and try to understand why your teen began bullying. The teenage years can be very stressful, and dealing with peer pressure and trying to fit in may contribute to behavioral problems. Consider your teen’s age: Children in middle school and ninth grade tend to bully more than older teenagers do. But keep in mind that any teen can be a bully.

The way you react and deal with the situation can ultimately help solve the problem. As a parent and role model, your involvement is crucial in working towards a solution. Above all, make sure your teen knows that bullying is a serious issue and how strongly you feel about it. Take a stand, and let him or her know that bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Establish specific guidelines and behaviors for your child to follow—both at home and at school.

Talking to your teen is the first step, but there are many other ways you can help. Cicero suggests observing how your child acts around others. If you see him or her interacting inappropriately or displaying harsh behaviors towards peers, address the behavior immediately. Obviously, if your teen is engaging in cyber bullying, monitor social networking sites and cyber communication. Cicero also suggests educating your child about the safety and ethics of technology use and even checking equipment  if necessary. Most important, learn how to use the technology. You need to know what your child is using, so you know what to monitor.

Engel also suggests monitoring your teen’s online activities and says there are many steps you can take to address and deal with bullying.
“First, accept that it is possible,” says Engel. “Even if your daughter is the most popular girl in school, she could be a vicious bully. Second, keep your kid away from the victim. Don’t force an apology—it won’t mean anything anyway. But as a parent, you should have a consequence for your child to hopefully ‘nip it in the bud.’ Let your child know bullying is unacceptable. And if the bullying does not stop, increase the consequence. Maybe [suggest] a parent-to-parent conversation with the victim’s parents. Be careful because the victim’s parents may be very angry and not willing to talk. But if you let the parents know that you are addressing the problem at home, it will make them feel better.”

Seek the School’s Support

In addition to addressing the situation at home with your son or daughter, you may want to involve the school when dealing with a bullying problem. Professional school counselors and psychologists are trained to deal with bullying and can work with you and your teen to find solutions. Seeking the support and guidance of the school administrators is a personal decision and depends on your child’s particular situation.
Cicero believes parents should involve school administrators anytime there is a bullying problem related to school.

“School leaders want all schools to be safe for all children, so it is really important to involve administrators in bullying cases,” says Cicero. “Schools have become a societal resource for many students and parents. The progressive nature of working with the whole child and creating a strong, positive connection for the family is paramount. All students should have access to education and feel safe and secure.” 

Schools also offer a variety of parent education programs and anti-bullying awareness programs. These programs can be invaluable resources. Educating yourself about bullying is the best way you can help your teen stop the behavior—and prevent it from recurring. For more information about these programs, contact your child’s school.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your teen’s behavior doesn’t improve, and consequences imposed by you and/or the school haven’t worked, you should consult a private psychologist or counselor.

Susan Onofrio, LCPC, a private counselor who practices in Prince Frederick and specializes in helping children and adolescents, says therapy is a viable option when you have exhausted all other alternatives. Therapy may also complement the school’s intervention and guidance.
When working with a “known” bully, the process is relatively straightforward. The first step is to develop a relationship with the teen to relax him or her. Counselors should never refer to the child as a bully, and no punitive measures should be taken. Such measures would only build resentment or defensiveness and cause him or her to “put up walls” or retaliate. And then the behavior won’t stop. The goal of this non-confrontational approach is to help the teen feel safe and secure and let him or her know that there is someone he or she can trust and confide in about anything.  

“The key to helping the teen—and ultimately stopping the bullying behavior—is to heal what needs to be healed inside the child,” says Onofrio, who also works in the Calvert County Health Department – Mental Health Clinic. “This is accomplished by discussing meaningful relationships and exploring the child’s thoughts, home life and support networks, so the counselor can get a clear picture of the child’s worldview and perspective—to know the whole child. In situations like these, simply getting the help he or she needs can sometimes work wonders.”        

Bullying—whether it takes place on school grounds or in cyberspace—is a very serious issue that can’t be ignored. If your son or daughter is a bully, it’s your responsibility as a parent to help stop the behavior.

“Monitor your kids online, and check their phones,” says Engel. “Shut them down if they are bullying other kids. You know, be a strong parent.”

Lisa A. Lewis is a freelance writer who lives in Annapolis.

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