On Your Side: How to recognize if your child is a bully

On Your Side: How to recognize if your child is a bully

PINE BELT (WDAM) - Bullies are in schools across the country, and Pine Belt psychological experts are helping parents and schools understand the signs, handle the behavior and hopefully prevent that kind of aggression in children in the future.

"The bully basically is obsessed with having some sort of dominance and aggression over someone else or another group, and they rarely work by themselves," said Patricia Calabrese, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Pine Grove. "They usually have what are called in the literature bystanders or some sort of a posse that acts with them. The bully basically has low self-worth, doesn't think much of themselves, but their compensation is to achieve dominance usually through some sort of aggression."

Bullying in 2016 often does not look like what many parents or school officials expect, Calabrese said, with many students engaging in social and relational bullying, like excluding someone, instead of physical violence.

"Schools tend to focus on the child being bullied, and they pull those children aside, even sometimes group them together, and it gives them a very victim kind of label," she said. "The importance really needs to be placed on the bully, not on the child being bullied, and those children should be pulled aside. And there should be consequences for being aggressive, not just physically aggressive, (but) emotionally aggressive, socially aggressive."

Focusing on the aggressor allows school leaders and parents to assess the situation and see if bullying is a cover for underlying social or emotional issues.

"The bully themselves really needs a lot of direct attention," Calabrese said. "We have definite evidence that shows that children who bully others, oftentimes have been bullied themselves and have more psychological problems, more problems with the law, more problems adjusting even as adults. So intervention with the bully in stopping the behavioral problems, but more importantly, really exploring whether or not there's either depression or feelings of self-worth underneath all of that aggression."

She said framing conversations with parents carefully with an emphasis on helping their child is a way to help school districts handle the denial that frequently comes from parents when they are informed their is bullying other students.

"I think that every parent can get upset if their parenting is being questioned," Calabrese said. "So I think putting it in the perspective of helping the bully and their child is important."

Brad Dufrene, a psychology professor at The University of Southern Mississippi, said while it can be upsetting for parents to find out from their child's school that he or she is a bully, he said staying calm, getting details and speaking with the child about the behavior are key.

"One of the things that's important to do is keep an open line of communication with the school, and it's challenging because the information that's being passed along from the school is troubling and upsetting for parents," Dufrene said. "But remain calm, get the information and handle the situation. Parents can work with school officials to come up with a plan for assisting their child."

Calabrese said, "I think that people think that just by rationalizing with a bully they'll stop bullying, and that's actually not the case. Bullies need to have concrete consequences for their aggression, so those children need to be suspended in school if they're being aggressive. The need to be removed from the general school, sometimes move to an alternative school setting. But consequences, behavioral consequences, need to be put in place. At home, parents need to consequence that child for aggressive behavior in anyway. I mean, a child who is being aggressive to the dog or to a younger sibling should be consequence in a very strong and behavioral way because that aggression will only continue."

Dufrene agrees that expectations for appropriate behavior begin at home.

"What parents can do for their children is to consistently monitor appropriate problem solving strategies, so when parents are facing difficulties with the child themselves, with their sibling, with their spouse, parents can be mindful of how they manage those situations in terms of remaining calm, speaking appropriately and respectfully to others," he said. "If they do that, there's a greater likelihood that their children then will engage in appropriate conflict resolution skills."

Calabrese said, "A lot of times, not to a fault of their own, but the parents themselves use aggression as their coping skill. They use aggression in their interpersonal relationships or it may be even more serious where domestic violence is involved in the home or there's very harsh discipline being used. And if you speak with the parents, they're well-meaning. They think this is an appropriate way to parent to their child, but what ends up happening is those children use that anger and aggression that they're subject to at home. Then they channel it at school or on the playground."

She said she sees the most bullying happening in middle school-aged aged children, likely because they are trying to become independent, develop relationships and find a sense of self, but said parents can look for aggressive behavior in their own children at a much earlier age.

"Research actually shows that sibling bullying is one of the first steps in children becoming bullies outside of the home," she said. "So you would want to check that your children together are not picking on one particular child more than the others, that the group is not ganging up against, say, the youngest or the smallest and that you help your children to develop supportive, equal relationships as a group."

Dufrene said parents need to set clear expectations for appropriate behavior and hold children accountable if they act aggressively.

"As a parent, you want to immediately consequate and manage instances of aggression by your child, so even as young as children who are two, three, four years old, when they engage in aggressive behavior, there needs to be a consequence for that," Dufrene said. "Whether that's a brief time out or loss of access to privileges or games or toys or something along those lines, again, parents need to be consistent in terms of managing their kids' behavior and providing consequences and holding their children accountable."

Both agree that knowing who your children's friends are and monitoring how they interact with them in person and on social media are essential.

"It's important to know your children's friends and know what kind of kids they are," Calabrese said. "Rule of thumb is to be involved in your child's development from a relational standpoint with their friends. The younger, the better. So keeping an eye on their social media accounts, having their password, so you can go on their social media accounts as if you were them. Being astute enough to know that your child might have a second Facebook page that you don't know about. Younger children have less of an indication to trick their parents than older kids, so the more you develop trust with your child and develop and teach those important relational types of skills, the less problem you'll have as they're older."

Keeping computers in high-traffic areas in the house, periodically checking their profiles and having passwords are all strategies Dufrene suggested.

"I think parents are a bit apprehensive at times to do that sort of thing," he said. "They feel like they're standing over their child's shoulder, but that's part of being a parent. Part of being a parent is closely monitoring your child's activity. There's a variety of different way to do that. Some are more heavy-handed than others, but it's incredibly important to monitor closely social media behaviors."

Calabrese said, "If your child is bullying or a teacher suspects someone is bullying, the important thing is to really keep your eyes open at all times of the day. Rarely will a bully be aggressive in front of someone or an adult, especially in authority. They're going to do it behind the scenes."

If the bullying is consistent and chronic, Dufrene said parents may want to seek help from a psychologist or counselor, who will likely provide behavioral parent training for parents and social skills training for bullies with deficits.

"(It) is going to teach them to set clearer expectations for their child, deliver instructions in a more effective manner and to engage in effective contingency management so that their kids are held accountable for their behaviors. For those that have social skills deficits, it's important for them to receive evidence based social skills training programs so that their social skills improve and then there's a corresponding decrease in bullying behaviors."

Bottom line for parents, trying to prevent aggressive behavior and keeping kids accountable for their actions if it happens.

"Always provide consistent expectations for your child, so regularly remind your child what it is that you expect them to do," Dufrene said. "Then acknowledge them for engaging in appropriate behaviors, and engage in contingency management and hold them accountable when they don't follow the expected behaviors."