It's the news no parent wants to hear: Their teenage daughter has been sending demeaning e-mails to another girl in her grade or that their son has been regularly harassing another boy in the hall at his school.
While it's painful and confusing if your child is the victim of bullying, it's also painful and confusing if your child is the one who is dishing it out. If it's the latter, what do you do?
First, you need to deal with your own reaction.
Let's face it, to be confronted with the fact that your kid has been a bully is embarrassing. It's not just a mark against your child, but a mark against you. You can just imagine what the other parents are saying.
"They always seemed like good parents. But it just goes to show you never know."
You are mad at your kid for their behaviour, but also at how this behaviour reflects on you. To feel this way is very normal, but many kids of nice, loving parents engage in bullying behaviour. Having a kid who's a bully does not mean that you have been a bad parent.
At the same time though, you need to ask yourself, "Is there anything that I am currently doing that could contribute to my kids bullying behaviour?" This might include being too harsh, verbally criticizing your child, or abusing your child physically. Honestly examine your own behaviour. Do you frequently put down others? You must address the example you are setting.
Confront your kid and tell them that their behaviour was cruel and that under no circumstances would that ever be okay. When confronted, most teens get defensive.
"But Mom, you don't understand …"
Stay with your basic message. I find it's far more effective if it is less of a discussion and more an unequivocal statement from you that what they did is not okay. Bring down the full weight of whatever moral authority you have with your child.
"It is not okay. It cannot continue."
They do hear it, and they don't like it.
You also need to do what you can to prevent your child from bullying again. This means you'll need to increase surveillance. Check up on where they are and what they're doing. Keep close surveillance of their electronic communications. At this point, you can't trust them.
And if your kid, despite your efforts, continues to bully, you may need temporary bans on any electronic communication use, and a necessary greater restriction of their freedom.
It's also important to let them know that behaving in a cruel manner toward others has consequences that may well put them in jeopardy. They could be suspended or even kicked out of school. The law may get involved. They might be ostracized by friends and get a bad reputation. Your message should be that this is something that you cannot always protect them from.
Major punishments for bullying are not useful. Like it or not, severe punishments promote resentment. The typical teen response is: "They're being unfair. Everyone is against me." For teens, harsh punishment causes them to focus on their hardship, rather than the negative effects of their behaviour on others. They become resentful and angry – feelings that make it more probable that the bullying behaviour will continue.
Though what they did is wrong and though you may not be able to protect them from the consequences of their behaviour, you should always support them. Despite it all, treat them with respect. You don't want your child to become a pariah within the family. Bullying is not cured by heaping unpleasantness on them. They must feel that home and that people are there for them. If truly alienated, all they can ever feel is that they are pitted against the world. That never breeds anything good.
Lastly, seek help. It is hard to deal with on your own. Most schools and communities have bullying programs. You can check online for what may be available where you live, as well as additional resources that can make suggestions about what to do.
"How can I know that going outside the family won't make it worse for my kid?"
You can't. But most bullying programs are sensitive to protecting everyone involved. The more you learn, the better off you will be. But it can be a difficult step. Also it can be useful to consult a mental health counsellor. They may identify underlying problems and what to do about them.
Learning that your teen has been a bully is hard to deal with. It's very normal to hope that somehow it will go away on its own. But you must deal with it – you must take direct action while remaining supportive. The good news is that many former bullies become just that – former bullies.