How to talk to your kids about bullying – when they’re the bully

January 12, 2018 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

It’s hard to forget Keaton Jones – the middle-schooler who tearfully recounted his experience with bullies in a video that went viral on social media.

That’s probably because nearly everyone can relate in some way, whether it be a time you were bullied personally, or a time when you wiped away your own child’s tears after they were bullied.

And while it can be difficult to lift your child’s spirits after such an incident, what about when you discover your child is the one being the bully?

Accepting the fact that, albeit your best efforts, your child isn’t always the friendliest kid in school can raise feelings of worry, insecurity, fear and even doubt or defensiveness.

The first thing you may be thinking is: Why?

“There are endless reasons why a child might engage in bullying behavior, but the takeaway is that all behavior has meaning and is a way for children to get their needs met,” said school social worker Melissa Puglisi and behavior specialist Michelle Donnelly. Both women are employed in the Greater Amsterdam School District.

“Our goal as parents and educators is to teach them how to get these needs met in healthy, prosocial ways,” the women said. “If a parent suspects their child is engaging in bullying behavior, they should have a sit down conversation with their child about what it means to be a good friend, and how to address conflict in a healthy way.”

According to, a federal website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 30 percent of young people admit to bullying others.

  • 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying.
  • 20 percent of students in grades 9-13 report experiencing bullying.
  • 70.6 percent of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
  • In one large study, about 49 percent of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, whereas 30.8 percent reported bullying others during that time.
  • When bystanders intervene, they report that bullying stops within 10 seconds 57 percent of the time.

Is it bullying?

There’s a mentality that when older generations were younger bullying was “part of growing up” and that they all “survived.”

So what exactly is bullying? Are students just being curt?

“It is important to know that there is a difference between bullying and normal conflict,” Puglisi and Donnelly said. “While there is a disagreement in both situations, true bullying exists when there is an imbalance of power, when it happens repeatedly, and there is an intention to hurt the other person physically, socially, and/or emotionally.”

According to, the current definition acknowledges two modes and four types by which youth can be bullied or can bully others.

The two modes of bullying include direct (bullying that occurs in the presence of a targeted person or group) and indirect (bullying not directly communicated to a targeted person or group such as spreading rumors.)

The four types of bullying include physical, verbal, relational (attempts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted person or group), and damage to property.

What can you do?

Monkey see, monkey do.

“Parents should remember that they are the best teachers for their children on how to manage their emotions and behavior, so they should model healthy communication strategies and coping skills for dealing with frustrations,” Puglisi and Donnelly said.

But while that’s important, we’re all human and capable of making the wrong decision.

“While it is easy for parents to feel that their child’s behavior is a reflection of themselves, it is important to know that all kids make mistakes at times,” Puglisi and Donnelly said. “Kids are constantly trying to figure out how they fit into the world and social situations, and sometimes they make poor choices. It is important to let them make these mistakes and use them as teachable moments. That being said, if a parent sees this behavior becoming a pattern, they should address it immediately and give clear, consistent consequences for undesirable behaviors.”

After you receive the “dreaded” call that your child is being accused of bullying, a blog “(Gulp!): What to do when your child is the bully” featured on, recommends you breathe, be grateful you’ve been alerted, take a moment to accept the information and make a pledge that you will talk to your child.

The blog says to look out for this kind of instinctual behavior:

  • Don’t look for someone to blame. “She didn’t learn that at home. It must be when she spent time with her cousins!”
  • Don’t justify the behavior. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • Don’t deny it. “My child would never do that.”

Instead, the blog instructs you to ask your child if there is any part of what you’ve heard that they agree is true. And if so, why?

  • Try to find the source of their child’s frustration or anger. Is something happening at school or home?
  • Work to instill empathy and help the child understand the power of words and actions. Ask the child: How would you feel if someone did this to you? How would you feel if someone treated your sister this way?
  • Try to role play so that the child can learn the appropriate way to deal with a situation.

For more information, parents can visit

Alissa Scott is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She loves to go camping in the Adirondacks, DIY projects and her cat, Wednesday Addams.

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