How to handle a bully: psychologist offers tips for parents

By Cheryl Walker
June 24, 2005

Everyone can think back to elementary school and remember a bully, the one who always called kids names or hit them or made fun of them.

What should parents do if their child is the bully?

Drew Edwards, adjunct professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and author of the book "How to Handle a Hard-to-handle Kid," shares ways parents can help curb their child's bullying behavior. Edwards has practiced clinical child psychology for more than 30 years.

First, if parents think their child may be a bully, they should try to find out if the child has a pattern of intentionally trying to cause distress or harm to children who do not fight back, he says. It is important to ask day care workers and teachers if the child is showing aggressive behavior more than other kids his age?

If this is the case, Edwards first suggests parents take stock of how they respond to their child. Parents should look at the amount of positive interactions they are having with their child. "If most interactions are negative, they need to change that," Edwards says. He encourages turning up the volume on positives so that positives outweigh negatives. Parents need to balance negative feedback with positive reinforcement to encourage children when they do something right.

"Kids who are bullies are strong-willed and impulsive," Edwards says. "Negatives lead to negatives. When they get negative feedback for their behavior, they tend to give negative feedback to kids who they see as weaker than they are."

Edwards also suggests parents ask themselves what kind of example they are setting for a child. If a parent frequently yells at a child or hits the child, that child is more likely to act aggressively toward others. Kids who bully tend to be those who are bullied by parents or others.

How does the parent deal with anger? Tell and show the child other ways to deal with anger. "Give them a script and stage directions," he says. "And, model the behavior you want to see in them. Setting the example yourself is the most important thing."

Say "I'm mad" rather than yelling. Stomp your foot as a physical expression of anger rather than hitting something or someone. Teach them to do things other than yelling or hitting.

When using punishment, he suggests avoiding physical punishment such as spanking. Use consequences such as taking away a privilege or assigning extra chores. "The more consistency in your response, the better," Edwards says.

"Watch kids' media diet," Edwards says. "Exposure to TV violence increases the likelihood they will engage in aggressive behavior and will become desensitized to violence."

Increase supervision, he recommends. If a kid is a bully in the neighborhood, parents need to monitor him more closely and require him to check in with them more frequently.

Bullying at school happens mostly during transition times, especially in hallways between classes, at recess and during bathroom breaks.

"When adults are around, kids don't do these things as much," Edwards says.

Work with teachers and other school personnel to increase supervision during these times and to find out what consequences they can use to prevent the bullying behavior during school hours.

Often, bullies are boys, but parents should be alert to bullying behaviors in girls, too.

"Girls tend to use name-calling, intimidation and social exclusion more than boys," Edwards says. "Girls are often more subtle, but can be just as hurtful."

If parents recognize aggressive tendencies in their young children, they can help them early on. "If more people intervened when kids were 4 or 5 years old rather than 9 or 10, it would be so much easier to deal with and prevent more serious problems later," Edwards said. Research shows that before age 10 it is easier to change bullying behavior and that after that time, the patterns for aggressive behavior become more firmly entrenched.

The good news is that bullies can learn to act differently if they are provided proper support and direction.

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