You do your best, and that’s all anyone can ask of you. Parents say that all the time to comfort themselves and each other, but what if your child is the playground bully?
When your kid is behaving badly, you question yourself. What could I have done differently? Did I say something? Where did they see this behavior, and why did they think it’s OK to act like that? How does this reflect on my parenting?
Growing up Is Scary for Kids — and Their Parents
Yes, mirroring is part of how children learn social behavior, but there’s always more to the story. The worlds of children seem small to adult outsiders, but to kids, their worlds are very big and sometimes very scary — not to mention, their emotions are huge as they navigate what growing up means to them. The road to adulthood is paved with multiple bumps, and your child will get into scrapes, causing a few of their own. That doesn’t mean bullying, or behaviors that enable or endorse such acts, are acceptable socially.
Kids tackle tough interactions they have never encountered without social proficiencies or knowledge of implementing “expected” mature protocols. Every situation and person is different. Here are a few tips to understand what could be going on underneath the “bully” persona.
- “Bully” Is a Shifting Label
Your child is a bully in one class, but later, they walk into the lunchroom and someone else takes their money. “Bully” is less of a label and more of a contagious culture: Children can’t process harshness or meanness even when they’re not the direct target, and when emotional memory overwhelms them, they model bullying behavior. If they see someone excluding or mistreating others, they use that behavior as an example to pass on, or they bully to express strong emotions they don’t know how else to process.
One day, your child is a victim to bullying. The next, they become a bully. It’s a label, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior.
- Kids Lead Private Lives, Too
Unfortunately, you can’t always be there to monitor your child’s behavior or comfort them before a situation leads to confused confrontation. That privacy is big and scary because they must learn to rely on themselves.
Kids recognize themselves at age 2 in the mirror, and they also start to recognize certain items as their property. When kids express self-conscious emotions, such as pride, guilt and embarrassment, they reflect the progressive development of self-identity. So, ask your child how they see themselves, and ask yourself how you can reinforce that positive image.
No, bullying shouldn’t be the answer when kids feel vulnerable. Though you won’t always be present, you can help your child collect themselves and process their emotions, thoughts and actions. Ask about their feelings and thought processes during and leading up to the event, and how they felt after the bullying occurred. Help them learn empathy for themselves and others while respecting their individuality and privacy.
- Kids Have More Than One Side
Everyone has a public persona and a private persona — sometimes more than one. Just like you behave differently at work, in your house and your place of worship, kids act differently in school than they do at home. People’s behavior hinges on how they balance their roles of “this is me” and “this is my role toward someone else.” If you’re a student, your teachers expect you to act a particular way, but that may not always gel with your self-concept or sense of safety.
Ever acted out in a long line at a coffee shop or in traffic? Ever been pushed over the edge or let yourself get pushed? Kids experience these conflicting aspects of self-concept vs. expected roles vs. how that doesn’t always apply in reality. It’s frustrating as an adult. Imagine how that feels as a kid who is still learning to process their complicated emotions.
A child’s self-image constantly grows as they reconcile that with the shifting image-esteem connection — think of it as a spectrum. Kids have a descriptive, rather than judgmental, point of view about self-concept related to physical attributes, social affiliations, name, age, gender and more, but when the situation challenges them, inner life gets confusing as heck. Respect for emerging individuality and reinforcement of positive self-expression is vital.
People develop self-worth through positive and negative interactions with others. During the early stages, self-concept is fluid, but repeated perspectives and behaviors can set patterns later in life. In this phase, children learn to define themselves in the group — transitioning from “me” language to “us” language. Let your child play more: Dropping structured play time and engaging in free play helps children navigate tricky social skills for themselves and learn to cooperate better with other kids and adults alike.
Learning to rely on various communication tools is important — though, as adults, we sometimes learn people are just jerks, no matter what’s said on the surface.
Bullying is a shifting label and social contagion, but don’t let that stigmatize your child and set a pattern of behavior later down the road. Your child leads a private life and has more than one side, just like you do, but your kiddo is a tiny human dealing with growth issues even adults still face challenges with. Empower them with tools and understanding step by step, because you are both doing the best you can in life.
Sometimes, those actions don’t represent model behavior, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn and grow from the situation. The good news is, kids love to learn and love.
Author bio: Jennifer is a tea-drinking, yoga loving, distance running, nutrition nut, writer, and journalist. She’s a proud mama and wife and she loves making new friends! You can find her on her blog – Mindfulness Mama!