“What do you do when your own child is the bully? You are always talking about what to do when your kid is being bullied. What about when they are the one who is doling it out?”
This question came from a concerned mother, wracked with guilt over her son’s habit of emotionally demeaning peers and physically pushing them around. It was clear from her description that Jack, her eleven-year-old, was doing far more than the occasional sparring commonly seen with boys his age. He was a true bully.
Human behavior is complex. While some may attest to understanding it completely, I’m not one of them. “What I can offer,” I shared with Jack’s mom, “is a menu of possible interventions that up the odds of success.”
As our first step, we must do everything within our control to limit the bully’s access to situations where they are able to victimize others. School examples include:
- “I allow students to sit wherever they want in the cafeteria when I’m not concerned about them bullying others.”
- “Feel free to use the playground for as many minutes as you can be there without causing a problem.”
Home examples are:
- “You may play with the other kids in the neighborhood when I’m available to be there to supervise.”
- “I’ll allow you to play that with your brother as long as you can do so without causing a problem.”
These types of commonsense limits are pragmatic, only intended to make it more difficult for the bully to hurt others. Our eyes remain wide open to the fact that this will not eliminate the problem. As you’re surely aware, bullies will almost always find a way to work around such limits.
Many parents and educators comment on the difficulty they experience attempting to identify logical consequences for many types of misbehavior, including bullying. Love and Logic offers a solution called the “Energy Drain.” Here are the basics applied to a bully:
- Providing sincere empathy, say, “This is so sad. When you bully, it really drains my energy.”
2. Ask, “How are you going to put that energy back into me?”
3. Provide a menu of two or three solutions: “Some kids decide to stay home from their baseball game this weekend so that I can take that time to rest. Some decide to clean the house. That really puts energy into me.”
4. Give them a deadline: “Just have my energy replaced by tomorrow night at eight o’clock. Thanks.”
To learn more about applying the “Energy Drain,” listen to our audio, Love and Logic Magic: When Kids Drain Your Energy.
One of the major goals for working with bullies is to help them develop empathy for others. How will they learn empathy if they aren’t experiencing it from us?
As we’ll see in the following section, sincere empathy can also be used to cause their bullying behavior to backfire.
Spit in their Soup
“Spitting in their Soup” is a powerful therapeutic technique originally developed decades ago…and named by the famous therapist Alfred Adler. The Love and Logic variation is summed up in two steps:
1. Identify the child’s goal for performing the behavior. Often in the case of bullying, the goal is to look and feel powerful.
2. Use empathy to communicate that the behavior is actually achieving the opposite.
Let’s see how a parent or educator might use this approach with a child or teen:
Adult (with sincere empathy): “I’ve been learning a lot about some of the reasons kid bully others.”
Bully: “I’m not doing it. It’s not me. Why do I always get blamed for everything?”
Adult (with true heartfelt compassion): “Down deep they want others to know how much they are hurting…how scared they are feeling…how weak they feel.”
Bully: “That’s not me.”
Adult (without a hint of sarcasm): “It’s like when they pick on other kids, they are really saying to everyone, ‘I’m hurting so bad…somebody please help me.’”
Bully: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. That’s not me.”
Adult: “Talk to you later. Let me know if there is any way I can help.”
Obviously, this approach can backfire dramatically if the adult is unable to apply sincerity and true compassion.
Create a “Bullying = Weakness” School or Home Culture
One of the most effective strategies for diminishing bullying involves helping the entire group perceive it as a cry for help. They don’t say this to the bully. They say it to themselves. The bully is also in on the training, so they are gently yet powerfully forced to face the fact that their peers…or siblings…are seeing the behavior as weakness. On a group level, this spits in the bully’s soup.
This is a culture of empathy…not one of sarcasm, belittling, or judgment.
Besides sabotaging bullying behavior, this intervention also helps victims avoid taking the behavior personally. This goes a long way toward reducing its negative psychological impacts.
Look Below the Tip of the Iceberg
Kids become bullies for a variety of reasons. Some of these include:
- Painful life circumstances, such as marital discord, divorce, being bullied by a sibling, frequent moves, etc.
- Past trauma
- Lack of social skills
- Mental illness or cognitive disabilities
- Fear of being bullied by bigger and stronger peers
- Gang involvement
- Deep-seated attachment issues, resulting in lack of empathy or remorse
- Bullying for reasons we will never completely understand
When we look below the surface and address the underlying factors, we’re far more likely to see lasting behavior change.
Thanks for reading!
Dr. Charles Fay