I've been traveling out of the country, so I'm republishing one of my more popular blogs in honor of National Bullying Month. I'll be back later this week with fresh content.
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Another problem that we can face with traumatized children is that they can become the bully in a given situation. Children who have suffered trauma, particularly violent trauma, can learn the message that they have to be the one in power to avoid abuse. Or they can unconsciously develop bullying characteristics as a way of coping with their trauma.
When that happens, it can catch us by surprise. We usually see a different side of our children, and usually see their positive characteristics. More than once, I’ve heard a parent say, “How can my warm and loving child be a terrible bully?”
First, we have to realize that good kids can have bad reactions to their peers. Furthermore, situations change. A kid who is bullied today can be the bully tomorrow, and vice-versa. “Bully” has become an all-purpose epithet that covers a lot of complicated behavior.
Second, don’t take it personally. The fact that your child is treating his friends badly doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. Children have agency, and they make decisions in their private lives that have nothing to do with us. So, deal with your feelings first before you try to work with your child. Or, at the very least, keep the two issues separated.
When you are ready to talk to your child, how you approach the question will depend on lots of factors. But keep these important principles in mind:
1. Encourage your child to take ownership of the problem. Don’t let him or her blame someone else, particularly the victim. Keep saying, “we are not talking about what they did, but how you reacted.”
2. Avoid labels. As I noted above, “bully” is a simple word charged with a lot of emotion. Discuss the facts of what your child did, and explain how it’s wrong. Don’t get sidetracked with an argument about whether a particular label fits the situation.
3. Work on ways for your child to fix the situation. They need to come up with ideas to repair the relationship or make amends. You can enforce the consequences, but if you simply impose them without buy-in from your child, then you won’t accomplish anything. Their relationship with their friend will remain fractured, and their relationship with you will be worse.
4. Leave your child with some dignity. Like all bad decisions, they can recover. It doesn’t mean that they are terrible people or irredeemable. Children with trauma are already prone to thinking that their trauma defines time. Don’t let this mistake define them as well.
5. Finally, work on social skills that can help avoid future problems. If they learn how to interact positively with their peers, they are less likely to be bullied or to try to use power against their friends.
Bullying is a complicated subject, and it’s particularly hard when we are parenting children who have already endured loss. However, it is much like every other bad decision that they make. We have to find that balance between encouraging their self-respect and helping them fix their mistakes.