We have been told by several parents that our 12-year-old child is bullying other kids. When we talk to him, he tells us the other kids are “stupid” and are “sissies”. We are told he shoves kids around while playing, and uses very aggressive language. Recently, he got punched by a girl who got sick of his bossing them around. This became a total meltdown point for him and he now refuses to go out to play. What should we do?
Well, in a way, this is a good time for you to step in gently. The girl punching him has done half the job for you, which is to give him the message that bullies are at first feared, but soon get their comeuppance and are rendered powerless. Bullying behaviour has an extremely limited shelf life! I am not suggesting that you say “serves you right”, or the like. Use this opportunity to talk to him about how relationships with school friends can and should never be about power.
Unacceptable: Talk to your child about his bullying behaviour.
Once you get him talking, find out where his dismissive attitude (“they’re all stupid and sissies”) has come from. This way you can also find out if he’s trying to feel superior to them all (based usually on feeling inadequate inside) or whether he is genuinely ahead of them in terms of thinking, planning and strategizing (all of which come into play during team games) and is frustrated by their unwillingness to see things his way. Whatever you find out, you have your work cut out for you. If it is a matter of him wanting to feel superior, you need to find out why his self-worth hinges on this. Simultaneously, check your own family interactions—is there power play, and dismissive talk at work in some form in your interactions with other adults or your spouse’s or any other significant elder’s interactions with the boy?
If you find this is not at play, and what’s happening is the latter scenario, then you should first help him change his ways of communicating. He has to learn non-physical and non-hostile ways of putting his ideas across. Here you can build on your child’s qualities and talents by encouraging him to get involved in pro-social activities (such as music lessons). That does not mean you pluck him out of playing with the neighbourhood kids and send him to do some activity alone. I suggest you have him do both.
If, in the process of getting to the root of his bullying behaviour, you uncover unhealthy family behaviour patterns, you could consider seeing a counsellor, who would neutrally and compassionately get all of you past this phase. While there is no need to be alarmed and anxious, do take your child’s bullying behaviour seriously and tackle it systematically at a personal and family level.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
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