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The Angry and Aggressive Child - Bullying

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A Note About Terminology

Recent research studies have found that bullying situations are far more fluid than previously thought, with children who are frequently bullied often bullying others when circumstances change. As well, children might participate in episodes of bullying only as a witness or bystander, yet play a very significant role in how the situation unfolds. It’s complicated. For that reason, it’s not always correct to refer to individuals as “a bully” or “a victim”, since those terms imply a lot more stable situation than is usually the case. As well, it’s never a good idea to label children. We want to label behaviour, certainly, but not the kids themselves.
 
Nevertheless, in the pages that follow the terms “bully” and “victim” are used on occasion, only because it’s a simple, convenient shorthand that is a lot less awkward than to always say “children who bully” and “children who are victimized”. But the reader should try to remember that in dealing with children and adolescents, it’s always best to avoid labelling them rather than the things they do.
 

Introduction

Most adults have childhood memories of bullying. We may have been involved directly or just indirectly as a witness or bystander, but very few of us have completed the journey into adulthood without experiencing bullies, victims and the interaction between them. Yet research over the last four decades reveals that much of our understanding of bullying is distorted or just flat out wrong. It's almost as though we've matured, but our perception of bullying is still mired in the observations, experiences and interpretations of childhood.
 
To take a look at what we now understand about bullying, let’s begin by precisely defining it. This is a bit complicated because the seriousness of the issue has led governments all over the world to get involved, and many have come up with their own definitions. Here, we’ll use the one adopted by the Ministry of Education in the Canadian province of Ontario, mainly because it’s based on the widely accepted definition produced by Dr. Dan Olweus, one of the world’s foremost researchers in this field. The Ontario definition says:
 
“Bullying is typically a form of repeated, persistent and aggressive behaviour directed at an individual or individuals that is intended to cause fear, and distress and/or harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, or reputation. Bullying occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance.” Ontario Ministry of Education, October, 2007   

There is a lot packed into those two sentences, but the main points are these:
  • Bullying is usually not a one-time act, but is repeated over time
  • Bullying is intentional and is meant to cause fear, distress and/or harm
  • Bullying is not just physical, but can also be psychological, emotional or social, and
  • Those who bully always have more physical, psychological, emotional or social power than those they bully.
Though not directly stated in the definition it’s important to note that bullying can also occur in “cyberspace” through the use of computers, cell phones, faxes and so on. This technique is especially effective since it follows the victim into his or her home and seriously disrupts social relationships. This will be examined in more detail later.
 
Also note that children who bully might vary a good deal in how they operate. For example, some may try to bully anyone in their environment including adults, and all of their peers may show caution or discomfort when he or she is nearby. Others may select one or a few specific victims and concentrate all of their bullying efforts only on those particular children.
 
Incidence Rates
Obviously, bullying sounds serious, but is it a common problem or one that’s isolated to dangerous neighbourhoods? Well, the research evidence is overwhelmingly clear that this form of aggressive behaviour is present in just about every environment where children or teens are found (we won’t be discussing the equally serious subject of adult bullying), and it involves large numbers of kids. In the research, estimates of incidence rates vary from 30% to over 65% of school age children, but those who are involved in the most serious and persistent problems, either as a bully, a victim, or both, probably comprise closer to 15% to 20%. That’s at least one in every seven children in every classroom, in every school. And this incidence rate doesn’t seem to vary much from one neighbourhood to the next, regardless of income level, languages spoken or any other so-called “demographic factors”.
 
Gender Differences
Although people tend to think of bullying as a male problem, studies have found that females are involved almost as often. However, there seems to be a considerable difference between boys and girls in how they bully. In general, male bullying tends to be physical, especially before age twelve, although taunting and harassment are also common. In the case of girls, however, the preferred bullying strategy more often involves social isolation of the victim, followed by teasing, harassment and passing rumours, often with a sexual promiscuity theme. This is not to suggest that girls aren’t also capable of physical bullying. It’s simply used considerably less often by girls than by boys.
 
Recent research also suggests that the fastest growing bullying problem is cyber-bullying. Although both boys and girls are involved in this worrisome trend, girls actually seem to be more likely to bully others in this way.
 
Long Term Effects of Bullying
Bully-victim relationships can last a long time, even several years. Furthermore, long term studies have shown that the effects of the experience can persist into adulthood, for both victims and for those who bully. As adults, children who were victimized appear to outgrow that role and they are no longer victims in their social or work settings. However, it appears that they do display both lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression and suicide.
 
In the case of children who persistently bully others, the long-term consequences also appear to be quite serious. A number of studies show that children identified as frequent bullies in their elementary school years are at risk for a wide variety of social problems as adults. For example, they tend to have much higher rates of divorce, spousal abuse, job loss, and criminal conviction.
 
Other long-term studies have clearly shown that youth who are incarcerated for offences involving violence are significantly more likely to have been identified as bullies in elementary school than those incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Therefore, some of the children who bully their peers in the early school years will go on to commit violent crimes in their teens and twenties. Young people do not suddenly become violent when they reach adolescence, and prevention is not a task that should be left to secondary schools. By then it is very likely too late. It is especially critical that parents of bullies be made aware of these findings, since they sometimes won’t accept that a problem exists, perhaps because the situation seems less detrimental to their children than to their children's victims.

The Role of Adults

When children are asked what teachers, parents or other adults do to stop bullying, it’s not unusual for their response to be "nothing". Typically, adults are unaware, or they avoid involvement, or they intervene but only superficially. For example, when a child is being bullied in the schoolyard, many teachers will fail to notice. If a teacher does notice, however, and attempts to intervene, he/she usually is assured by the aggressor and the bystanders that the situation is just "play fighting" or some other harmless activity. If the teacher persists and asks the victim, he or she will usually confirm what the other children have said. The victim then, helps to hide the problem. There is a "conspiracy of silence" and the victim is complicit, keeping adults in the dark.
 
Why doesn’t the victim tell teachers or parents that he/she is being mistreated? The answer is, of course, fear of retaliation by the bullies. This tells us that the victim likely does not believe that adults can or will provide protection. And often, we don't. And we don't, in part at least, because bullying is steeped in a mythology saying that if a child is being bullied, especially a boy, adult intervention will make matters worse. In fact the conventional wisdom says, the only solution is for the victim to fight back, at which time the bully will decide to find a new victim since, we are assured, bullies are really cowards. This reasoning often is reinforced in adult’s selective memories and in every movie or television program where children are featured characters.
 
Unfortunately, the research indicates that bullying scenarios rarely play out in this way. First of all, victims are usually not chosen at random, but instead tend to be children who are introverted, sensitive, small, and highly unlikely to fight back even with encouragement. Secondly, when these children do attempt to fight back, sometimes at the urging of well-meaning adults, they are easily defeated and sometimes even hurt. Persistent, practised bullies do not behave as depicted in the media. They tend to strive for control and seldom tolerate resistance from the victim.
 
Another factor that might make adults reluctant to take action is cultural: we tend to dislike victims. As a result, adults who discover a bullying situation first tend to look for evidence that the victim caused the problem, justifying the bully's behaviour. This is often clear from the "interrogation" that greets children who approach adults for help: "What did you do?"; "Did you say something to those bigger boys?"; "Why were you playing in that area when you know that's where the big boys play?"; "Why did you wear your new shoes when you must have known they would tease you if you wore them?". Such questions are unsettling in the context of serious bullying, and communicate to victims that instead of getting protection from authority figures, even parents, they might well get blamed for the very problem they are reporting. The message seems to be that victims should find a way to solve the problem themselves, or simply live with it.
 
Are victimized children and teens never involved then, in causing their own problems? Do they never “deserve what they get”? Maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe just asking these questions pretty much suggests that “vigilantism” is justified. It says that if kids feel an individual deserves to be punished, and if they have the physical ability to do it, then they have society's permission. Of course, that’s clearly wrong. In a civilized society, a person who is vulnerable, annoying or unusual should not be subjected to bullying, where those who are stronger are allowed to tease, harass, intimidate or beat up anyone who doesn’t fit in. Yet with children this is common, and adults are often tacitly complicit, using terms such as “tattling” or “squealing” to discourage those who want to report abusive behaviour.
 

A Note about “Causes” of Bullying Behaviour

Overall, there is no single risk factor that is sufficient to explain bullying. Rather, there are multiple risk factors, and multiple pathways through which children develop aggressive behaviour problems. Also, there is a cumulative effect. That is, the more risk factors (and the fewer protective factors, such as stable, positive family relationships, and friendships with nonaggressive peers), the more likely it is for children to bully others. There are also many different profiles of children who bully. Therefore, in considering strategies to support children and youth who bully, it is essential to consider their individual strengths and weaknesses and their relationships. We now understand that, although many factors contribute to bullying, it is primarily a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions.
Another important factor that causes bullying is that it works for some children. That is, bullying can provide significant rewards. Children who bully feel powerful and often dominate in the schoolyard or within their peer groups. As well, they feel respected, mainly because they can’t differentiate respect from fear. They may get preferred access to playground equipment or first place in line-up for the drinking fountain, or anything else kids line up for. And, crossing the line into criminal behaviour, they may get toys, money or other possessions from their victims.
 
In other words, bullying behaviour is often rewarding, which explains why it might be stubbornly maintained even when adults try to intervene to stop it.

 
As can be seen, there are some complicated concepts and beliefs wrapped up in the whole area of bullying. In the sections that follow, we’ll examine the whole issue in more detail.

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Children in the preschool years are just beginning to learn how to control and regulate their emotions. They are slowly developing social skills and language abilities for effective problem solving. Within relationships with friends and family, they try to assert themselves to get what they want and are just learning to use negotiation rather than more immature approaches such as tears, tantrums, power or dominance.
 
Even as they enter school, children tend to solve social problems in an unskilled manner, thinking mainly of their own needs. It is not unusual for these young children to try to solve social problems by threatening or physically assaulting another child.
 
Bullying at this age is seldom hidden, and is equally likely to be verbal (e.g., name calling, teasing, threatening), or physical (e.g., hitting, biting, kicking, scratching). More sophisticated bullying techniques such as subtle intimidation, convincing peers to bully the victim, or initiating organized social exclusion, are rare, though it’s not unusual for a child tell his friends not to play with another child.
 
Girls and boys will engage in similar forms of bullying at this young age, but they are beginning to diverge. That is, we can already see a tendency for boys to become more physical and girls to become more verbal or social in the way they show aggression. As well, even before they start school children begin to prefer to play with their own gender. As a result aggressive or bullying behaviour tends to be directed at their same-sex peers.
 
In determining whether these bullying behaviours are within the “normal” or “green light” zone, we have to look at their frequency (i.e., how often they occur), their intensity (i.e., how much impact they have on others), and their duration (i.e., how long any one occurrence of bullying lasts). In the green light zone children don’t engage in these bullying behaviours with enough frequency, intensity or duration to cause disruption of every-day family life, or to interfere with their participation or progress at school or in extra-curricular activities such as sports, hobbies, games or playing with friends.
 
Cyber-bullying is extremely rare at this age level and is seldom if ever a problem.
 
If a child this age is engaging in bullying enough to interfere with everyday life, they have crossed into the yellow light zone where some kind of intervention might be required.
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Although there are no research-based guidelines that specify exactly when bullying behaviour crosses the line from acceptable green light levels to worrisome yellow light levels, we can suggest some warning signs. For example, if a child in this age range engages openly in direct physical, social or psychological bullying, at least once per week, that would likely constitute a worrisome frequency level. Such direct bullying is usually purposeful (i.e., is meant to accomplish something such as getting a toy or dominating another child) and examples  include:
  • Minor assault such as pushing, poking, bumping, etc.
  • Threatening
  • Encouraging other children to bully or exclude someone
  • Teasing, especially if it distresses the targeted child
More indirect or “sneaky” bullying behaviour is less common at this age, and even a few instances might be cause for concern. Examples include:
  • Telling lies about another child, perhaps to make him or her unattractive as a playmate or for revenge
  • Starting nasty rumours about a child or his/her family
  • Encouraging other children to bully or socially exclude someone, but doing so in a secretive manner
 
Similarly, the use of technology such as the internet or a cell phone to bully someone is really uncommon at this age, and therefore even one instance would be considered in the yellow light range of behaviour.
 
In terms of intensity, the point made previously bears repeating. Bullying behaviour would cross into the yellow light zone if it is significant enough to disrupt family routines, upset siblings or other children, or cause school staff to express concern.
 
Parents should avoid trying to judge intensity based on how significant the behaviour seems to them. Instead the measuring stick here is the impact the behaviour has on the victimized child, and even on any witnesses or bystanders.
 
Duration of bullying behaviour is more difficult to judge, since it is seldom continuous. Instead, the bullying is likely to be intense for a day or two, then perhaps stop for a while, and then pop up again. Therefore, duration is better judged by noting if relationship problems persist over more than one week and involve the same children.
 
Obviously, if bullying behaviour significantly exceeds the limits suggested here, it crosses into the red light zone.  Back to top

Again, the key determinants parents need to consider are the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviours observed. In the red light zone the physical, social and/or psychological bullying is of such significance that family routines are severely and repeatedly impacted. At red light levels the bullying is probably evident at home, at school and in the community. Complaints about the child’s behaviour are likely frequent and coming from diverse sources such as other children or their parents, teachers, coaches, community volunteers such as Cub Scout Leaders, etc.
 
Again, at this age children aren’t particularly skilled at hiding their misbehaviour, so adults should have little difficulty seeing the child “in action”. Observed bullying behaviour at the red light level  might include:
  • Physical assault on other children including hitting, biting, scratching, kicking, and possibly using a weapon of some kind
  • Threatening other children or attempting to intimidate them
  • Excluding or shunning other children and/or trying to get the peer group to do so
  • Trying to encourage other children to bully a targeted child
  • Persistent, intense teasing, especially if done in a cruel or disrespectful way
  • Spreading cruel or disrespectful rumours or lies about another child
 
Again, cyber-bullying is uncommon at this age level, and if it is attempted parents, teachers or other adults will likely discover it quite readily. If this behaviour is apparent, anything the child has produced should be saved since it may provide insights that will help in curbing the behaviour later. Back to top
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This broad age range is a period of considerable change and growth. In general, bullying behaviour occurs more in the early part of this age range than later when the children move into the preteen years.
 
Throughout this period, Green Light levels of bullying are relatively mild and predictable, occurring mostly when kids are trying to assert themselves among their peer group. Bullying for most children this age is seldom frequent, intense or long-lasting enough to disrupt routines in the family or at school, and even less likely to occur in the community. Many children who do engage in these normal but annoying behaviours are quite "in character" with their aggressive temperament and parents are seldom surprised at the behaviour.
 
As this stage of development progresses, children grow steadily more focused on their peers. By around age 10, more and more of their misbehaviour of all kinds will be aimed at getting peer attention, rather than adult attention as in the early years. This may be somewhat more a school-based problem than one the parents have to deal with, but it’s important for parents to understand that peer attention will somehow be involved in most daily discipline issues at school, and many at home. Teachers and parents dealing with bullying behaviour at the upper end of this age range must be aware of the child's concerns with the social group. Very often bullying is a misguided attempt to demonstrate leadership, power and dominance within the peer group.
 
Also around age 10, many children will become focused on concepts related to rights such as fairness and equality. At this stage, arguing with adults might increase as these youngsters grapple with newly discovered feelings of passion related to their own growth in independence and the early stirrings of identity-building. As will be seen later, this is also an opportune time for discussions that focus on bullying as a violation of an individual’s human rights.
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What moves a behaviour from the normal range into a category that is worrisome and bears watching is its frequency, intensity and/or duration. Some minor bullying behaviour is not necessarily worrisome, but it bears watching under certain conditions:
  • If it happens once a month or more (frequency)
  • If a single instance of bullying is of such intensity that family routine is disrupted or the victim is clearly upset, or if adults from the school or community report bullying of such intensity
  • If the bullying relationship lasts a very long time(duration)
Note that judging the seriousness of a bullying relationship must take age differences into account. Children in middle childhood are growing quickly and their awareness of the world around them increases almost daily. This impacts their ability to hide their behaviour from adults or manipulate other children. At age 6, most children are open and almost unaware that other people might be observing them. In terms of observation of their bullying tendencies, “what you see is what you get” might say it all for 6 and 7 year olds. By age 12, however, children display almost adult levels of guile and are quite adept at hiding bullying behaviour. Investigation of suspected incidents of bullying will require a good deal more effort from adults when the children involved are at the high end of this age range.
Yellow light levels of bullying behaviours that are commonly observed include:
 
  • Physical assault of other children, especially at the younger end of this age range, and more frequently involving boys
  • Threatening or attempting to intimidate peers
  • Excluding or shunning another child or group of children, especially if friends are encouraged to do so as well
  • Encouraging others to assault or otherwise bullying another child or group of children
  • Teasing, particularly if there is cruelty involved
  • Spreading lies or rumours about targeted children
  • Cyberbullying, which becomes increasingly common from around age 10 onward
Parents should avoid trying to judge intensity based on how significant the behaviour seems to them. Instead the measuring stick here is the impact the behaviour has on the victimized child, and even on any witnesses or bystanders.
If bullying behaviour results in significant interference with or disruption of family routines, or if complaints are coming in regularly from teachers, parents of other children, or other adults, this signals a need to take action.
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Again, the key indicators to watch for are:
  1. Frequency

  2. Intensity

  3. Duration

What moves a behaviour from the worrisome yellow light zone into the very serious red light zone is its frequency, intensity and/or duration. Bullying behaviour ceases to be tolerable:
  • If it happens once a week or more (frequency)
  • If a single instance of bullying is of such intensity that:
  • family routine is disrupted and/or family members or victims are upset, or
  • adults from the school or community report bullying of such intensity, or
  • there is fear for the safety or well-being of the victimized child or children
  • If the bullying relationship is ongoing for a very long time(duration)
     
Early in this age range "Red Light" behaviours might include attempts to bully parents and are clearly disruptive to family functioning. The child will lack empathy and be unable or unwilling to consider the effects of his/her behaviour on targeted children. The serious bullying is also likely to be evident at school, and both the teacher and other students will feel uncomfortable and "on edge" whenever the child is around.
The older part of this age range is the beginning of the most common stage of development for the onset of serious behaviour and mental health problems involving aggression, severeconduct problems or even criminal activity. Bullying has been shown to be a precursor to these serious behaviours, and is correlated with incarceration later in life. Misbehaviour of this degree is seldom observed prior to age 10, but when it is, the problem is typically even more serious.
In the "Red Light" zone at ages 10 to 12 one observes a repetitive and persistent pattern of bullying behaviour that violates both the rights of others and the social expectations for that age group. Serious bullying might be apparent at home, at school and/or in the community. The behaviour will be directed at exercising power, dominance and control and can include:
  • Aggression such as frequent assault or fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • Frequent episodes of threatening or intimidation
  • Isolating, excluding or shunning others (especially common in girls at the older end of this age range)
  • Deceitfulness (including lying or spreading rumours)
  • Lack of empathy toward others in distress
  • Frequent power struggles with others, particularly with adults
  • Lack of guilt or remorse
  • Frequent and/or intense loss of temper (especially at younger ages)
  • Might be feared or avoided by other children
  • Spiteful or vindictive behaviour

With the eldest children in this age range who exhibit Red Light behaviours, say those over age 10, there will likely be concern or fear for the safety and well-being of the targeted children. Back to top
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Early adolescence is a time of tremendous cognitive, emotional, physical, and social change. Starting early in the teen years, children seek independence from their parents, as well as acceptance from peers. Parents should keep in mind that during puberty both hormonal and brain changes may impact the behaviours and emotions of young adolescents. Conflicts with parents tend to increase during this stage, while at the same time adolescents grow more attached to peers.
 
This of course magnifies the influence of negative peer pressure from young people who engage in troubling behaviour, including bullying. But research shows that a strong sense of social responsibility and connectedness to caring adults will help adolescents resist such pressures. As well, solid self-esteem and assertiveness (not aggressiveness) have been shown to be protective factors in young people resisting negative peer pressure.
 
Despite the challenges, the majority of early adolescents rarely engage in bullying behaviour. This is important, since at this age level even occasional episodes of bullying behaviour can jeopardize their social connections. On those few occasions when they do bully others, their actions are more likely to be verbal or social rather than physical, especially among girls.
 
It’s worth noting that at this age level young people spend a good deal of their time “on-line” surfing social media sites, e-mailing, tweeting and texting. Cyber-bullying has therefore become one of the most common kinds of bullying and this is only likely to increase as time and technology progress. Most early adolescents, however, remain in the green light zone and don’t bully on-line. When such incidents do occur they are often either misunderstandings borne of the lack of face-to-face contact, or missteps made in the heat of the moment. But in this age range it is often the case that when bullying behaviour crosses into the yellow light zone, it happens first in cyberspace. 
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Key factors to watch for:
  1. Frequency
  2. Intensity
  3. Duration
In early adolescence, it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours. Specific bullying behaviours include:
  • Physical bullying such as pushing, hitting, kicking, etc.
  • Threatening or intimidating
  • Aggression
  • Excluding or shunning others
  • Temper outbursts
  • Encouraging others to bully targeted children or youth
  • Hurtful teasing or harassment
  • Spreading lies or rumours about a targeted child or youth
  • Using technology such as the internet or cell phone system to bully or harass others
Note that physical bullying is relatively rare in early adolescence, so any amount of this kind of behaviour is worrisome.
 
Parents should avoid trying to judge intensity based on how significant the behaviour seems to them. Instead the measuring stick here is the impact the behaviour has on the victimized child or youth, and even on any witnesses or bystanders.

It’s also important to note that during early adolescence distinguishing normal from worrisome behaviour simply on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more complicated. The nature of any misbehaviour among young teens is usually dictated by the child’s temperament and personality, the child’s life situation and everyday problems, the bond or relationship among family members, and the growing influence of the peer group. The mix of temperaments and personalities within the family is also very important.
 
As well, parents will need to acknowledge that young teens want and need to begin taking responsibility for some of the decision-making with respect to their own lives, everything from choosing their own friends, clothing and hair styles,to picking their courses when they enter High School.
 
Notwithstanding the above, parents should keep in mind that two main indicators of worrisome levels of bullying behaviour are:
  1. Frequent disruption of everyday functioning in home, school or community, and
  2. Frequent complaints or concerns from others regarding the youngster’s aggressive behaviour
These signals should not be ignored since research shows that without intervention bullying behaviour tends to get worse over time as opposed to simply “going away” on its own.

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This age range is part of the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both boys and girls are at risk, slightly more males are affected than females.
 
In the red light zone, repetitive and persistent patterns of behaviour that violate the rights of others are observed. This can include:
  • Frequent, intense and/or long lasting physical bullying, perhaps even crossing into assault
  • Indifference to the suffering of targeted children or youth
  • Fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • Threatening or intimidation, including extortion
  • Physical cruelty to people or animals
  • Persistent, cruel teasing
  • Sexual harassment or even sexual assault
  • Deceitfulness (including lying or spreading rumours)
  • Persistent cyber-bullying, sometimes crossing into criminal behaviour such as threatening harm or hacking
Obviously, the worst misbehaviour tends to be most visible at school and in the community, but behaviour in the home is usually also highly disruptive. Many of the serious "Red Light" behaviours at home will show a pattern of aggression and hostility, such as:
  • Frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • Constant attempts to bully siblings or even parents
  • Very frequent or intense power struggles
  • Constantly appearing angry
  • Spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • Lack of empathy for people in distress
  • Violating the rights of others
  • Serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, vandalism or truancy
Confronted by Red Light misbehaviour in this age range, parents often feel concern or fear for the safety of other children, and in rare cases even fear for their own safety. The home situation very often feels intolerable.
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This alter stage of adolescence is a time of continuing cognitive, emotional, physical, and social change. Starting early in the teen years, children seek independence from their parents, as well as acceptance from peers, and by age 16 this process accelerates markedly. Keep in mind that adolescents in this age range are preoccupied with building an identity separate from their parents, and this partly accounts for the rise in peer group influence. Conflicts with parents are common during this stage, but there are also signs that this is beginning to reduce in frequency.
 
The influence of negative peer pressure from young people who engage in troubling behaviour, including bullying is certainly an issue. But research shows that a strong sense of social responsibility and connectedness to caring adults will help adolescents resist such pressures. As well, solid self-esteem and assertiveness (not aggressiveness) have been shown to be protective factors in young people resisting negative peer pressure.
 
Despite the challenges, the majority of adolescents rarely engage in bullying behaviour. This is important, since at this age level even occasional episodes of bullying behaviour can jeopardize their social connections. On those few occasions when they do bully others, their actions are much more likely to be verbal or social rather than physical.
 
It’s worth noting that at this age level young people spend a good deal of their time “on-line” surfing social media sites, e-mailing, tweeting and texting. Cyber-bullying has therefore become one of the most common kinds of bullying and this is only likely to increase as time and technology progress. Most adolescents, however, remain in the green light zone and don’t bully on-line. When such incidents do occur they are often either misunderstandings borne of the lack of face-to-face contact, or missteps made in the heat of the moment. But in this age range it is often the case that when bullying behaviour crosses into the yellow light zone, it happens first in cyberspace. 


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Key factors to watch for:
  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Duration
In adolescence, it is still frequency, intensity, and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours.

Specific bullying behaviours include:
  • Physical bullying such as pushing, hitting, kicking, etc.
  • Threatening or intimidating
  • Aggression
  • Excluding or shunning others
  • Temper outbursts
  • Encouraging others to bully targeted children or youth
  • Hurtful teasing or harassment
  • Spreading lies or rumours about a targeted child or youth
  • Using technology such as the internet or cell phone system to bully or harass others
 
Note that physical bullying is rare in adolescence, so any amount of this kind of behaviour is worrisome.
 
Parents should avoid trying to judge intensity based on how significant the behaviour seems to them. Instead the measuring stick here is the impact the behaviour has on the victimized child or youth, and even on any witnesses or bystanders.
 
It’s also important to note that during adolescence distinguishing normal from worrisome behaviour simply on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more complicated. The nature of any misbehaviour among older teens is usually dictated by the young person’s temperament and personality, his or her life situation and everyday problems, the bond or relationship among family members, and the growing influence of the peer group. The mix of temperaments and personalities within the family is also very important. As well, parents need to acknowledge that these older teens want and need to have responsibility for much of the decision-making with respect to their own lives, everything from choosing their own friends, clothing and hair styles,to picking their courses in High School and if or when they enter post-secondary education.
 
Notwithstanding the above, parents should keep in mind that two main indicators of worrisome levels of bullying behaviour are:
  • Frequent disruption of everyday functioning in home, school or community
  • Frequent complaints or concerns from others regarding the youngster’s aggressive behaviour
 
These signals should not be ignored since research shows that without intervention bullying behaviour tends to get worse over time as opposed to simply “going away” on its own.

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This age range is part of the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both boys and girls are at risk, slightly more males are affected than females.
 
In the red light zone repetitive and persistent patterns of behaviour that violate the rights of others are observed. This can include:
  • Frequent, intense and/or long lasting physical bullying, perhaps even crossing into assault
  • Indifference to the suffering of targeted children or youth
  • Fighting (perhaps with a weapon)
  • Threatening or intimidation, including extortion
  • Physical cruelty to people or animals
  • Persistent, cruel teasing
  • Sexual harassment or even sexual assault
  • Deceitfulness (including lying or spreading rumours)
  • Persistent cyber-bullying, sometimes crossing into criminal behaviour such as threatening harm or hacking
 
Obviously, the worst misbehaviour tends to be most visible at school and in the community, but behaviour in the home is usually also highly disruptive. Many of the serious "Red Light" behaviours at home will show a pattern of aggression and hostility, such as:
  • Frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • Constant attempts to bully siblings or even parents
  • Very frequent or intense power struggles
  • Constantly appearing angry
  • Spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • Lack of empathy for people in distress
  • Violating the rights of others
  • Serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, vandalism or truancy
 
Such behaviours are considered “Red Light” when:
  1. They occur more than once each week, sometimes even daily, and/or
  2. They are of such an intensity as to upset the other children in the family, if any, and disrupt the normal flow of family, school or community life, and/or
  3. Their duration is considerable, casting a negative tone over an entire day, week, or even longer
 
Confronted by Red Light levels of bullying behaviour in this age range, parents often feel concern or fear for the safety of others, and in some cases even fear for their own safety. The home situation very often feels intolerable.

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Introduction

The factors that underlie bullying can be really complex. Parents should resist the temptation to look for one-dimensional, simplistic explanations. It is vital to remember the following important general points about the factors that influence all behaviour in childrenand youth:
  • Most children and youth who live with identified "risk factors" actually perform just fine in school and live lives that are quite average, without disordered behaviour and its consequences
  • Children who exhibit the most challenging behaviour often live with more than one of these risk factors, and it's the cumulative effect that becomes the major problem
  • These risk factors are seldom constant over time, but are dynamic and change as situations change and as the child develops.
Each of the factors discussed below has been shown to have an influence on the way children behave. When that influence is negative, it moves the child toward "Yellow Light" or even "Red Light" behaviours.
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Inherited Factors

Personality or temperament can clearly make a child prone to challenging behaviour. Traits such as aggressiveness, excessive introversion or extraversion, and a low tolerance for frustration are just a few examples of the many characteristics that aregenerally present from birth and can predispose a youngster to behaviour problems; gifts from our biological family all wrapped up in our DNA.
 
With regard to bullying specifically, an aggressive personality has been shown to be a risk factor, along with traits such as high competitiveness and low empathy.
 
These characteristics will not necessarily cause misbehaviour, and they may be altered somewhat by different environments, experiences or parenting styles. They should be viewed as part of the vast array of individual differences that exist among human beings, and part of the package that makes each child unique. But in some cases, they will make certain children more at risk to bully in certain circumstances.

Health Factors

Mental and physical health factors can play a very prominent role in triggering misbehaviour such as bullying. Obvious examples of mental health issues that carry a high degree of risk include attention problems, depression, anxiety, and disorders affecting activity level, self-control, or mood. These conditions are dealt with in detail elsewhere on this website.
 
Examples of physical health issues known to affect behaviour include those that cause:
  • Hearing or speech problems
  • Visual impairments
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Serious illnesses such as cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy or spina bifida
 
It is important to note that none of these directly causes specific behaviour problems such as bullying. Rather, the interaction of these conditions with the child's temperament, the parents' reaction, the school and community environments and so on, will determine the impact on behaviour. In other words, physical health problems influence behaviour indirectly. For example, the child's health problems may have resulted in parents having very low expectations and demanding very little behaviourally. A typical result is behaviour that is "spoiled", demanding and self-absorbed, with an accompanying tendency to bully others.
 
It is worth noting, however, that children with health problems have been found to more often end up as victims of bullying rather than the perpetrators, especially at younger ages when their peers are immature and lacking in empathy.

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Family breakdown
Situations where children are raised by a single parent, usually the mother, are commonly seen to contribute to increased risk of misbehaviour. But this is not a simple case of cause and effect. In fact, the vast majority of children from single-parent homes do just fine, both academically and behaviourally. It is a parent'snurturance, bonding, good relationship with the child, and interest in the child's daily life and well-being that supports success. Although children from single-mother families, especially boys, do tend to exhibit more acting-out behaviour, this may be a result of "fatherlessness" rather than the single-parent family. When the birth father, or a consistent father figure, remains involved with the child from an early age, persistent misbehaviour is less likely. Nonetheless, this family structure is a clear risk factor, particularly since it is frequently accompanied by low socio-economic status, or even poverty.
 
In terms of bullying specifically, there does not appear to any research implicating family breakdown as a significant causative or contributing factor, though each case should be examined on its own merits.
 
Poverty
Poverty can affect behaviour, even in families with both parents present. Children who live in poverty often have emotional issues related to security, self-esteem and anxiety, as well as burdens resulting from extra responsibilities and more basic concerns such as hunger, lack of appropriate clothing and general deprivation. During the teen years, when status within the peer group becomes vitally important, poverty can exact an even greater toll. Such children and youth are at risk for acting out behaviour motivated by anger, as well as more practically motivated behaviour such as stealing and fighting to defend one's self image from ridicule.
Frequent moves
Children who move frequently can also exhibit worrisome behaviour, often rooted in alack of school and community roots, feelings of social isolation, loneliness, helplessness or anger. There is considerable variation related to the child's temperament and the circumstances surrounding the moves (e.g., mom keeps getting promotions vs dad keeps changing jobs vs we keep getting evicted because we can't pay the rent).
 
Physical punishment
Since bullying is a learned behaviour, parents who bully others in the family or in the community are also teaching their children to use this technique. Parents who usethreats, physical assaults and other punishment as their main tool for managing behaviour (not just an occasional mild spanking) are highly likely to produce children who fight, bully and intimidate others. Research has shown that children imitate or “model” their parents’ use of violence or intimidation to solve social problems. Therefore parents who bully their children are very likely to pass along this tendency to those children. Of all the family factors, this one has the most research support as a potential cause of bullying behaviour.
 
Parenting practices
Closely related to the above, parenting practices, especially those related to discipline, have been linked to general misbehaviour when they are:
  • Overly strict or too permissive
  • Cool and detached
  • Chaotic and inconsistent
  • Volatile and unpredictable
 
On the other hand, bullying behaviour increases if it works. For example, parents inadvertently teach their children to bully by rewarding or reinforcing the behaviour when it occurs. That is, if parents allow bullying behaviour to be an effective way for their children to get what they want (e.g., toys, their choice of TV programs, treats), then that behaviour will happen more often. In contrast, if bullying is not allowed to work, or even results in punishment, it should decrease in frequency.
 
Some critics argue that since no parent is perfect, researchers can always find something they're doing wrong and then use that to explain the misbehaviour of the children. Although there might be some truth to this criticism, parent training programs have been shown to be highly effective in improving the behaviour of aggressive children.
 
Mother's depression
Children of depressed mothers are significantly more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour and to have difficulty relating to adults. Some suffer socially and academically because of having to assume extra home responsibilitiesto meet family needs. Some will appear depressed themselves. Others try to replace their mother's attention by seeking peer attention through clowning, acting out, defiance, aggression, bullying or even gang involvement.
 
Disturbed family histories
In addition to one or more of the factors noted above, children who exhibit the most disordered behaviour of the "Red Light" variety frequently struggle with other issues as well. These include:
  • Abandonment, especially in their early years
  • Frequent changes in caregiver
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Substance abuse in the family
  • Incarceration of one or both parents
  • Removal of some or all of the children from the home
  • History of losses especially deaths
  • History of mental health problems in the family
 
Unless they have a markedly resilient temperament, these children will likely exhibit a range of disordered behaviours, possibly including bullying.

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Differences and Disabilities

This section deals with disabilities that can affect movement, sensation and learning, as well as differences that might affect a child's school experience, social relationships or support needs. Examples include:
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Hearing or speech problems
  • Visual impairments
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Disabilities affecting mobility and/or requiring use of crutches or a wheelchair
 
Except for a few rare brain abnormalities and some specific factors mentioned below, disabilities or differences seldom if ever directly cause aggression or bullying behaviour. Instead, behavioural difficulties usually result from the interaction between the disabled or "differently abled" child and other factors such as:
  • The child’s temperament
  • The way others (especially peers and caregivers) react to the disability or difference
  • The supports available to the child and the family
  • The culture of the school, which often helps determine the extent of peer support and acceptance the child will enjoy
 
The temperament of the child is particularly important, since it will determine his or her attitude. For example, children who are optimistic, determined and high in self-esteem are likely to cope better with a disability or difference and exhibit behaviour that is both appropriate and acceptable. In contrast, children who are easily discouraged, pessimistic or low in self-esteem will likely be prone to depression and giving up easily.
 
In children who often bully certain temperamental characteristics can be expected. These children tend to have:
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Weak anger management
  • A history of tantrum behaviour (usually inadvertently reinforced by parents and teachers),
  • Aggressive personality traits
  • Low levels of empathy, and
A tendency to blame the disability or difference for every problem, which in turn reduces their ability to develop age appropriate coping skills
 
The important point:
Bullying behaviour is often a learned reaction to the way others view the child's challenges, and not an inevitable result of the challenges themselves.
 
Attention problems, impulsivity, and hyperactivity
Over activity, attention deficits, and difficulty inhibiting impulses are associated with general aggressive behaviour and, for some children, may underlie bullying problems. These children often have difficulty dealing with frustration and managing their emotions and behaviours. Their frustration may lead to bullying, and just as important, these children may be victimized by others for their lack of social skills. These behaviours are frequently noted by teachers and school staff. But it’s parents who have the earliest opportunity to shape the child's behaviour appropriately and prevent these difficulties from leading to aggressive outcomes.
 
 
Cognitive abilities (thinking, reasoning, remembering)
Some researchers have proposed that there is a link between physical bullying and children's ability to organize, plan, form goals, and control their emotions and behaviour. These are all skills that are vital to children's sociability and school success. Attention, impulse control and emotional regulation, examined above, are also influenced by these cognitive abilities. Deficits in this area can clearly have implications for academic and social difficulties, but also for bullying behaviour.
 
 
Finally, it’s worth noting that children coping with disabilities or differences have been shown to be at higher risk of being victimized by bullies rather than being bullies themselves. Obviously this is not always the case but, in general, these children are often in need of monitoring and protective strategies at school, especially at younger ages.

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In our multiculturalworld, sensitivity to the role of culture and religion in the lives of children and youth is critical. While it is helpful to understand how these factors influence behaviour, it is important not to blame them for the behaviour. No cultural or religious factor would directly cause bullying. Instead it is circumstances that surround these factors, and the reaction to them, that can move a child toward worrisome behaviours.
 
For example, children who are newly arrived in the country and not yet comfortable with the language and customs may enter a neighbourhood or school where, for whatever reason, the culture is not welcoming or accommodating. In this case, the potential for behaviour problems is high. These children might be taken advantage of, bullied, or ignored by the other children in the neighbourhood, and react by lashing out and bullying others in retaliation. Obviously, these behaviours are triggered by the reactions of others to the child's culture or religion and not by the culture or religion itself.
 
Children whose families were persecuted for their religious beliefs in their home country might be particularly sensitive to any references to their religion, no matter how innocent. The child may feel threatened, and react with fear, outrage, threats or fighting, depending upon factors such as age, temperament and gender.
 
Another troubling scenario could unfold where children from cultures or religions with a history of conflict or animosity toward one another come together in the school or community. Bullying could emerge, motivated by ingrained hatreds imported from those other cultures or religions, and would have to be dealt with in ways that are sensitive to the historical context.


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The immigrant experience: Circumstances in country of origin
In a small number of cases, bullying could be a result of being raised in a country of origin that is beset by lawlessness, anarchy and corruption, or a result of difficult refugee experiences in transition camps, or separation from parents during the formative years. Those who have not undergone such traumatic experiences may underestimate the impact of moving abruptly from a culture focused on survival to a culture of relative peace, order and prosperity, and the time it can take to adjust to such a significant change. Children caught up in that transition may continue to distrust others in the new country, especially officials in positions of authority. These children may continue to use inappropriate means, such as aggression or bullying, to meet their immediate needs. Teens who arrive here from such background conditions may be at particular risk of isolating themselves in groups of friends or relatives who share their experiences. Such groups can function positively as social support systems, or degenerate into gang-like activity depending upon a myriad of factors related to the school and community environments.
 
Children who arrive from very turbulent or even violent circumstances in their home country could be at risk behaviourally. Often, these children and their families have been traumatized in the course of their relocation, and may exhibit post-trauma symptoms. The longer the duration of the traumatic experience, the more severe the reaction and the harder it becomes to recover and develop a more positive and trustful view of the world.
 
Signs of trauma can include anxiety, poor concentration, easily triggered startle response, fear of leaving home and appearance of daydreaming (actually a sudden re-experiencing of traumatic events). These behaviours can bring about negative reactions from teachers or peers and lead to disruptive, argumentative or defensive reactions from the child.
 
Abuse at Home
A surprisingly large number of children and youth in Canada exhibit symptoms of trauma, and only a small proportion of them are immigrant children who experienced violence or disasters in their home country or community. Instead, research shows most children with trauma-induced behaviour problems have either been abused (physically or sexually), or have witnessed the abuse of their mother.
 
This may seem shocking, but recent reports suggest that as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys will be abused in some way before the age of 18. Almost all will show some effects of this in their behaviour.
 
In the case of woman abuse, Canadian statistics indicate that about 30% of women report being the victim of violence at the hands of their partner at least once. Almost 40% of these women report that the children witnessed the event(s). If the definition of "witnessing" is broadened to include simply hearing the abuse as it happens, that number increases to as much as 80%. In addition, in more than 30% of cases of woman abuse, the children are also abused, and this does not include the 20% of foetuses at risk when women are abused while pregnant.
 
To put the data into more concrete terms it appears that on average, in every Canadian classroom there are as many as 6 children who have witnessed the abuse of their mother, and in every elementary school there are as many as 70 girls and 35 boys who've been victims of abuse themselves. Clearly this is a major traumatizing factor affecting behaviour, and the results often include significant aggression or disruptive acting out.
 
In fact, Canadian research has found that serious emotional and behavioural problems are 10 to 17 times more common in children from violent homes than in children from nonviolent homes. The most commonly reported behaviour problems in these children are:
  • Aggression toward peers (and sometimes toward female teachers)
  • Noncompliance
  • Defiance
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • School phobia
  • Low self-esteem, and a negative self-image
  • Social problems, including bullying
 
Approximately 60% of children who witness or experience a traumatic event will develop post-trauma symptoms. As mentioned above, these might include:
  • Hyperarousal ("deer in headlights" effect)
  • Fearfulness
  • Frequent worrying and other signs of anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Passive learning style
  • Daydreaming
  • Angry outbursts
 
Posttraumatic behaviour is seldom recognized and is most often misidentified as some form of attention problem. Clearly this factor should be considered a major potential cause for the kind of aggressive, bullying behaviour addressed here.
 
Death or Loss
Children who have suffered a significant loss might also display some behavioural issues. Children who have been relocated have also experienced loss: of friends, a familiar school and neighbourhood, and adults they relied on, such as teachers and after school caregivers.
 
Following the death of a friend or loved one, children show sadness, depression, concern about the future, and so on. But remember that anger is also a very normal part of the grieving process, and it can lead to some of the aggressive behaviours being examined here.
 
Of course, in most cases these behaviours triggered by loss are temporary. Researchers have developed a considerable body of knowledge regarding the behavioural effects of loss and the warmth and compassion needed to get the child through this difficult time.

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Why should parents do something about bullying?

Dealing with bullying should be a high priority for parents because this type of behaviour, even at normal or "Green Light" levels, is disruptive to the smooth functioning of the family, affects everyone’s mood, can affect the child’s behaviour and relationships outside the home, and undermines parental authority.
 
In the interests of the child, action should be taken because this kind of misbehaviour can be a warning sign of worse to come. Bullying behaviour at a young age is often a precursor to significant academic, social and behaviour problems in subsequent years. In fact, it’s been shown that children identified as bullies in elementary school have as much as a 50% chance of a criminal conviction as an adult. As well, children who bully have a significantly elevated risk in adulthood of problems such as divorce, being fired, long term unemployment, and abusing their partner or children. Clearly, children who bully others are on a high risk path.
 
Parents should also consider the findings of long term research on children who are victimized. Studies have shown that although they eventually outgrow the role of victim, they are at lifelong risk of low self-esteem, depression and suicide.

Finally, there is a clear moral imperative in play here. In a civilized democracy we believe that every person has the same rights, privileges and responsibilities, regardless of gender, age, ethnic origin, physical size, and so on. We believe that children have a right to feel safe, particularly in their own school, neighbourhood and community. Bullying violates those beliefs, and is really an issue of fundamental human rights. Failure to act when bullying is suspected condones the notion that “might is right” and bigger, stronger children, or children with social or psychological power, have the right to victimize whoever they please. Research evidence suggests that without intervention the children who are victimizing their peers now, may well be victimizing us all in a few short years.

Underlying beliefs about dealing with bullying

As much as everyone agrees on the need to deal with this behaviour, there is considerable disagreement among experts over the question of how parents might best approach it. Countless books and articles have been written on this topic, and they offer a boatload of philosophies, theories and practical applications. The ideas and suggestions that follow try to balance some of this disparate information, but are framed according to three clear underlying beliefs.

Firstly, bullying is a relationship problem and therefore requires relationship focused strategies. That means every intervention to reduce bullying should also teach the children something about the skills, attitudes, and motivations essential for healthy relationships.

Secondly, bullying is about power. Children who bully are attempting to assert and enhance their power within the family or social environment, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The challenge for adults is to redirect this desire for power from the negative strategies of bullying to positive leadership skills and opportunities.
 
Thirdly, bullying is a learned behaviour and learning principals must be a part of the solution. We will begin here, summarizing some key learning principals that have emerged from more than a century of psychological research.

Basic Learning Principles

One important basic principal is that behaviour is heavily influenced by its antecedents (i.e., what happens just before) and especially by its consequences (what happens just after). This will come up many times in the discussion below.
 
As well, adults can't really control the behaviour of children, teens or anyone else. We can only control our own behaviour and certain aspects of the environment. Luckily that's usually enough, because the actions of adults, especially parents, are remarkably important to children, even teenaged children. While that's good news, it does mean that we need to be aware of our own behaviour around children so that we don't unintentionally influence their behaviour in a negative way. In fact that's a common problem; parents often unwittingly play a role in maintaining the very behaviour that's bothering them.
 
 
I.                    A Focus on Prevention
                  
Because behaviour is significantly influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, the general day-to-day environment plays an important role in determining how children will behave. The suggestions below are based on parenting practices that are known to reduce opportunities or triggers for misbehaviour.
 
Create a home environment that is warm and loving, with ample opportunity for your children to experience feelings of being valued for who they are.
  • All kids want to be “good” and to feel their parents love them and are proud of them. No matter how disruptive they might be on any given day, keep this fact in mind.
  • As parents we assume that our children know we love them, even if we often forget to show it in the way we act or the things we say. Try to remember to show your affection for your children every day, even when their behaviour is challenging. That bumper sticker that asks “Have you hugged your child today?” is more than just folk wisdom. It has a lot of good science behind it.
  • Some of the misbehaviour we deal with as parents is directed at getting our attention. Anticipate this by finding time every day to give each child a blast of individual, positive, focused, intense attention as a bit of preventative medicine.
Try to treat instances of misbehaviour as “teachable moments”. That is, part of the time you spend reacting to, correcting or punishing misbehaviour should be devoted to teaching your kids exactly what you expect of them. Don’t assume that they already know.
All expectations need to be taught to children at one time or another, and things we think they’ve learned need to be re-taught now and then just to refresh their memories. It is also wise to allow kids, especially teens, to have input and discuss and debate the household rules now and then as they get older and circumstances change. Children should never have to guess or learn through trial and error when it comes to their parents’ expectations around behaviour.
 
Be consistent. Not perfect, since obviously that's impossible, but very consistent.
If you spend time teaching your rules and expectations, then it would be disastrously unfair to bend them, ignore them or change them unannounced. As well, a rule, routine or expectation related to behaviour has to be applied equally to all the children in ways that are appropriate to their ages and individual needs. Remember that “equal” treatment doesn’t mean “the same” treatment. Also, parents need to work hard at being reliably predictable from day to day, week to week, month to month. Kids don’t like surprises when it comes to behavioural expectations and they all, even teens, thrive on well-established routines. Finally, remember that the children do not need to like or approve of every rule, but when the rules are enforced consistently, they will at least respect your fairness.
 
Create a constant, unwavering climate of mutual respect.
 
This is extremely important with regard to bullying, since bullying is the ultimate in disrespecting another human being. If kids don’t observe and experience respect in the family, how can they be expected to show respect toward others?
 
So how can we teach respect? It involves understanding that one powerful way children learn is through “modelling” or imitation. Adults often demand respect from children but don’t give it in return. This ignores how learning happens. To teach children to be respectful parents, teachers and other adults have to model it. When children are treated with respect and dignity, they generally return the favour. When adults treat others with respect, even when they might be upset with them, children learn to do so as well. But if adults deal with social problems by bullying others, be prepared to see the children who are watching use that method as well.
 
And finally, studies have shown that parents who rely on disciplinary measures that are overly punitive, painful, demeaning, humiliating or disrespectful, are sure to escalate behavioural issues and significantly increase the chances that their children will engage in frequent bullying.
 
Remember that children are curious and exploratory and that's a good thing.
 
This means that parents should not feel offended or defensive when their children test them. In fact, experienced parents expect testing behaviour and are prepared for it, especially when there are changes happening in the home situation. When rules are established, expect that sooner or later at least one of the kids will need to check that you really will enforce them. This is not because kids are "bad" or disobedient, but simply because kids need to know. They’re kids and testing their parents is their job.
 
These testing situations are really quite important. If the childrenfind that the rule is not enforced, that rule will cease to have any influence over their behaviour. It’s vital, especially when a rule is new, that you deal with violations promptly, calmly, respectfully, but firmly. Do this consistently, and you'll likely not have to deal with them again very often.
 
Pay attention to non-verbal communication.
 
Research has shown that maintaining good, positive discipline is largely aboutcommunicating effectively and consistently. And it’s often said that in communicating effectively, how you say something is more important than what you say. This is certainly true with children. You need to pay attention to how you give directions, commands or requests. This involves learning how to control your voice and your body language so that your children understand you're serious and you mean what you say.
 
Tips for "saying it like you mean it":
  • When giving a direct instruction make sure you're telling (e.g. Put your toys away now, please.), rather than asking (e.g. Shall we put our toys away now?).
  • If a child needs to be confronted about misbehaviour, make direct eye contact and use a calm, strong (not loud) voice.
  • Be aware of the message your body language conveys and stand up straight, face your child, be assertive, "own the room", but try not to express anger.
  • Don't accuse children of any evil intentions or interpret their behaviour as having some hidden agenda (e.g. “You’re doing that just to make me mad!”). Just repeat your direction calmly and wait for compliance. (We’ll look at noncompliance later.)
  • Always sincerely thank a defiant child when he or she finally complies so that the issue ends on a positive note.
 
Pay attention to how much time your kids spend on-line, and what they’re doing there.
 
As children get older they will be spending more and more time on social media using either a smart phone, a computer, a tablet, or some other piece of technology that will be invented next week. Often, children are more knowledgeable about technology than their parents, and therefore supervision of their on-line experiences is especially difficult. Be aware that, particularly after age 10, the risk grows that your child might get involved in on-line behaviour that is inappropriate or that becomes bullying. Also, because there is no body language or facial expression to signal that a comment is meant as a joke or is just an error, it’s easy to cross the line into something police might construe as illegal, such as a threat.
 
Parents need to find a way to supervise their children’s on-line behaviour and prevent its overuse. Experts suggest limiting a child’s privacy when on the internet, and negotiating reasonable limits for texting and tweeting. These are not things that children must have access to in order to fit in and have a reasonably happy childhood. They are privileges and also powerful activities with great potential for good and for bad.
 
Parents are strongly advised to discuss these issues with school staff and other parents to get a sense of what might be reasonable approach to handling this rapidly growing concern.
 
III.                Behaviour Follows Rules
                 
As complex as human behaviour is, there are still basic rules that govern our actions. It may seem hard to believe, but children’s behaviour is governed by rules and is surprisingly predictable. Most teachers are aware of these rules and have even studied them during their training, but few parents have been trained to take full advantage of these rules to create a home environment that is calm, respectful, orderly and enjoyable. Those who have accomplished this have often done it instinctively because of their own natural abilities and personalities. Below is a brief review of the rules that govern behaviour.
 
The rule of reinforcement: Behaviour that is followed by a positive result (a reward or reinforcement) is likely to occur more often.
 
Your grandmother stated it as "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." And indeed there is a common sense feel to this rule. Professionals who train animals use this rule religiously, yet many people feel that it's far too simplistic to be relevant to human beings. On the contrary, it's the single most powerful determinant of behaviour, and it's used in sports, business and industry to good advantage. It can be a powerful yet simple approach to developing the kind of behaviour that makes not only a well behaved child, but a good citizen.
 
Using the rule of reinforcement
 
While the concept here is simple, applying it isn’t easy. It takes practice. Basically what you need to do is closely monitor a child’s everyday behaviour, catch him or her in the act of being “good”, and follow that with smiles, positive feedback, a hug, praise, encouragement, stickers, snacks, or any other minor reward that kids value. This strategy can be really effective as a measure to prevent misbehaviour, because it fosters the good stuff. Teachers often use this strategy in younger grades but it has been shown to be similarly effective with older students and even adults.
 
As well, remember that children are highly imitative and model behaviour that they see being rewarded. This is why we often hear that misbehaviour is "contagious", but in truth, any behaviour that results in a reward is contagious in this way.
 
Flip Side of the Rule of Reinforcement: Any behaviour that is frequently repeated must be getting rewarded.
 
This gives us some insight not only into persistent bullying, but also into the most common misbehaviours we deal with around the house such as yelling, poking siblings, breaking rules, etc. Somehow, something or someone must be rewarding these persistent, annoying behaviours. In a disturbingly large number of cases, the "someone" is actually the parent, and the reward is attention.
 
It's difficult to convince people that attention is such a powerful reward for children that they crave it even when it's negative. But it's true. Studies show that when parents respond to misbehaviour solely by paying attention to it, even when that attention is in the form of scolding, correcting, or disapproving, the misbehaviour increases in frequency. The result is a frustrated parent who then looks for a way to punish the misbehaviour to make it stop.
 
A better solution in most cases is to change the dynamic. If a child misbehaves, make a mental note that perhaps that child is craving attention. Why that may be is an interesting question but right now let's concentrate on teaching the child a better way to get attention from an important adult. Let's ignore minor misbehaviour and wait for the child to do something more appropriate, even if it's only sitting quietly for a moment or two. At that point, the parent goes into action. Now the parent can approach the child and give him or her all the attention required.
 
Principle:
If attention is given just for bad behaviour, the child is being taught to misbehave to get rewarded with attention. When attention is given for appropriate behaviour, it's that appropriate behaviour that is reinforced and therefore is more likely to occur again.

In more severe cases of misbehaviour, especially with older children, it may not be parent attention that is maintaining the problem. It could instead be peer or sibling attention or a need for power and control, or some other powerful reward. In such cases, more complex reinforcement systems are required, and that will be dealt with further on in this section.
 
The rule of “extinction”: A behaviour that is occurring frequently will gradually disappear if the reward stops.
 
Unfortunately, this rule is frequently misunderstood. In fact, simply withdrawing reinforcement and doing nothing else differently might actually make matters worse.
 
A Simple Example: A girl is annoying her father by constantly cracking her knuckles while he’s watching hockey on TV. When told to stop, she does, but a few minutes later she's at it again until told to stop once more. This cycle typically continues for some time. Analyzing the situation, dad concludes that the girl is getting a lot of his attention for this behaviour, so he decides to ignore it instead. This appears to work for a while and she seems to stop, but then she begins again, now adding a bit of dancing, giggles and loud grunting. In fact, if all the father does is ignore it, the behaviour is likely to get more and more distracting until he can't ignore it anymore and gets angry. Why didn’t the ignoring work?
 
The problem here is that the rule of extinction cannot be used by itself. Merely ignoring misbehaviour won't solve the root problem: namely that the child for some reason needs her dad’s attention.
 
Ignoring misbehaviour works only if combined with the reinforcement of an appropriate behaviour that's opposite to or incompatible with that misbehaviour.
 
So in our example, ignoring the annoying behaviour should be just the first step. The second step is to shower the child with attention and positive feedback as soon as she’s sitting quietly. This would reinforce sitting quietly, which is incompatible with the ignored behaviour of performing the Knuckle-Cracker Suite while daddy’s watching the game. It's essential to use these two strategies together, and when you do they are amazingly powerful. Of course you need to be patient and consistent, which brings us to the next rule.
 
The rule of persistence: Significant behaviour change takes time and usually involves small steps with frequent setbacks.
Start small, and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. For example, teachers know that students who are having difficulty in a subject like math won't catch up overnight. If a child gets 5 out of 100 on a test, we know there’s a lot of work to do and we'll need to be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic if we're going to get that child caught up. Yet when a child is experiencing behavioural difficulties, teachers and parents seem to expect instant success.
 
New learning involves the same process whether it's math or appropriate behaviour. Teaching anything new requires an organized plan and good teaching practices. We need to expect plateaus and setbacks, but persevere anyway, and praise any little bit of progress, whether it's a move from 15/100 to 45/100 on a test or from 15 minutes without being aggressive to 45. Your time working with your child is always well invested.
 
The rule of prompt delivery: When you reward positive behaviour, you need to do it right away. The longer you wait the less power the reward has to influence the behaviour.
You have violated this rule if you have ever:
  • Told your kids they can have a reward at dinner time for good behaviour throughout the day
  • Promised your children a reward at lunch time if they have "a good morning"
  • Noticed your child working unusually well on their homework and waited until bedtime to compliment him or her
There’s a reason that addictive things like video games give you a little prize every time you do something right. Corporations know how behaviour works and they use it to their advantage.
 
The rule of partial reinforcement: Once a behaviour seems to be established, we should begin reinforcing it only occasionally rather than every single time the behaviour occurs.
 
If we continue to reinforce a behaviour every time it occurs, we actually weaken it, probably because the reinforcement becomes just a part of the background noise instead of something special. So once a behaviour has become reliably established, we gradually move to a "partial reinforcement schedule" where kids get attention, a compliment or a pat on the back every few times you catch them behaving well. The goal is to eventually "fade" out the reinforcer altogether and have the behaviour become self-sustaining.
 
That seems to contradict the Rule of Prompt Delivery, but it doesn't. The key here is that the Rule of Prompt Delivery is important when you're trying to change behaviour or establish a new behaviour. Partial reinforcement is all about maintaining good behaviour once it's established.
 
III. Using Punishment
 
The research is clear that positive reinforcement strategies are by far the most powerful way a parent can deal with misbehaviour. However, there are times when positive approaches simply aren't practical, and the use of punishment needs to be considered. There are rules for the use of punishment as well, and if you violate those rules the situation will get worse. The misuse or overuse of punishment can also lead to significant side effects such as:
  • anger
  • mistrust and/or avoidance of authority figures
  • self-esteem issues
  • avoidance behaviours such as lying, sneakiness or blaming others
  • aggression
 
Below are the rules for using punishment strategies effectively.
 
The rule of planned punishment: Punishing strategies should only be used as part of an overall behaviour management plan, and applied to achieve certain objectives. Punishment should never be used in anger, or applied as "a gut reaction" to a child's behaviour. It needs to be carefully thought out.
 
 
The rule of No Surprises: The first step in using a punishment strategy is to explain it to the child.
If a punishment strategy is to be effective, the child needs to know:
  • Exactly which behaviours will be punished, and why
  • Exactly what the punishment will be.

Guidelines for explaining these points to your child:

  • Choose a time when your child is behaving appropriately and approach him or her for a serious talk.
  • Calmly explain that you are worried about the behaviour, and that you fear it's creating problems for him or her, and may damage your relationship.
  • Express concern for the happiness and welfare of the child and the whole family.
  • There should be no hint of negative emotions such as spite, revenge or anger.
  • Be optimistic, telling the child that you believe he or she can follow the rules and be successful.
 
Begin with one or two specific behaviours that have been bothering you, and that you can define in a very clear, unambiguous way. One of the ways kids tend to test a strategy like this is to exploit a lack of clarity, e.g. "You said not to touch my sister; you didn't say I couldn't kick her." Again, there should be no surprises. If a legitimate misunderstanding arises, or something occurs that you didn't consider, apologize, redefine the system, and begin again. Although it isn't easy, the ideal situation is where the child really feels it's a partnership aimed at helping him or her do better.
 
The warning rule: Whenever possible, you should issue a warning before the punishment.
 
Example: "This is a warning. If you poke your brother again you’ll have go to your room."
The hope is that the warning all by itself will control the behaviour so that:
  1. You don't have to punish the child
  2. You create an opportunity to praise him (e.g., "Thank you for stopping. I was really proud of you choosing to stay with the family and watch TV. Good job.")
 
The rule of "Choice": Whenever possible you should use the word "choice" in your warning.
 
Example: "You have a choice, stop the shouting or leave the family room."
The little word “choice” has tremendous power. It clearly illustrates to the child that he has control of his own behaviour and he makes his own decisions. We want youngsters to realize that inappropriate behaviour is a choice they make, not something that happens to them or that is someone else's fault. That's why we hold them accountable, because they have choices. As well, using that word allows you to be more sympathetic when punishment has to be meted out, e.g., "I was really sorry you made that choice because I know how much you enjoy sitting with the family to watch TV. Maybe next time you can avoid the problem by making a better choice."
 
The rule of Follow-through: When you've given a warning, and given a reasonable time to respond, you must follow through if the child fails to comply.
The quickest way to make your warnings meaningless is to repeat them, or to fail to do what you said you would do. Kids realize immediately that you don't really mean it, and their behaviour will soon be out of control.
 
The rule of Persistence: Be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic when using punishment strategies to try to change behaviour.
Change takes time and involves small steps with frequent setbacks. Start small and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. Don’t give up too soon on strategies that might work in the longer run.
 
 
The rule of Prompt delivery: When you punish an unacceptable behaviour, you need to do it right away.
Just as in the case of reinforcing good behaviour, the longer you wait, the less power the punishment has in curbing the inappropriate behaviour.
 
The rule of Balance: Remember to keep rewarding the good behaviour.
Whenever a punishment strategy is set up, there is always the danger of becoming too focused on it and completely forgetting that punishment by itself is a really poor behaviour change agent. Only when pairing the use of punishment with the continued reinforcement of the behaviour you want to encourage, will you have a viable chance to effect positive change.
 
The rule of Purpose: Remember why you're using punishment.
Loving parents use punishment because it's a tool that can sometimes help to change a child’s behaviour. And you want to change the behaviour because it's interfering with the development of that child into the best human being he or she can be.
 
Loving parents don't punish their children:
  • because they're angry, or
  • because they like their other kids better, or
  • to pay them back for ruining our day
 
Corollary to the rule of purpose: Always administer punishment while you're calm.
This may not be easy since aggressive, defiant, non-compliant behaviour can create complex emotions in a parent. But as a loving parent it's imperative that the use of punishment never becomes personal. If you find that you’ve gotten angry or highly emotional, tell your child that there will be a punishment coming, but you need to calm down and think about what it’s going to be. Maybe have the child go to his or her room to wait while you calm down. This can avoid you lashing out in the heat of the moment and regretting it later.
 
Separate the behaver from the behaviour: It's never our child that we find unacceptable or intolerable, it's the behaviour.
The message to our children always has to be "I love you and I love to have you with me. But that behaviour is unacceptable and I won't tolerate it."
  

General Anti-bullying Strategies 

 
While the above are important general rules about how we learn and how behaviour works, there are also some general strategies parents should know that relate specifically to bullying. These strategies come out of recent research that suggests that children who bully seem to be lacking or weak in specific skills that are necessary for establishing and maintaining social relationships. These skills include:      
  • Empathy
  • Emotional control
  • Coping with “internalizing problems”, i.e., sadness, worry, fear
  • Social skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving skills 
 
Let’s look at each of these.
 
Strategies for promoting empathy
Goal: Help children label and recognize their own and others' feelings.
 
To promote empathy especially at the younger ages, parents can help children to identify their own feelings. This kind of support can be provided with everyday observations and questions such as, "I see you look upset, what are you feeling?” Encouraging your children to discuss their feelings openly and without judgment is one step toward building empathy for others, since children need to be able to recognize their own feelings, before they can learn to read others' feelings. Look for a "teachable moment", such as when a child has bullied someone and can be immediately led through an understanding of the effect of his or her behaviour on others: "How do you think John feels right now after you called him that name?"
 
Examples of other activities to promote empathy include:
  • Role playing,

  • Discussions, perhaps with friends of your child included,

  • Reading and discussing stories about victimization in books or in the media,

  • Involving your child in the care of a pet or younger child,

  • Family involvement in charity work with the disadvantaged

Strategies to help children control their emotions and behaviour
Goal: Help children learn to control or “regulate” their emotions and think of effective social problem-solving strategies to use instead of bullying.
 
Sometimes bullying results when children are flooded with emotions and act without thinking. It is important to help them recognize situations that trigger emotions such as embarrassment or anger, and understand how this might lead to them to taking out their frustrations by bullying others.
 
Again, a good approach is to look for teachable moments that provide opportunities for coaching, such as when bullying of some kind has just occurred. In this moment, stop and ask the child to identify his/her own and others' feelings.  Can the child analyse or "rewind" the situation and find ways that the interaction could have unfolded without being hurtful to others? Although it takes a minute or two to unpack problem situations this way, the teachable moment provides the potential for learning, and also encourages kids to think before they react to an emotion by lashing out.
 
It is also important to provide consequences for bullying, but it’s equally important that those consequences don’t just punish the behaviour. They also should teach the children something related to the attitudes, skills and controls needed for healthy relationships.
 
When consequences are constructive in this way, they not only provide important education, but also reduce the likelihood that the child will become angrier and less able to control the emotions that triggered the bullying in the first place.
 
Some children and youth with bullying problems may have missed important early childhood lessons on how to control these emotions. These children will need additional support, for example to recognize the signs that they are becoming angry, aggressive, agitated or frustrated, and then learning how to control these emotions and the bullying behaviour they can cause.
 
Parents can best deliver these lessons, again, by seizing on teachable moments when children are having difficulties. It’s important for parents to be tuned into their children's experiences and able to recognize when they are becoming agitated. Act before the child “loses it”, or gets overly emotional and ask how he/she is feeling, what physical signs can be observed (e.g., heart pounding, face flushed and hot), and what he/she is thinking. Next, help the child to focus on strategies to calm down (e.g., counting to 10, breathing in and out to a count of 8), then think about positive ways to approach the problem without using aggression or bullying to get what they want.
 
This approach takes time to master, but can be very effective in teaching kids to calm themselves and think before they lash out at others.
 
Note however, that the above doesn’t necessarily mean that a child who has actually hurt someone’s feelings or hurt them physically should not also face punishment. As mentioned in the previous sections, it’s always important that bullying doesn’t work for the child, so appropriate and “fitting” consequences still need to be delivered. Examples include:
  • Apologizing in person to anyone who was victimized
  • Writing a letter of apology
  • Replacing any property damaged, destroyed or stolen
  • Identifying peers who might have joined in the bullying and telling them publically that the behaviour was unacceptable
  • Old fashioned “grounding”, especially so as to limit or eliminate association with other children who bully.
 
Supporting children with internalizing problems (e.g. sad, worried, fearful)
Goal: Help your child develop coping skills for problems with sadness, worries or fears.
 
This may seem an odd category with respect to bullying, but studies have shown that some children who bully are also sad and experience excessive worries or fearfulness. These children are in fact most likely to both bullying others and be bullied themselves. With their social and emotional problems, these children have difficulties establishing friendships so they rely on negative strategies, like bullying, to get peer attention and try to gain acceptance.
 
Parents of children who experience these excessive internalizing problems will likely need professional help. While establishing a home environment that is loving, safe and secure will certainly help, individual counselling is usually required for these children to overcome these issues and learn to cope with the social environment in acceptable ways. Such counselling services are usually found within the community, often through referral from the school or the family doctor.
 
Finally, children whose bullying or victimization is related to internalizing problems can also benefit from positive role models. All adults, but particularly parents, are constantly “on stage” as models for children's learning. It is essential, therefore, that parents model positive coping strategies and talk about their own fears or worries and how they manage to deal with them and remain positive, even under stress.  
 
Strategies to help children with social skills problems
Goal: Help children develop the social skills, attitudes, and motivation to interact positively with others.
 
There is a wide range of social abilities among children who bully, from those who are highly skilled and perceptive, to those who are unskilled in social situations and not able to recognize the impact of their behaviour on others. Most, however, are lacking in at least some of the skills that are required for smooth, positive interactions with others. Social skills that may need developing include:
  1. Joining a group of peers
  2. Responding to provocation
  3. Taking turns
  4. Recognizing another's feelings
  5. Controlling anger
  6. Thinking about right and wrong
  7. Getting positive attention
 
With all of these skills, and many more, it is the moment-to-moment coaching that helps children learn how to engage in a positive way with peers and adults. Seizing teachable moments to analyse or "rewind" an interaction gone badly and “replay” it over again in a positive way can be very beneficial. Some children and even teens need exactly this type of repeated lesson to develop the skills that they should have started to learn early in life.
 
Since social skill problems will mostly play out at school and in the community, parents should discuss these issues with school staff. Consistency from school to home is important, so parents should never hesitate to consult with their child’s teachers and seek support. Once a common goal of helping the child develop the skills for safe and healthy relationships is established, parents and teachers can build supportive strategies collaboratively so that children are receiving the same messages, encouragement, training, expectations, and educational consequences at home and at school.
 
To keep track of progress, a communication book can be used to document the child’s successes and ongoing difficulties each day at home and at school. Reports of successes should outnumber the reports of difficulties. In fact, it’s been shown that children need about 10 positives to every negative in order to progress.
 
Strategies to promote positive leadership skills
Goal: Help the child find positive ways of achieving power and status.
 
Bullying is about power. Power is a wonderful thing which we as adults have and value. Bullying is a negative way to gain power, and a negative use of power. Children who bully want to be recognized as powerful within their peer groups and want to feel a sense of control. Many of these children in fact seem to have the ability to get others to join in the bullying, which suggests they may well have some leadership potential. The important lesson for children is to gain and use their power positively rather than negatively. In other words, to be positive leaders.
 
Following are a few examples to consider for engaging children who tend to bully in positive leadership activities:
  • Involve them in school peer mediator training that teaches effective conflict resolution strategies and puts them in a positive helping role with their peers.
  • Involve them in a program that provides a buddy for a younger child who is isolated or experiencing some social difficulties.
  • Have them do some research on bullying and why it is damaging to relationships and to society.
  • Highlight any community, academic or sports achievements, or even hobbies that might enhance a bullying student's reputation in a positive way.
  • Should they have skills in a particular area such as music, art, computers, etc., they can be encouraged to help others who are having difficulties with these skills.
 
In all of these positive leadership activities, it is important to monitor children to ensure that they are in fact using their power and potential positively rather than negatively.
 
Strategies for teaching alternative problem solving

Goal: Help child:
  • Recognize a problem to be solved
  • Think about solutions other than bullying to solve the problem
  • Consider the potential outcomes of the various solutions
Social problems are challenging for children and youth to solve on their own. Even in adolescence they are often unskilled in the nuances of conflict. If they also lack emotional and behavioural control, they may consider bullying as one of the first problem-solving strategies that comes to mind. Below are examples of strategies to consider for teaching about positive problem solving.
 
1. Train children to consider positive approaches
Children first need to understand that bullying does not solve problems in the long term; in fact, it may even create more problems. Training them to stop and think about what else they could say or do to solve their problems is one way to promote effective problem solving. Once again, try to exploit "teachable moments" for coaching.
 
Ask questions such as:
"I can see you want to join that group playing on the swings. If what you just said doesn't work, what else could you try?"
"How did you try to solve the problem of being left out of the game of street hockey? That didn't seem to work; what else could you try?"
 
2. Be a positive role model
 
Parents should try to model positive problem solving and talk to their children about the process adults use in systematically considering the many different, positive ways to solve most social problems.
 
Skills to withstand peer pressure
Goal: Help children tune in to their own sense of right and wrong and to recognize and cope with pressure from peers to engage in antisocial behaviours.
 
Children who bully are more apt to respond to negative peer pressure than those who do not bully. This makes sense when we understand that bullying can enhance a child's power and status. Children who bully may find that they are the centre of attention when they engage in deviant and risk-taking behaviours. In their desire to be accepted by peers, they may not consider the potential costs of giving in to negative peer pressure.
 
The first step in learning to handle peer pressure is to recognize that it is happening and to be aware of how it is affecting you. Parents constantly discuss this with their children and often feel that it has no effect. And in fact, peer pressure is extremely difficult to counter, especially as children enter early adolescence. One key then, is to begin the conversation about peer influences early, even in the preschool years.
 
Take care not to constantly criticize your children’s friends, but try to calmly point out that we are all influenced by what our friends do and say, and it’s simply smart to pay attention to possible “down sides” of the things they encourage us to do.
 
The goal is to help our children develop the ability to stop and think about a friend’s suggestion for behaviour that doesn't feel quite right. We’d like them to automatically tune into their deeper sense of what is right and wrong and decide not to follow the wrong course.
 
As well, children not only need to be able to recognize that something is wrong, but they need a ready response to peers who are pressuring them. Talking through, and even rehearsing what they can say or do when pressured to skip class, tease a vulnerable child, or not invite someone to a party, can provide them with a variety of responses to save face when under pressure. These responses can be generated following a situation when a child has been drawn into bullying. Ask questions such as:
·        "What could you have said or done when your friend pressured you to send a hurtful email to Sara?"
·        "What could you have said or done when you were pressured to say something mean to that smaller boy?"
 
Children can feel empowered through responses such as: "That doesn't feel right to me" or "That doesn't sound fair."
 
There is also strong evidence that children who have strong self-esteem and are appropriately assertive are more able to resist negative peer pressure. Try to grow your child’s self-esteem by enhancing his or her sense of accomplishment, highlighting and celebrating even small successes. Also, be accepting of the person he or she is, as opposed to showing disappointment that some kind of ideal you imagined hasn’t been met.
 
A note about peers who witness bullying
 
Researchers often refer to negative interactions within the peer group as "deviancy training". This is because antisocial youth reinforce each other for deviant behaviours, thereby increasing the likelihood that such behaviours will occur.
 
We see this happening when observing children's bullying behaviour, where the bystanders spend most of their time giving positive attention and reinforcement to the child who initiated the bullying. Furthermore, when others join in bullying, the child who initiated the bullying is more likely to become excited and aroused and more aggressive. Peers who are bystanders and reinforce bullying then, are a critical part of the problem.
It is vital for all of us, including our children, to understand that peers can be involved in positive ways to be a critical part of the solution to bullying. Studies show that peers try to stop bullying episodes more often than their teachers do, perhaps because they are more likely than teachers to be there to see the episodes. When students intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds almost 60% of the time. This is a remarkable success rate.
 
It is important, therefore, for parents to instil a sense of social responsibility in their children, encouraging them to respond when they see someone being bullied. If they do not feel safe intervening directly, they can tell a teacher or other adult about the problem. It’s the right thing to do, and parents need to be crystal clear about that.
 
One problem this brings up is the whole issue of tattling (or telling, squealing, ratting, etc.). This culture of secrecy or “not telling” serves to reinforce the status and power of those who are bullying; therefore, it is important to have open discussions with you child about bullying and the importance of helping those being victimized. For example, parents should differentiate tattling from “reporting”, noting that reporting is something you do to get someone out of trouble, while tattling is meant to get someone into trouble. Reporting then, is simply good citizenship – it’s what heroes and rescuers do.
 
Children and youth need help developing social responsibility and positive strategies for intervening and reporting if they cannot or do not feel safe intervening to stop bullying themselves. Indeed, children should be encouraged to most often intervene collectively rather than alone. This harnesses the power of a group of positive peers trying to do the right thing. Examples of children working together to help others who are being victimized include:
·        Identifying bullying and saying it’s not fair.
·        Taking the victimized child out of the group to another activity.
 
Be clear that children should never try to rescue a victim by fighting, bullying the bullies, or any other behaviour that might put anyone at risk of harm.
 
Whenever possible, parents should also bring up this topic in discussions with teaching staff at their school, as well as with parent groups. Children will be less confused about the right thing to do if the entire school community is on the same page. In fact, the most important factor in engaging students in this form of social responsibility may be ensuring that other parents, teachers, school administrators and other adults in the community are supportive and responsive when children come forward to report their concerns. Bullying, after all, affects everyone sooner or later.
 
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Sometimes it’s difficult to take bullying behaviour seriously at this young age level. Parents, and sometimes even teachers and other adults, may dismiss the behaviour as merely “kids being kids”, especially when boys are involved. It’s important not to fall into that trap, however, since bullying at these youngest age levels lays the groundwork for later, more serious bullying. As well, it will never be easier or more effective to work on reducing bullying behaviour than at this young age level. Without question, it’s well worth the effort.
 
There are many effective strategies for creating a home environment that promotes positive interactions and minimizes bullying. In essence, these are strategies to prevent bullying from moving from the Green Light Zone to a higher, more troubling level.
 
Be a positive role model
 
Parents set the tone at home, and young children are sensitive to the tone and behaviour of their parents. It is important to remember to speak and behave the way you want your children to speak and behave, to set a positive example. If parents are loving, supportive and respectful toward others, including their children, most kids will adopt that style. Children learn much of their behaviour by imitating their parents.
 
Most important, try not to set an example that suggests bullying is acceptable. Overly harsh discipline, especially if it includes ridicule, insults, sarcasm or physical abuse, has been shown conclusively to heavily influence children to act similarly toward their peers.
 
Provide clear guidelines for behaviour
Even young children need clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not. And though their contribution might be minimal, it’s wise to encourage your young children to participate in creating these guidelines. In discussions about behaviour, it’s important to touch on issues related to bullying, including:
·         Understanding the full range of bullying behaviours, from teasing, to harassment, social exclusion, and so on;
·         Knowing what might be effective to say and do when being bullied or when witnessing bullying, or when feeling pressured to join in a bullying situation;
·         Exploring positive strategies to escape or defuse a bullying situation rather than trying to use aggression to bully the bullies. (Note, research shows that if a child who is being bullied responds aggressively, the bullying is likely to continue and may accelerate.)
 
 
Ensure consequences for bullying are appropriate, timely, and consistent
If you discover your child bullying others, including siblings, appropriate consequences are important. These consequences should be educational and should match the severity of the bullying behaviour. Examples of educational consequences in the Green Light zone might include:
·         Apologizing
·         Trying to repair the relationship problem
·         Making a play date for a child who was excluded by other children
 
Consequences must be applied immediately and consistently in order to have an impact.
 
Continue to monitor the situation and apply further consequences if needed
Follow up is essential with children who have bullied, because this pattern of interacting may be difficult to stop if peers continue to reinforce it with their attention. If one consequence for bullying is not sufficient, then the discipline needs to be progressive (i.e., escalating in severity), but at the same time still educational. For example, if a child persistently teases a sibling at lunch time, and continues even after you intervene once or twice, a possible next step might be to have him or her spend lunchtime alone for a couple of days. Or if he or she has bullied at a birthday party, the next party might have to be missed.
 
Help children understand their behaviour
We all learn by making mistakes and children in this age range need help with understanding that. Almost all children explore their power through bullying. Most recognize that they are hurting others and stop. Those who continue to bully might need help understanding the seriousness of their behaviour, the impacts on others, and the peer dynamics that may be leading them to bully. Parents need to demonstrate that this is important by making it a serious discussion point, and by having those who are victimized talk about how they feel. Referring to storybooks, movies, TV shows or other media that feature the negative effects of bullying might also help.
Parents might also need to engage their children’s friends in the conversation. At this age level the peer group does have some influence, so any effort to change the peer group view of bullying could be well worthwhile.
 
Focus on positive behaviour, including yours
All children thrive on positive reinforcement. It is the catalyst for positive social development. Researchers have estimated that for any kind of peak performance children should get 10 positive consequences to every negative. So it is much more effective to give children positive feedback when they are being socially appropriate, than to just react negatively when you see them being bullies. That is, catch them relating appropriately and give them positive feedback right then and there. Examples of comments might include:
·         ”I’m impressed with the grown-up way you guys settled your disagreement.”
·         “That was a respectful way to ask him to stop. I like that.”
·         “Man, you guys are playing together really well! Way to go!”
·         “You were really sincere in helping your brother understand that story. That was very cool.”
 
Parents can promote respect and positive relationships by noting and reinforcing even small behavioural steps in the right direction. This kind of positive approach fosters a sense of optimism that the child can change for the better. When parents use positive approaches, it often makes positive change happen not only at home, but also at school and in the community.
 
Remember that bullying often occurs when adults aren’t looking
One problem in trying to reduce bullying is that parents may not see it happening. Kids know that adults disapprove of bullying, so they often try to hide it, though at this age level they often aren’t very successful. Physical bullying is fairly common among these young children, and it’s more difficult to hide, but when they use verbal and social forms of bullying it can be subtle. Similarly, studies show that children are more likely to bully away from home, in locations that are not closely monitored by adults.
 
As well, children who are being victimized will often not speak up because of fear or shame. If parents suspect a child might be a victim of bullying, that child might be more open to talk about it in a private conversation. If they reveal that they are being bullied, thank them for their courage and openness and assure them that you will try to help.
 
Stay connected with the school
Since it’s the one place every child has to be, the school is where a lot of bullying might occur. Therefore, regular and open communication with the school is essential. Alerting a teacher, administrator or other school staff any time a youngster is having relationship problems should result in considerable in-school support.
 
Today’s schools have qualified teachers and other professionals who are experienced in dealing with bullying and the emotional and social issues behind it. Parents who feel their child is involved, either as a bully, a victim or both, should never hesitate to contact the school and request a meeting with teachers or support staff to discuss the issue. Be aware that, given the busy nature of schools today, the response may not be as immediate as you would hope, and school personnel may take time to confirm the problem through their own observations. But parents should be “politely persistent” in pursuing support for their child. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?
 
Working to overcome bullying behaviour is often a long term project.


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Bullying behaviour moves into the yellow light zone when it reaches a level of frequency, and/or intensity and/or duration significant enough to interfere with everyday life. Children who are experiencing problems with bullying require all of the strategies described in the green light area plus a bit more intensive, focused support.
 
Children who repeatedly bully others need support to develop a variety of skills, including:
·        Empathy (identifying with how others' feel)
·        Emotional and/or behavioural self-control or “regulation”
·        Skills for coping with their own feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fear)
·        Positive social interaction skills
·        Positive leadership skills
·        Positive problem solving skills
·        Recognition of, and resistance to negative peer pressure
 
Strategies for improving these skills are detailed in the Introduction section above. The key is to act early when bullying behaviours seem to be emerging or getting worse.
 
Children who bully even at a mild “yellow light” level need adult support to boost their capacity and motivation for more appropriate ways to relate to others. They may benefit from help in recognizing the impact of their behaviours on others and finding positive ways to build status and acceptance in their peer group. Studies have shown that children who bully tend to be susceptible to negative peer pressure. However, they can be helped to recognize the group dynamics, such as peer attention, that lead them to bully, and can learn to develop strategies to stand up to peer pressure. With focused support, these children should be able to reduce their bullying behaviour so that referral for professional help is not required.
 

Steps to Take

 
1.      Assess the Problem
Because children who bully vary so widely, it is important to assess your child’s specific difficulties and motivations in order to understand his or her needs. There are many ways to do this:
 
·       Ask questions
It is important to speak with your child to understand his or her perception of the bullying problem. This can help determine what the motivation might be to engage in bullying. Try to identify any stresses in his or her life that may be influencing the use of power and aggression with peers. For example, some children who are victimized themselves will then bully in another setting where they can assert power and control. On the other hand, some may simply be enjoying the sense of power over more vulnerable kids with little appreciation for their feelings.
 
·        Talk with other children
      Let your child know that you intend to speak with other kids about the problem. It can be really helpful to talk to other youngsters about the kinds of bullying behaviour they have observed, participated in, or experienced. Even if they don’t    want to “name names”, their knowledge of the situation will always be far more accurate and detailed than that of adults.
  • Observe
      Observing the peer group any time they are in or around your home might also give clues as to the nature of their bullying problems. For example:
o       Is a lot of teasing, taunting or “put downs” quite normal when this group is playing together?
o       Is there a pattern as to when they bully, who bullies and who gets bullied?
o       Does the group encourage bullying by paying attention, laughing or even joining in?
o       Who are the leaders in the group, and how aggressive are they?
o       Where does your child fit in regarding the “pecking order”, leadership and dynamics of the group?
      
2.      Identify skills needed

Try to determine which, if any, of the social/emotional skills mentioned above (empathy, emotional and/or behavioural self-control, managing feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fear), positive social interaction, positive problem solving, resisting negative peer pressure), are lagging in your child that could be contributing to his/her involvement in bullying. Children at this young age are still early in developing these skills, but try to determine if one or two areas are particularly a problem for your child. Again, see the Introduction to this section for strategies to help develop these skills.
 
3.      Educate your child
It’s important to discuss what bullying is, why it is not acceptable, and the specific consequences that will ensue for bullying. This discussion must occur regularly, especially after a bullying problem has occurred.
 
4.      Provide consequences that are educational
Consider that as well as negative or punishing consequences children also need positive lessons to learn when they make the mistake of bullying others. Even if the consequence is simply “a lecture”, include a discussion of what happened, why it happened that way, and what they could have done differently to avoid bullying. Consequences should also help your youngster to develop any social/emotional skills they are lacking. A simple example would be reading a short story with an anti-bullying theme and then discussing the moral of the story. Examples of other educational consequences include:
·        Replacing a privilege such as TV or video game time with something that develops social/emotional skills such as helping another child, a sibling or neighbour
·        Having him or her make amends, for example with a letter of apology
·        Having him or her help out around the house
·        Any other consequence that provides a certain amount of punishment for bullying, but allows the child to learn positive behaviours and leadership skills.
When using consequences, focus on the bullying behaviour and avoid labelling the child as the problem or as a "bully". Remember that relationships are key, so try to maintain a positive relationship with your child and avoid being hostile or angry when punishing inappropriate behaviour.
 
5.      Provide ongoing positive support
Youngsters are most likely to improve their behaviour when they receive positive support from the adults in their lives. There are many ways to approach supporting children who tend to bully, including:
·        Providing praise and attention if you see them use appropriate behaviour to gain peer approval (e.g., providing ideas for activities, supporting a team in a sports activity)
·        Rewarding attempts at leadership such as helping to organize an event, getting involved in school charity or fundraising activity
·        Reacting positively to mature attempts to resolve conflict, such as negotiating reasonably or taking turns.
 
6.      Keep records
 
A one-time effort to help a child who shows yellow light levels of bullying will probably not be enough. Support strategies will probably be required for some time to combat the effects of negative peer pressure or whatever else underlies this behaviour, even at a mild level. It’s important then to be systematic, and equally important to document the bullying problems, the solutions you implemented and any consequences used. This record will be important later if the behaviour gets worse and a counsellor gets involved.
 
7.      Build on the positives with positives
Development of relationship skills is enhanced when adults can detect problems and provide coaching on the spot. Parents should try to anticipate situations when problems may arise and provide timely reminders and encouragement to:
·        Think of the needs of others
·        Tune into the moral compass (i.e., the inner sense of right and wrong that we all have)
·        Remember what’s expected.
 
This may help the child to refrain from using power and aggression to control or distress others and to find positive ways to achieve power and status.


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Note that all of the strategies suggested for the yellow light area behaviours are suitable for behaviours in the red light area. In fact, it is unwise to wait until bullying has reached red light levels to act. It is best to begin with the least intensive strategies and work up until you begin to see progress in the development of positive relationship skills, attitudes, and motivations.
 
Who are the "red light" children?
A small number of children will not be able to benefit sufficiently from the strategies described above. They will continue to make mistakes and use their power aggressively, but will not appear to learn from these experiences. These children who continue to engage in repeated, serious bullying may be at great risk for continuing on a pathway with troubled relationships throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Studies have linked serious bullying to equally serious outcomes later in life such as incarceration, substance abuse and marriage break-down. But more immediately, despite their young age these children are also at risk of hurting another child seriously enough to have a significant impact on all the families affected.
 
It is also important to remember that children in the red light zone are likely to both bully others and be victimized themselves. Therefore it is extremely important to try to provide support for these youngsters before they become seriously alienated.
 
Seek outside support
For these children with persistent, serious problems with bullying, intervention will need to be intensive and systemic, including support from the school. A referral to a mental health centre or outside professional counsellor will be required to provide additional support that is intense enough to make a difference. The child should also be referred for discussion at a School Team meeting to involve other school or Board professionals in the intervention plan, especially since bullying at the red light level, even in this very young age range, often leads to suspension or (very rarely) even expulsion from school.
 
Once a child is receiving additional supports from a community-based mental health provider, it is essential that the lines of communication between home and school are kept open. Any improvements resulting from interventions such as counselling are more likely to be maintained if they can be supported and encouraged at school as well as at home.
 
Suspension and expulsion
These are highly controversial strategies that likely will be considered where bullying at school crosses the line into very serious and possibly illegal red light behaviour such as violence, sexual impropriety, threats and intimidation, theft, and so on. Bullying this extreme is very rare under the age of about 10, but very serious when it does occur.
 
Adults can make a difference
Children showing red light levels of bullying pose a particular challenge because they clearly have profited from using aggression to gain power and control over others. It takes time for them to establish, and learn to prefer, alternative behaviour patterns that are appropriate and put them in a position to enjoy positive connections or even experience leadership within their peer group. If there is one adult to champion a child and recognize his or her strengths, this support can often be enough to shift that young person from a troubled to a healthy pathway. Parents, relatives, teachers, religious or community leaders and others can all be these champions.


Back to top

Back to top




There are many effective strategies for creating a home environment that promotes positive interactions and minimizes bullying. In essence, these are strategies to prevent bullying from moving from the Green Light Zone to a higher, more troubling level.
 
Be a positive role model
Parents set the tone at home, and children, children throughout this very broad age range, are sensitive to the tone and behaviour of their parents. It is important to remember to speak and behave the way you want your children to speak and behave, to set a positive example. If parents are loving, supportive and respectful toward their children, most children will adopt that style. Children learn much of their behaviour by imitating their parens.
 
Most important, try not to set an example that suggests bullying is acceptable. Overly harsh discipline, especially if it includes ridicule, insults, sarcasm or physical abuse, has been shown conclusively to heavily influence children to act similarly toward their peers.
 
Provide clear guidelines for behaviour
 
Children need clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not. Except perhaps for the youngest in this age range, it’s wise to encourage your children to participate in creating these guidelines. In discussions about behaviour, it’s important to touch on issues of bullying. Topics to touch on include:
  • Understanding the full range of bullying behaviours, from teasing, to harassment, social exclusion, and so on
  • What might be effective to say and do when being bullied or when witnessing bullying, or when feeling pressured to join in a bullying situation
  • Positive strategies to escape or defuse a bullying situation rather than trying to use aggression to bully the bullies. (Note: research shows that if a child who is being bullied responds aggressively, the bullying is likely to continue and may accelerate.)
 
Ensure consequences for bullying are appropriate, timely, and consistent
 
If you discover your child bullying others, including siblings, appropriate consequences are important. These consequences should be educational and should match the severity of the bullying behaviour. Examples of educational consequences in the Green Light zone might include:
  • Apologizing
  • Having to read a story or newspaper article about bullying
  • Trying to repair the relationship problem
         
Consequences must be applied immediately and consistently in order to have an impact.
 
Continue to monitor the situation and apply further consequences if needed
 
Follow up is essential with children who have bullied, because this pattern of interacting may be difficult to stop if peers continue to reinforce it with their attention. If one consequence for bullying is not sufficient, then the discipline needs to be progressive (i.e., escalating in severity), but at the same time still educational. For example, if a child persistently teases a sibling at lunch time, and continues even after you intervene once or twice, a possible next step might be to have him or her spend lunchtime alone for a couple of days.
 
Help children understand their behaviour
 
We all learn by making mistakes and children in this age range sometimes need help with understanding that. Almost all children explore their power through bullying. Most recognize that they are hurting others and stop. Those who continue to bully might need help understanding the seriousness of their behaviour, the impacts on others, and the peer dynamics that may be leading them to bully. Parents need to demonstrate that this is important by making it a serious discussion point, and by having those who are victimized talk about how they feel. Referring to books, movies, TV shows or other media that feature the negative effects of bullying might also help.
 
Parents might also need to engage their children’s friends in the conversation. At the upper end of this age range the peer group is beginning to become significantly more influential, so any effort to change the peer group view of bullying could be well worthwhile.
 
Focus on positive behaviour, including yours
 
All children thrive on positive reinforcement. It is the catalyst for positive social development. Researchers have estimated that for any kind of peak performance youngsters should get 10 positive consequences to every negative. So it is much more effective to give children positive feedback when they are being socially appropriate, than to just react negatively when you see them being bullies. That is, catch them relating appropriately and give them positive feedback right then and there. Examples of comments might include:
  • ”I’m impressed with the grown-up way you guys settled your disagreement.”
  • “That was a respectful way to ask him to stop. I like that.”
  • “Man, you guys are playing together like a well-oiled machine! Well done!”
  • “You were really sincere in helping your brother solve that tough math problem. That was very cool.”
 
Parents can promote respect and positive relationships by noting and reinforcing even small behavioural steps in the right direction. This kind of positive approach fosters a sense of optimism that the child can change for the better. When parents use positive approaches, it often makes positive change happen not only at home, but also at school and in the community.
 
Remember that bullying often occurs when adults aren’t looking
 
One problem in trying to reduce bullying is that parents may not see it happening. Kids know that adults disapprove of bullying, so they often try to hide it or do it away from home, in locations that are not closely monitored by adults. As well, they use verbal and social forms of bullying that are subtle and hard to catch.
 
What’s worse, children who are being victimized will often not speak up because of fear or shame. If parents suspect a child might be a victim of bullying, that child might be more open to talk about it in a private conversation. If they reveal that they are being bullied, thank them for their courage and openness and assure them that you will try to help.
 
Stay connected with the school
 
Regular and open communication with the school is essential. Alerting a teacher, administrator or other school staff  as soon as possible if a youngster is having relationship problems should result in school-based support.
 
Today’s schools have qualified teachers and other professionals who are experienced in dealing with bullying and the emotional and social issues behind it. Parents who feel their child is involved, either as a bully, a victim or both, should never hesitate to contact the school and request a meeting with teachers or support staff to discuss the issue. Be aware that, given the busy nature of schools today, the response may not be as immediate as you would hope, and school personnel may take time to confirm the problem through their own observations. But parents should be “politely persistent” in pursuing support for their child. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?
 
Working to overcome bullying behaviour is a long term project. It’s important to keep in touch with the school regarding the child's progress and challenges.


Back to top


Bullying behaviour moves into the yellow light zone when it reaches a level of frequency, and/or intensity and/or duration significant enough to interfere with everyday life. Children who are experiencing problems with bullying require all of the strategies described in the green light area plus a bit more intensive, focused support.
 
Children who repeatedly bully others need support to develop a variety of skills, including:
  • Empathy (identifying with how others' feel)
  • Emotional and/or behavioural self-control
  • How to cope with their own feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fear)
  • Positive social interaction skills
  • Positive leadership skills
  • Positive problem solving skills
  • Recognition of, and resistance to negative peer pressure
Strategies for improving these skills are detailed in the Introduction section above. The key is to act early when bullying behaviours seem to be emerging or getting worse.
 
Children who bully even at a mild “yellow light” level need adult support to boost their capacity and motivation for more appropriate ways to relate to others. They may benefit from help in recognizing the impact of their behaviours on others and finding positive ways of building status and acceptance in their peer group. Studies have shown that children who bully, especially those at the older end of this age range, tend to be overly susceptible to negative peer pressure. However, they can be helped to recognize the group dynamics, such as peer attention, that lead them to bully, and can learn to develop strategies to stand up to peer pressure. With focused support, these children should be able to reduce their bullying behaviour so that referral for professional help is not required.
 
Steps to Take
 
1.      Assess the Problem
 
Because children who bully vary so widely, it is important to assess your child’s specific difficulties and motivations in order to understand his or her needs. There are many ways to do this:

Ask questions.
  • It is important to speak with your child to understand his or her perception of the bullying problem. This can help determine what the motivation might be to engage in bullying. Try to identify any stresses in his or her life that may be influencing the use of power and aggression with peers. For example, some children who are victimized themselves will then bully others in another setting where they can assert power and control. On the other hand, some may simply be enjoying the sense of power over more vulnerable kids with little concern for their feelings.
Talk with other children.
  • Obviously, with the older children in this age range discretion is extremely important here, and always let your child know that you intend to speak with other kids about the problem. It can be really helpful to speak with other youngsters about the kinds of bullying behaviour they have observed, participated in, or experienced. Even if they don’t want to “name names”, their knowledge of the situation will always be far more accurate and detailed than that of adults.
Observe.
  • Observing the peer group any time they are in or around your home might also give clues as to the nature of their bullying problems. For example:
    • Is a lot of teasing, taunting or “put downs” quite normal when this group is playing together?
    • Is there a pattern as to when they bully, who bullies and who gets bullied?
    • Does the group encourage bullying by paying attention, laughing or even joining in?
    • Who are the leaders in the group, and how aggressive are they?
    • Where does your child fit in regarding the “pecking order”, leadership and dynamics of the group?
 
 
2. Identify skills needed
 
Using the information gathered above, and perhaps with support from school staff, try to determine which if any of the social/emotional skills mentioned previously (empathy, emotional and/or behavioural self-control, managing feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fearfulness), positive social interaction, positive problem solving, resisting negative peer pressure), are lacking in your child that could be contributing to his/her involvement in bullying. See the Introduction to this section for strategies to help develop these skills.
 
3. Educate your child
 
In this very broad age range, some children might be new to bullying, while others might have a fairly  long history of such difficulties, but in either case it’s important to discuss what bullying is, why it is not acceptable, and the specific consequences that will ensue for bullying. This discussion must occur regularly, especially after a bullying problem has occurred.
 
4. Provide consequences that are educational
 
Consider that as well as negative or punishing consequences children also need positive lessons to learn when they make the mistake of bullying others. Even if the consequence is simply “a lecture”, include a discussion of what happened, why it happened that way, and what they could have done differently to avoid bullying. Consequences should also help your youngster to develop the social/emotional skills that might be lacking. A simple example would be requiring him or her to read a short story with an anti-bullying theme. Examples of other educational consequences include:
  • Replacing a privilege such as TV or video game time with something that develops social/emotional skills such as helping a younger sibling or neighbour with homework (under supervision)
  • Having him or her make amends, for example with a letter of apology
  • Having him or her help out around the house
  • Any other consequence that provides a certain amount of punishment for bullying, but allows the child to learn positive behaviours and leadership skills.
When handing out consequences focus on the bullying behaviour and avoid labelling the child as the problem or as a "bully". Remember that relationships are key, so try to maintain a positive relationship with your child and avoid being hostile or angry when punishing inappropriate behaviour.
 
5. Provide ongoing positive support
 
Youngsters are most likely to improve their behaviour when they receive positive support from the adults in their lives. There are many ways to approach supporting children who tend to bully, including:
  • Providing praise and attention if you see them use appropriate behaviour to gain peer approval (e.g., providing ideas for activities, supporting a team in a sports activity)
  • Rewarding attempts at leadership such as helping to organize an event, getting involved in school charity or fundraising activity,
  • Reacting positively to mature attempts to resolve conflict, such as negotiating reasonably or compromising.

 

6. Keep records
 
A one-time effort to help a child who shows yellow light levels of bullying will probably not be enough. Support strategies will probably be required for some time to combat the effects of negative peer pressure or whatever else underlies this mild yet worrisome behaviour. It’s important then to be systematic, and equally important to document the bullying problems, the solutions you implemented and any consequences used. This record will be important later if the behaviour gets worse and a counsellor gets involved.
 
7. Build on the positives with positives
      
Development of relationship skills is enhanced when adults can detect problems and provide coaching on the spot. Parents should try to anticipate situations when problems may arise and provide timely reminders and encouragement to:
  • Think of the needs of others
  • Tune into the moral compass (i.e., the inner sense of right and wrong that we all have)
  • Remember what’s expected.
This may help the child to refrain from using power and aggression to control or distress others and to find positive ways to achieve power and status.

Back to top


Note that all of the strategies suggested for the yellow light area behaviours are suitable for behaviours in the red light area. In fact, it is unwise to wait until bullying has reached red light levels to act. It is best to begin with the least intensive strategies and work up until you begin to see progress in the development of positive relationship skills, attitudes, and motivations.
 
Who are the "red light" children?
A small number of children will not be able to benefit sufficiently from the strategies described above. They will continue to make mistakes and use their power aggressively, but will not appear to learn from these experiences. These children who continue to engage in repeated, serious bullying may be at great risk for continuing on a pathway with troubled relationships throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Studies have also linked serious bullying to equally serious outcomes later in life such as incarceration, substance abuse and marriage break-down. But more immediately, these youngsters are at risk for hurting another child seriously enough to impact both families involved, and even trigger police involvement in the older part of this age range.
 
It is important to remember that children in the red light zone are likely to both bully others and be victimized themselves. Therefore it is extremely important to try to provide support for these youngsters before they become seriously alienated.
 
Seek outside support
For these young people with persistent, serious problems with bullying, intervention will need to be intensive and systematic, including support from the school. A referral to a mental health centre or outside professional counsellor will be required to provide additional support that is intense enough to make a difference. The child should also be referred for discussion at a School Team meeting to involve other school or Board professionals in the intervention plan, especially since bullying at the red light level often leads to suspension or even expulsion from school, even at quite young age levels.
 
Once a child is receiving additional supports from a community-based mental health provider, it is essential that the lines of communication between home and school are kept open. Any improvements resulting from interventions such as counselling are more likely to be maintained if they can be supported and encouraged at school as well as at home.


Suspension and expulsion

 
These are highly controversial strategies that will be considered where bullying crosses the line into very serious and possibly illegal red light behaviour such as violence, sexual harassment, threats, intimidation, theft and so on. Bullying this extreme is very rare under the age of about 10, but very serious when it does occur.
 
Adults can make a difference
 
Children showing red light levels of bullying pose a particular challenge because they clearly have profited from using aggression to gain power and control over others. It takes time for them to establish, and learn to prefer, alternative behaviour patterns that are appropriate and put them in a position to enjoy positive connections or even experience leadership within their peer group. If there is one adult to champion a child and recognize his or her strengths, this support can often be enough to shift that young person from a troubled to a healthy pathway. Parents, relatives, teachers, religious or community leaders and others can all be these champions.


Back to top

Back to top




There are many effective strategies for creating a home environment that promotes positive interactions and minimizes bullying. In essence, these are strategies to prevent bullying from moving from the Green Light Zone to a higher, more troubling level.
 
Be a positive role model
 
Parents set the tone at home, and children, even these early adolescents, are sensitive to the tone and behaviour of their parents. It is important to remember to speak and behave the way you want your children to speak and behave, to set a positive example. If parents are loving, supportive and respectful toward their children, most kids will adopt that style. Children learn much of their behaviour by imitating their parents.
 
Most important, try not to set an example that suggests bullying is acceptable. Overly harsh discipline, especially if it includes ridicule, insults, sarcasm or physical abuse, has been shown conclusively to heavily influence children to act similarly toward their peers.
 
Provide clear guidelines for behaviour
Even these early adolescents need clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not. At this age, however, it’s wise to encourage your children to participate in creating these guidelines. In these discussions about behaviour, it’s also important to touch on issues of bullying. Topics to touch on include:
  • understanding the full range of bullying behaviours, from teasing to harassment, social exclusion, and so on
  • what might be effective to say and do when being bullied or when witnessing bullying, or when feeling pressured to join in a bullying situation
  • positive strategies to escape or defuse a bullying situation rather than trying to use aggression to discourage those doing the bullying. (Note, research shows that if a young person who is being bullied responds aggressively, the bullying is likely to continue and may accelerate.)
    Ensure consequences for bullying are appropriate, timely, and consistent
If you discover your early adolescent child bullying others, including siblings, appropriate consequences are important. These consequences should be educational and should match the severity of the bullying behaviour. Examples of educational consequences in the Green Light zone might include:
  • apologizing, in person or in writing
  • trying to repair the relationship problem
  • loss of access to e-mail or social media, and using the time instead to research articles about bullying or cyber-bullying.
 
Consequences must be applied immediately and consistently in order to have an impact.
 
Continue to monitor the situation and apply further consequences if needed
 
Follow up is essential with youngsters who have bullied, because this pattern of interacting may be difficult to stop if peers continue to reinforce it with their attention. If one consequence for bullying is not sufficient, then the discipline needs to be progressive (i.e., escalating in severity), but at the same time still educational. For example, if a youngster persistently teases a sibling at lunch time, and continues even after you intervene once or twice, a possible next step might be to have him or her spend lunchtime alone for a couple of days. Or if access to social media has been suspended for one day, repeated cyber-bullying might lead to extended days without that access.
 
Help young people understand their behaviour
We all learn by making mistakes and early adolescents sometimes need help with understanding that. Almost all children explore their power through bullying. Most recognize that they are hurting others and stop. Those who continue to bully might need help understanding the seriousness of their behaviour, the impacts on others, and the peer dynamics that may be leading them to bully. Parents need to demonstrate that this is important by making it a serious discussion point, and by having those who are victimized talk about how they feel. Referring to books, movies, TV shows or other media that feature the negative effects of bullying might also help.
 
Although it can be tricky with early adolescents, parents might also need to engage their children’s friends in the conversation. At this age level the peer group is typically more influential than parents, so any effort to change the peer group view of bullying could be well worthwhile.
 
Focus on positive behaviour, including yours
All children, including early adolescents, thrive on positive reinforcement. It is the catalyst for positive social development. Researchers have estimated that for any kind of peak performance youngsters should get 10 positive consequences to every negative. So it is much more effective to give children positive feedback when they are being socially appropriate, than to just react negatively when you see them being bullies. That is, catch them relating appropriately and give them positive feedback right then and there. At this age level, the feedback should be a bit low key and sometimes in private to avoid any kind of negative reaction from peers or siblings. Examples of comments might include:
  • ”I’m impressed with the mature way you guys settled your disagreement.”
  • “That was a respectful way to ask him to stop. I like that.”
  • “Man, you guys are working together like a well-oiled machine! Well done!”
  • “You were really patient in helping your brother solve that tough math problem. That was very cool.”
 
Parents can promote respect and positive relationships by noting and reinforcing even small behavioural steps in the right direction. This kind of positive approach fosters a sense of optimism that the youngster can change for the better. When parents use positive approaches with their early adolescent children, it often makes positive change happen not only at home, but also at school and in the community.
 
Remember that bullying often occurs when adults aren’t looking
One problem in trying to reduce bullying is that parents may not see it happening. Young people know that adults disapprove of bullying so they often try to hide it or do it away from home, in locations that are crowded and not closely monitored by adults. As well, they use verbal and social forms of bullying that are subtle and hard to catch. What’s worse, young people who are being victimized will often not speak up because of fear or shame.
 
If parents feel a young person might be a victim of bullying, that young person might be more open to talking about it in a private conversation. If they reveal that they are being bullied, thank them for their courage and openness and assure them that you will try to help.
 
Stay connected with the school
Note: In some jurisdictions early adolescents have legal privacy rights that include the right to refuse consent for teachers to share information with their parents. The following assumes that such consent, if required, has been obtained.
Regular and open communication with the school is essential. Alerting a teacher, administrator or Guidance Counsellor as soon as possible if a youngster is having relationship problems should result in school-based support.
 
Today’s schools have qualified teachers and other professionals who are experienced in dealing with bullying and the emotional and social issues behind it. Parents who feel their teen is involved, either as a bully, a victim or both, should never hesitate to contact the school and request a meeting with teachers or support staff to discuss the issue. Be aware that, given the busy nature of schools today, the response may not be as immediate as you would hope, and school personnel may take time to confirm the problem through their own observations. But parents should be “politely persistent” in pursuing support for their child. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?
 
Working to overcome bullying behaviour is a long term project. It’s important to keep in touch with the school regarding the child's progress and challenges.


Back to top


Bullying behaviour moves into the yellow light zone when it reaches a level of frequency, and/or intensity and/or duration significant enough to interfere with everyday life. Early adolescents who are experiencing problems with bullying require all of the strategies described in the green light area plus a bit more intensive, focused support.
 
Early adolescents who repeatedly bully others need support to develop a variety of skills, including:
  • Empathy (identifying with how others' feel)
  • Emotional and/or behavioural self-control
  • How to cope with their own feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fear)
  • Positive social interaction with peers
  • Positive leadership
  • Positive problem solving
  • Recognition of, and resistance to negative peer pressure
 
Strategies for improving these skills are detailed in the Introduction section above. The key is to act early when bullying behaviours seem to be emerging or getting worse.
 
Adolescents who bully even at a mild “yellow light” level need adult support to boost their capacity and motivation for more appropriate ways to relate to others. They may benefit from help in recognizing the impact of their behaviour on others and finding positive ways of building status and acceptance in their peer group. Studies have shown that students who bully tend to be overly susceptible to negative peer pressure. However, they can be helped to recognize the group dynamics, such as peer attention, that lead them to bully, and can learn to develop strategies to stand up to peer pressure. With focused support, these young people should be able to reduce their bullying behaviour so that referral for professional help is not required.
 
Steps to Take
 
1. Assess the Problem
Because early adolescents who bully differ so widely, it is important to assess your child’s specific difficulties and motivations in order to understand his or her needs. There are many ways to do this:
 
Ask questions
It is important to speak with your early adolescent child to understand his or her perception of the bullying problem. This can help determine what the motivation might be to engage in bullying. Try to identify any stresses in his or her life that may be influencing the use of power and aggression with peers. For example, some young people who are victimized themselves turn around and bully in another setting where they can assert power and control. On the other hand, some may simply be enjoying the sense of power over more vulnerable kids with little concern for their feelings.
 
Talk with other children
Obviously discretion is extremely important here, and always let your child know that you intend to speak with other kids about the problem. It can be really helpful to speak with other youngsters about the kinds of bullying behaviour they have observed, participated in, or experienced. Even if they don’t want to “name names”, their knowledge of the situation will always be far more accurate and detailed than that of adults.
 
Observe
Observing the peer group any time they are in or around your home might also give clues as to the nature of their bullying problems. For example:
  • Is a lot of teasing, taunting or “put downs” quite normal when this group is hanging out?
  • Is there a pattern as to when they bully, who bullies and who gets bullied?
  • Does the group encourage bullying by paying attention, laughing or even joining in?
  • Who are the leaders in the group, and how aggressive are they?
  • Where does your child fit in regarding the “pecking order”, leadership and dynamics of the group?
2.   Identify skills needed
 
Using your observations, and perhaps with support from school staff, try to determine which if any of the social/emotional skills mentioned above (empathy, emotional and/or behavioural self-control, managing feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fearfulness), positive social interaction, positive problem solving, resisting negative peer pressure), are lacking in your child that could be contributing to his/her involvement in bullying.
 
3.    Educate your child
 
Even with early adolescent children who might have a long history of difficulties with bullying, it’s important to discuss again what bullying is, why it is not acceptable, and the specific consequences that will ensue for bullying. This discussion must occur regularly, especially after a bullying problem has occurred.
 
4.   Provide consequences that are educational
 
Consider that as well as negative or punishing consequences, early adolescents also need positive lessons to learn when they make the mistake of bullying others. Even if the consequence is simply “a lecture”, include a discussion of what happened, why it happened that way, and what they could have done differently to avoid bullying. Consequences should also help your youngster to develop the social/emotional skills they are lacking. A simple example would be reading a short story with an anti-bullying theme. Examples of other educational consequences include:
  • Replacing a privilege such as TV, social network or video game time with something that develops social/emotional skills such as helping a younger sibling or neighbour with homework (under supervision)
  • Having him or her make amends, for example with a letter of apology
  • Having him or her help out around the house
  • Any other consequence that provides a certain amount of punishment for bullying, but allows the young person to be recognized for positive behaviours and for leadership potential.
When handing out consequences focus on the bullying behaviour and avoid labelling the teen as the problem or as a "bully". Remember that relationships are key, so try to maintain a positive relationship with your child and avoid being hostile in punishing inappropriate behaviour.
 
5.  Provide ongoing positive support
 
Youngsters are most likely to improve their behaviour when they receive positive support from the adults in their lives. There are many ways to approach supporting teens who tend to bully, including:
  • Providing low key praise and attention if you see them use appropriate behaviour to gain peer approval (e.g., providing ideas for activities, volunteering in the community)
  • Rewarding attempts at leadership such as helping to organize an event, getting involved in school charity or fundraising activity
  • Reacting positively to mature attempts to resolve conflict, such as negotiating reasonably or compromising.
 
6.   Keep records
 
A one-time effort to help a young teen who shows yellow light levels of bullying will probably not be enough. Support strategies will probably be required for some time to combat the effects of negative peer pressure or whatever else underlies this mild yet worrisome behaviour. It’s important then to be systematic and progressive, and equally important to document the bullying problems, the solutions you implemented and any consequences used. This record will be important later if the behaviour gets worse and a counsellor gets involved.
 
7.   Build on the positives with positives
 
Development of relationship skills is enhanced when adults can detect problems and provide coaching on the spot. Parents should try to anticipate situations when problems may arise and provide timely reminders and encouragement to:
  • Think of the needs of others
  • Tune into the moral compass (i.e., the inner sense of right and wrong that we all have)
  • Remember what’s expected.
 
This may help the child to refrain from using power and aggression to control or distress others and to find positive ways to achieve power and status.

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Note that all of the strategies suggested for the yellow light area behaviours are suitable for behaviours in the red light area. In fact, it is unwise to wait until bullying has reached red light levels to act. It is best to begin with the least intensive strategies and work up until you begin to see progress in the development of positive relationship skills, attitudes, and motivations.
 

Who are the "red light" early adolescents?
 

A small number of early adolescents will not be able to benefit sufficiently from the strategies described above. They will continue to make mistakes and use their power aggressively, but will not appear to learn from these experiences. These young people who continue to engage in repeated, serious bullying may be at great risk for continuing on a pathway with troubled relationships throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Studies have also linked serious bullying to equally serious outcomes later in life such as incarceration, substance abuse and marriage break-down. More immediately, these young people are at risk to do serious harm to another child or adolescent, either physically, socially or with regard to reputation. The impact on those involved, and their families, can be significant and can even result in legal issues.
 
Note also that early adolescents in the red light zone are likely to both bully others and be victimized themselves.
 
Clearly, it is extremely important to try to provide support for these youngsters before they become seriously alienated.
 
Seek outside support
 
For these young people with persistent, serious problems with bullying, intervention will need to be intensive and comprehensive, including support from the school. A referral to a mental health centre or outside professional counsellor will be required to provide additional support that is intense enough to make a difference. The youngster should also be referred for discussion at a School Team meeting to involve other school or Board professionals in the intervention plan, especially since bullying at the red light level often leads to suspension or even expulsion from school.
 
Once a youngster is receiving additional supports from a community-based mental health provider, it is essential that the lines of communication between home and school are kept open (with appropriate consent). Any improvements resulting from interventions such as counselling are more likely to be maintained if they can be supported and encouraged at school as well as at home.

 

Suspension and expulsion

These are highly controversial strategies that will be considered where bullying crosses the line into very serious and possibly illegal red light behaviour such as violence, sexual harassment, threats, intimidation, theft and so on.
Adults can make a difference
Early adolescents with serious bullying problems pose a particular challenge because they have spent years learning how to use aggression to gain power and control over others. It takes time for them to establish, and learn to prefer, alternative behaviour patterns that are appropriate and put them in a position to provide positive leadership within their peer group. If there is one adult to champion a child and recognize his or her strengths, this support can often be enough to shift that young person from a troubled to a healthy pathway. Parents, relatives, teachers, religious or community leaders and others can all be these champions.


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There are many effective strategies for creating a home environment that promotes positive interactions and minimizes bullying. In essence, these are strategies to prevent bullying from moving from the Green Light Zone to a higher, more troubling level.
 
Be a positive role model
Parents set the tone at home, and children, even adolescents, are sensitive to the tone and behaviour of their parents. It is important to remember to speak and behave the way you want your children to speak and behave, to set a positive example. If parents are loving, supportive and respectful toward their children, most youth will adopt that style. Children learn much of their behaviour by imitating their parents.
 
Most important, try not to set an example that suggests bullying is acceptable. Overly harsh discipline, especially if it includes ridicule, insults, sarcasm or physical abuse, has been shown conclusively to heavily influence children to act similarly toward their peers.
 
Provide clear guidelines for behaviour
 
Even adolescents need clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not. At this age, however, it’s wise to encourage your children to participate in creating these guidelines. In these discussions about behaviour, it’s also important to touch on issues of bullying. Topics to touch on include:
  • Understanding the full range of bullying behaviours, from teasing, to harassment, social exclusion, and so on
  • What might be effective to say and do when being bullied or when witnessing bullying, or when feeling pressured to join in a bullying situation
  • Positive strategies to escape or defuse a bullying situation rather than trying to use aggression to discourage those doing the bullying. (Note, research shows that if a young person who is being bullied responds aggressively, the bullying is likely to continue and may accelerate.)
 
Ensure consequences for bullying are appropriate, timely, and consistent
 
If you discover your adolescent child bullying others, including siblings, appropriate consequences are important. These consequences should be educational and should match the severity of the bullying behaviour. Examples of educational consequences in the Green Light zone might include:
  • Trying to repair the relationship problem
  • Loss of access to social media and instead researching articles on bullying.
  • Apologizing, in person or in writing
 
Consequences must be applied immediately and consistently in order to have an impact.
 
Continue to monitor the situation and apply further consequences if needed
Follow up is essential with youngsters who have bullied, because this pattern of interacting may be difficult to stop if peers continue to reinforce it with their attention. If one consequence for bullying is not sufficient, then the discipline needs to be progressive (i.e., escalating in severity), but at the same time still educational. For example, if a young person persistently teases a sibling at lunch time, and continues even after you intervene once or twice, a possible next step might be to have him or her spend lunchtime alone for a couple of days.
 
Help young people understand their behaviour
 
We all learn by making mistakes and adolescents sometimes need help with understanding that. Almost all children explore their power through bullying. Most recognize that they are hurting others and stop. Those who continue to bully might need help understanding the seriousness of their behaviour, the impacts on others, and the peer dynamics that may be leading them to bully. Parents need to demonstrate that this is important by making it a serious discussion point, and by having those who are victimized talk about how they feel. Referring to books, movies, TV shows or other media that feature the negative effects of bullying might also help.
 
Although it can be tricky with adolescents, parents might also need to engage their children’s friends in the conversation. At this age level the peer group is typically more influential than parents, so any effort to change the peer group view of bullying could be well worthwhile.
 
Focus on positive behaviour, including yours
 
All children, including adolescents, thrive on positive reinforcement. It is the catalyst for positive social development. Researchers have estimated that for any kind of peak performance youngsters should get 10 positive consequences to every negative. So it is much more effective to give children positive feedback when they are being socially appropriate, than to just react negatively when you see them being bullies. That is, catch them relating appropriately and give them positive feedback right then and there. At this age level, the feedback should be very low key and sometimes in private to avoid any kind of negative reaction form peers or siblings. Examples of comments might include:
  • ”I’m impressed with the mature way you guys settled your disagreement.”
  • “That was a respectful way to ask him to stop. I like that.”
  • “Man, you guys are working together like a well-oiled machine! Well done!”
  • “You were really patient in helping your brother solve that tough math problem. That was very cool.”
 
Parents can promote respect and positive relationships by noting and reinforcing even small behavioural steps in the right direction. This kind of positive approach fosters a sense of optimism that the youngster can change for the better. When parents use positive approaches with their adolescent children, it often makes positive change happen not only at home, but also at school and in the community.
 
Remember that bullying often occurs when adults aren’t looking
 
One problem in trying to reduce bullying is that parents may not see it happening. Young people know that adults disapprove of bullying, so they often try to hide it or do it away from home, in locations that are crowded and not closely monitored by adults. As well, they use verbal and social forms of bullying that are subtle and hard to catch. What’s worse, young people who are being victimized will often not speak up because of fear or shame.
 
If parents feel a young person might be a victim of bullying, that young person may be more open to talk about it in a private conversation. If they reveal that they are being bullied, thank them for their courage and openness and assure them that you will try to help without embarrassing them in front of peers.
 
Stay connected with the school
 
Note: In many jurisdictions adolescents have legal privacy rights that include the right to refuse consent for teachers to share information with their parents. The following assumes that such consent, if required, has been obtained.
 
Regular and open communication with the school is essential. Alerting a teacher, administrator or Guidance Counsellor as soon as possible if a youngster is having relationship problems should result in school-based support.
 
Today’s schools have qualified teachers and other professionals who are experienced in dealing with bullying and the emotional and social issues behind it. Parents who feel their teen is involved, either as a bully, a victim or both, should never hesitate to contact the school and request a meeting with teachers or support staff to discuss the issue. Be aware that, given the busy nature of schools today, the response may not be as immediate as you would hope, and school personnel may take time to confirm the problem through their own observations. But parents should be “politely persistent” in pursuing support for their child. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?
 
Working to overcome bullying behaviour is a long term project. It’s important to keep in touch with the school regarding the child's progress and challenges.


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Bullying behaviour moves into the yellow light zone when it reaches a level of frequency, and/or intensity and/or duration significant enough to interfere with everyday life. Adolescents who are experiencing problems with bullying require all of the preventative strategies described in the green light area plus a bit more intensive, focused support.
 
Adolescents who repeatedly bully others need support to develop a variety of skills, including:
A.     Empathy (identifying with how others' feel)
B.     Emotional and/or behavioural self-control
C.     How to cope with their own feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fear)
D.     Positive social interaction skills
E.     Positive leadership skills
F.     Positive problem solving skills
G.     Recognition of, and resistance to negative peer pressure
 
Strategies for improving these skills are detailed in the Introduction section above. The key is to act early when bullying behaviours seem to be emerging or getting worse.
 
Adolescents who bully even at a mild “yellow light” level need adult support to boost their capacity and motivation for more appropriate ways to relate to others. They may benefit from help in recognizing the impact of their behaviours on others and finding positive ways of building status and acceptance in their peer group. Studies have shown that students who bully tend to be overly susceptible to negative peer pressure. However, they can be helped to recognize the group dynamics, such as peer attention, that lead them to bully, and can learn to develop strategies to stand up to peer pressure. With focused support, these young people should be able to reduce their bullying behaviour so that referral for professional help is not required.


 
 
Steps to Take
1. Assess the Problem
Because adolescents who bully vary so widely, it is important to assess your child’s specific difficulties and motivations in order to understand his or her needs. There are many ways to do this:
 
a)      Ask questions.
It is important to speak with your adolescent child to understand his or her perception of the bullying problem. This can help determine what the motivation might be to engage in bullying. Try to identify any stresses in his or her life that may be influencing the use of power and aggression with peers. For example, some young people who are victimized themselves will then bully in another setting where they can assert power and control. Others may bully in order to appear powerful or “cool” to their friends. On the other hand, some may simply be enjoying the sense of power over more vulnerable kids with little concern for their feelings.
 
b)      Talk with other children.
Obviously discretion is extremely important here, and always let your child know that you intend to speak with other kids about the problem. It can be really helpful to speak with other youngsters about the kinds of bullying behaviour they have observed, participated in, or experienced. Even if they don’t want to “name names”, their knowledge of the situation will always be far more accurate and detailed than that of adults.
 
c)      Observe.
Observing the peer group any time they are in or around your home might also give clues as to the nature of their bullying problems. For example:
a.      Is a lot of teasing, taunting or “put downs” quite normal when this group is together?
b.      Is there a pattern as to when they bully, who bullies and who gets bullied?
c.      Does the group encourage bullying by paying attention, laughing or even joining in?
d.      Who are the leaders in the group, and how aggressive are they?
e.      Where does your child fit in regarding the “pecking order”, leadership and dynamics of the group?
 

2. Identify skills needed
Using your observations, and perhaps with support from school staff, try to determine which if any of the social/emotional skills mentioned above (empathy, emotional and/or behavioural self-control, managing feelings (e.g., sadness, worry, fearfulness), positive social interaction, positive problem solving, resisting negative peer pressure), are lacking in your child that could be contributing to his/her involvement in bullying. 
 
 
3. Educate your child
Even with adolescent children who might have a long history of difficulties with bullying, it’s important to discuss again what bullying is, why it is not acceptable, and the specific consequences that will ensue for bullying. This discussion must occur regularly, especially after a bullying problem has occurred.

 
4. Provide consequences that are educational
Consider that as well as negative or punishing consequences, adolescents also need positive lessons to learn when they make the mistake of bullying others. Even if the consequence is simply “a lecture”, include a discussion of what happened, why it happened that way, and what they could have done differently to avoid bullying. Consequences should also help your youngster to develop the social/emotional skills they are lacking. A simple example would be to require the reading of a short story with an anti-bullying theme. Examples of other educational consequences include:
 
  • Replacing a privilege such as TV, video game or social media time with something that develops social/emotional skills such as helping a younger sibling or neighbour with homework (under supervision),
  • Requiring him/her to make amends, for example with a letter of apology
  • Having him or her help out around the house
  • Any other consequence that provides a certain amount of punishment for bullying, but allows the young person to be recognized for positive behaviours and for leadership potential.
 
When handing out consequences focus on the bullying behaviour and avoid labelling the teen as the problem or as a "bully". Remember that relationships are key, so try to maintain a positive relationship with your child and avoid being hostile or angry in punishing inappropriate behaviour. 

 
5. Provide ongoing positive support
Youngsters are most likely to improve their behaviour when they receive positive support from the adults in their lives. There are many ways to approach supporting teens who tend to bully, including:
  • Providing low key praise and attention if you see them use appropriate behaviour to gain peer approval (e.g.,   providing ideas for activities, volunteering in the community)
  • Rewarding attempts at leadership such as helping to organize an event, getting involved in school governance,
  • Reacting positively to mature attempts to resolve conflict, such as negotiating reasonably or compromising.
 
6. Keep records
A one-time effort to help a teen who shows yellow light levels of bullying will probably not be enough. Support strategies will probably be required for some time to combat the effects of negative peer pressure or whatever else underlies this mild yet worrisome behaviour. It’s important then to be systematic and progressive, and equally important to document the bullying problems, the solutions you implemented and any consequences used. This record will be important later if the behaviour gets worse and a counsellor gets involved.
 
 
7. Build on the positives with positives
Development of relationship skills is enhanced when adults can detect problems and provide coaching on the spot. Parents should try to anticipate situations when problems may arise and provide timely reminders and encouragement to:
  • Think of the needs of others
  • Tune into the moral compass (i.e., the inner sense of right and wrong that we all have)
  • Remember what’s expected.
     
This may help your teen to refrain from using power and aggression to control or distress others and to find positive ways to achieve power and status.


Back to top


Note that all of the strategies suggested for the yellow light area behaviours are suitable for behaviours in the red light area. In fact, it is unwise to wait until bullying has reached red light levels to act. It is best to begin with the least intensive strategies and work up until you begin to see progress in the development of positive relationship skills, attitudes, and motivations.
 

Who are the "red light" teens?

A small number of adolescents will not be able to benefit sufficiently from the strategies described above. They will continue to make mistakes and use their power aggressively, but will not appear to learn from these experiences. These young people who continue to engage in repeated, serious bullying may be at great risk for continuing on a pathway with troubled relationships throughout adolescence and into adulthood. Studies have also linked serious bullying to equally serious outcomes such as incarceration, substance abuse and marriage break-down. More immediately, these young people could be at risk for doing harm to another child or teen, either physically, socially or with regard to reputation, with very serious implications for everyone involved and their families, including legal ramifications.
 
Note that adolescents in the red light zone are likely to both bully others and be victimized themselves.
 
Clearly it is extremely important to try to provide support for these young people before they become seriously alienated.
Seek outside support
For these young people with persistent, serious problems with bullying, intervention will need to be intensive and comprehensive, including support from the school. A referral to a mental health centre or outside professional counsellor will be required to provide additional support that is intense enough to make a difference. The youngster should also be referred for discussion at a School Team meeting to involve other school or Board professionals in the intervention plan, especially since bullying at the red light level often leads to suspension or even expulsion from school.
 
Once a youngster is receiving additional supports from a community-based mental health provider, it is essential that the lines of communication between home and school are kept open (with appropriate consent). Any improvements resulting from interventions such as counselling are more likely to be maintained if they can be supported and encouraged at school as well as at home.

 

Suspension and expulsion

These are highly controversial strategies that will be considered where bullying crosses the line into very serious and possibly illegal red light behaviour such as violence, sexual harassment, threats, intimidation, theft and so on.
 
Adults can make a difference
Adolescents with serious bullying problems pose a particular challenge because they have spent years learning how to use aggression to gain power and control over others. It takes time for them to establish, and learn to prefer, alternative behaviour patterns that are appropriate and put them in a position to provide positive leadership within their peer group. If there is one adult to champion a child and recognize his or her strengths, this support can often be enough to shift that young person from a troubled to a healthy pathway. Parents, relatives, teachers, religious or community leaders and others can all be these champions.


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