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A Bully? My Kid? Impossible!

This is about understanding your child. Be compassionately curious about his friendships and he's likely to open up.
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No parent easily swallows the idea that their child would intentionally harm another kid. "OK, maybe if Emma were strongly provoked... But even that's not likely. She's so sweet. Not at all a mean kid!" Your daughter may well just as you say. And yet... according to 2011 data from the Institute of Education Sciences, nearly one-third of middle and high school students report being bullied at school. Roughly the same percentage of students report having been cyber-bullied. I wonder how many more aren't willing to report it.

I dislike the word bully. It is overused and has no educational value. In order to reduce peer aggression, children need our help in identifying the behavior so they can name it and effectively address it in themselves and others. Instead of "bully" I prefer to use the word intimidator: Someone who uses strength, threats and power to influence, harm, frighten and/or manipulate those who are weaker.

Hints that your child may be an intimidator:

1. You or your partner is an intimidator. The family is Ground Zero for learning about relationships and emotional responses. If a parent consistently yells or uses verbal threats, emotional blackmail or physical violence to manipulate family members, that's what the child learns. Those lesson will come to school with him or her. If you're an intimidator, it may be difficult for you to see it. If you're wondering, ask your partner or your child, "Do you think I'm a bully?" Hopefully, they're not too afraid to tell you the truth. If you need help, get it.

2. Your child is aggressive at home. Is she overly demanding? Do things have to be his way or he throws a fit? Curses at you? Threatens? Gives you the silent treatment? Refuses to cooperate? Takes it out on siblings? If you made a short list of adjectives describing your child, would you paint a portrait of someone you admire? If you admit your child is self-centered, controlling or insensitive at home, why assume she's consistently caring and cooperative at school?

3. Your child's close friends are not the nicest people. You may not trust them without knowing why. Or you may have good reasons not to respect the choices these kids make. If so, talk to your child (calmly and respectfully) about these friends. This isn't about labeling or demonizing. And it's surely not about getting into a power struggle with your child about who he can and can't be friends with. This is about understanding your child. Be compassionately curious about his friendships and he's likely to open up. Your intent is to find out what your child likes about his friends and which ones, if any, your child may not be 100% comfortable with.

4. Your child routinely makes rude comments about other kids. Tune in to conversations between your child and her friends. What kind of language do they use to describe other kids? How often do you overhear mean-spirited gossip, a rude put-down, or a "joke" made at someone else's expense?

Parents of tweens and teens assume that their days of influencing their children are over. Not so! While it's a fact that friends' opinions are important, you still have tremendous influence on your child's values and behavior. If you are aware that your child is a peer intimidator or suspect so, it's up to you to provide a course correction.