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“Believing your child couldn’t be mean isn’t unconditional love. It’s denial. Really loving your son or daughter is accepting that good kids can do crappy things sometimes.”    – Rosalind Wiseman, author of Mean Girls (2010, p. 97)

First of all, we should caution parents by saying that EVERY child has the potential to be a bully, and almost all will participate in bullying behavior at some point in their lives. While we all tend to have the stereotypical image of a bully as a school-yard tyrant who runs around beating kids up and stealing lunch money (certainly that isn’t our child), most bullying is far more complicated, and frequently involves kids who are bullies by situation, not necessarily by nature. Bullying can arise out of school politics or disputes as well as alliances with friends, and no child is immune. (See Why Kids Bully for additional information.)

Is my child a bully?

So what are the odds that your child is a bully? Surveys indicate that a startlingly high number of kids may engage in bullying on a fairly routine basis. For example, one survey of U.S. high-schoolers revealed that half of the teens surveyed admitted to having bullied or teased someone within the past year, and 52% confessed to hitting someone in anger within that same period. (Jayson, 2010) Another study found that 24.1% of middle school students had bullied someone in the past semester. (Haynle et al., 2001) Noah Kindler, founder of the web monitoring platform Social Shield, has also uncovered evidence that a significant number of kids make a habit of bullying: “One thing that was a surprise to us,” he says, “is that many more of our customer’s children are bullies than are being bullied, by ganging up on one kid.” (Moran, 2011)

More concerning still, surveys reveal that 15 to 20 percent of adolescents are frequent perpetrators of bullying. This means that for 1 in 5 parents reading this, their child is a bully by habit, regularly victimizing other kids at school.

Signs that your child is a bully

Although any child can be a bully under the proper circumstances, certain types of personality characteristics seem to predispose a child towards the tendency for bullying. Here are some warning signs that your child might be a bully:

1. Your child seems overly critical of others at home, poking fun at people on television or seeming to take enjoyment in the mis-steps or downfall of others.

2. He or she tends to be impulsive and gets overly angry very quickly.

3. When upset, your child tends to take out their frustrations by hitting or pushing other kids.

4. Your child tends to hang out with other kids who act aggressively, either verbally or physically.

5. You hear your child engaging in a lot of negatively charged gossip on the phone or in discussions among friends. Such conversations are rarely restricted to inner circles – if you hear it amongst friends, there’s a good chance your child is engaging in such behavior at school.

6. Your child frequently gets in trouble at school.

7. He or she has difficulty understanding how their actions affect others and is often quick to blame others for being “too sensitive” or dismiss them as “overreacting.”

8. He or she tends to bully their siblings or fight bitterly with them. Sibling conflict is normal, but fighting that is over the top or overly combative – or if a child seems to take enjoyment in it – could be signs of a problem.

Even bullies by habit are not bad kids, merely misguided kids who need some correction. Parents should make a habit of regularly talking to kids about bullying, regardless of whether you think your child is engaging in it at the moment. The more you make it clear to your children that bullying is something that would cause you to be severely disappointed in them, the less likely they’ll be to engage in it should the situation arise.

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