Tough Questions

    Is My Child a Bully?

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    Q:My 12-year-old daughter is constantly judging kids and commenting on what they wear and how they look. This is new behavior for her. I’m worried that if she feels okay telling me these things, she could be even more outspoken with her friends. What should I do?

    A: I encourage you to have a conversation with your daughter about your concerns. I think you may be right that if she shares something with you, her behavior may be even stronger with her peers, especially in these pre-teen years. We know that children value what their peers say and think, and can be influenced greatly by them. There is the possibility that your daughter is getting conflicting messages from her peer group about how she dresses and looks, and she is searching for her identity. There is also the concern, though, that your child may be bullying others with this behavior.

    Bullying is when one or more children intentionally make another child feel less powerful or important to make themselves feel more powerful, to fit in with a group, or for a variety of other reasons. It can take the form of physical, verbal, or cyber abuse, and can happen anywhere. No one is immune to bullying. Children and adults alike are bullies and victims. Though prevalent, psychologists and social scientists believe the key to ending bullying is empathy.

    Right in one of these moments, ask your daughter how she would feel if she knew someone was making a comment like that about her. Find everyday opportunities to model empathy. Share times when you responded with empathy to others. Take an honest look at your own communication techniques, and see if your daughter could be mimicking your voice and style.

    Also, this is the perfect opportunity to teach tolerance. Like empathy, tolerance is a value that children easily adopt when it is modeled by family members. There are ample opportunities to illustrate tolerance in daily life. If you hear the comment “but my friend’s parents said yes,” you have the perfect opening to explain how different families do things differently. Neither is right or wrong – but rather, what works for the individual family. You can let your daughter know that your family doesn’t make negative comments about others, and your family doesn’t judge others by appearance. Of course, make sure you live up to this standard. Children do what their parents do much more frequently than what their parents say. If your actions and words are congruent, children receive a clear, simple message of what is acceptable and appropriate.

    I also encourage you to know your child’s friends. Do you hear similar comments from them? Do they positively reinforce her attitude? It is critical that you continue to be a positive role model, share your values and belief systems, and provide opportunities for your daughter to learn another style of communicating. It could be that your daughter is in with a group that encourages this type of social interaction.

    I would also strongly encourage you to monitor your daughter’s use of texting and social media. While people of all ages might experience difficulty adjusting to the new tools of communication, we know that children, especially, can be impulsive when commenting in cyberspace. These comments can have devastating effects on peers. Often the same statement would not have been made face to face, but the anonymity of social media has created a new culture of bullying. Parents need to help children stay accountable for their words and how they affect others—whether they are spoken, typed, or texted.