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How do I stop my daughter being a bully?

Published: 29 Jul 2015
How do I stop my daughter being a bully?

There's a lot of information out there on how to deal with bullying if your child is the victim, but not so much if your child is the one doing the bullying. Here I offer some advice to a heart-broken mum.

Hi Dr Justin

I am struggling with my almost 6 year old daughter who is generally a lovely girl with a kind heart. But there’s times when she’s not so nice.

She’s been in trouble at school for hitting another child with her bag. She told me she hit another child at school with her hands because she wasn’t invited to his party. She speaks very meanly to her friends, saying things such as “I hate you” “I want you to die” “You’re the meanest person in the world”. This type of speaking is not acceptable and it breaks my heart to hear my little girl saying them.

I’ve sat with her many times asking her how she would feel if they were said to her and encouraging her to speak words the build up her friends. I’ve spoken about her losing her friendships because of her behaviour.

We’ve tried consequences ie. Leaving a playdate early, but nothing seems to help. It’s also very hard to talk with her about all of this and to find out what was going on at the time and how she was feeling because she doesn’t tell us the truth and I have to keep asking questions and guessing scenarios to try and understand what actually happened.

There seems to be a lot of info out there for parents of a child who is being bullied, but not much for the parent of the bully. Any advice?

Broken-Hearted Mum

Dr Justin responds:

Build Emotional Intelligence

Researchers have discovered that one of the most powerful ways to teach children social and emotional intelligence – or how to manage their emotions and have good relationships with others – is to encourage empathy by inviting children to take the perspective of others. This involves talking with our children about situations that are challenging, asking how those situations affect our child’s feelings and how our children can act appropriately when they feel angry or stressed or frustrated or anxious.

After we have discussed how to be aware of our own feelings, and how to manage them, we also discuss how others feel when we feel and behave a particular way. Finally, we problem-solve ways to get relationships right regardless of how we are feeling. This process sounds a little like some of the conversations you are having.

When your child won’t talk

Conversations about these kinds of topics can be very challenging. Often our children become emotional, feel that we are criticising them, and become defensive. Sometimes they completely shut down and refuse to talk at all! As such, these conversations will lead to the best outcomes when we are asking questions and patiently waiting for answers and trying to understand rather than lecturing and making demands.

We are also most likely to get productive responses from our children when we speak to them at times where they are not emotional, not in front of others, and when they are feeling relaxed. A quiet car trip or walk can be a good time to talk, as can those precious, quiet moments shortly before our children go to bed. If you feel your daughter won’t chat, do it at bed time, when she’s not emotional, and when things are relaxed.

The problem with ‘consequences’

In addition to having these conversations to build emotional intelligence, it may be worth considering your use of ‘consequences’, which is really just a euphemism for punishment. When we punish our children for behaving in ways we find challenging, they tend to learn the wrong things. They learn that the big person can do whatever they want (so they actually learn to be bullies!), they learn to think about themselves rather than others, and they learn to distrust us because we might hurt them. Our influence is undermined when we use ‘consequences’.

Discipline means ‘teach’, or ‘instruct’, or ‘guide’. This is remarkably different to punishment. While it may be necessary to remove your child from a situation where she is hurting others (and we must do this to ensure everyone is safe), we can do it kindly or we can do it as punishment. The kind approach is to say, “I want you to be able to stay and play. What do you need to do to be allowed to keep playing?” When your child answers, ask “Why is that the rule?” This makes sure they understand the rules and the reasons for those rules. It can also pay to consider the reason your child is acting in a challenging way. Sometimes we may think our child is being nasty when she is really responding to a threat or challenge the only way she knows how. Our children need teaching, not punishing.

Learning life lessons

There are times when, despite our best efforts to help our children, they need to learn life lessons the hard way. Watching a child make mistakes and experience sadness and difficulty is a challenging thing for any parent. We want our children to be happy, to have healthy relationships, and to thrive. We want to protect them from hardship.

Confucius is claimed to have said,

“There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is imitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest.”

Your daughter appears to be unwilling to participate in reflection. It is worth continuing to invite that reflection. It will be the most beneficial for her learning if she will use it. Assuming you and others who might influence her behaviour are setting good examples, it also appears your daughter is unwilling to imitate or follow. As such, it may be that she must learn through experience. If this is the case, the best thing you can do is to be there when it hurts, and continue to invite her to think things through, reflect, take the perspective of others, and learn in ways that hurt less.

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