Help! My Child Is The Bully!

help my child is the bully

Amanda, a preschool teacher in California, contacted me about a column about bullying. “I do agree”, she wrote, “that bullying is a very serious issue but the people that usually need more support are the mortified parents of the bully.”

Let’s define bullying behavior. Bullying can be physical, verbal or excluding behaviors that include but are not limited to hitting, kicking, pushing, choking punching, threatening, teasing, starting rumors, hate speech, and telling other children not to play with others, or not be their friend. Bullying is behavior whose intent is to inflict harm.

We also need to separate the child from the behavior. It helps us look at the situation differently if we say that the child is exhibiting bullying or aggressive behavior instead of saying that the child is a bully. A child’s aggressive behavior at any age indicates that the child has lost a critical link of trust to an important adult in his or her life. This is what we must address.

The age of the child is an important factor to consider. Under the age of six, children may use aggressive behavior to get their needs met, but usually these children respond positively when they are shown alternatives to aggressive behavior. Parents of preschoolers with aggressive behavior need to be coached on how to teach and model cooperative social skills.

For the older child of elementary, middle and junior high school age, aggressive bullying behavior is much more serious, as the behavior indicates that the child has not yet learned basic social behavior, and therefore needs to be re-taught basic rudimentary social skills. This is a challenge that many adults do not step up to, and the critical link of trust remains broken.

As adults, we need to create an environment for all children where they can work and play in dignity and safety. One way to do that is to have “zero tolerance” for the aggressive behaviors mentioned above. I refer to this as the Paul Newman Rule of Zero. Back in the early 80’s Newman recommended that the nuclear arms treaty be negotiated so that all powers would have no bombs. It’s difficult to monitor if someone has 10 or 10,000 bombs, Newman reasoned, but maintaining zero is easy to monitor and to correct. With children’s behavior, a little push, a little hit, or a little teasing can get out of hand. With “zero tolerance” we can more easily monitor and change aggressive behavior.

What I mean by “zero tolerance” is different than expelling a child from school for the slightest infraction of the rules.

Zero tolerance means that we as adults do not turn a blind eye to events. We step up to the challenge and teach effective communication skills.

If the children in our homes and schools know that aggressive bullying behavior is not acceptable even at the smallest level, we empower all of us to take action and not remain silent or look the other way. Children need to know they can ask others for assistance and have the responsibility to stop behavior whose intention is to inflict physical, mental or emotional harm to others.

Unfortunately, having an attitude and policy of “zero tolerance” doesn’t mean that aggressive actions won’t occur. Amazingly, though, if the message is loud and clear that aggressive behavior is not acceptable, half of our work is done.

One well-known study on bullying, Craig and Pepler’s playground observation research, found that one incident of bullying occurred every seven minutes. Adult intervention occurred in 4% of the incidents, and peer intervention occurred 11% of the time.

Children with aggressive behavior learn that their behavior works 85% of the time. You might say we give children with aggressive behavior a B-plus in deportment when we look the other way. To change this we need to:

  • Teach all of our children that aggressive bullying behavior is not acceptable.
  • Show our children how to treat all people regardless of differences with respect and kindness.
  • Help children learn to stop any show of aggression immediately and learn non-violent ways to react and act.
  • Give lessons on appropriate behavior.
  • Give children experiences where they feel more powerful by choosing how they will behave and treat others.
  • Help children learn to trust others by being trustworthy ourselves.
  • Help children form strong relationships with helping adults.

Children under the age of six are in a sensitive period for developing social skills. Aggressive behavior needs to be addressed with specific lessons from how to ask someone to play with you, to how to ask nicely for your toys.

For the older child who has passed this critical period of learning social skills, changing aggressive behavior may require that parents get outside help to assist in helping their child learn skills to interact effectively with others.

A child’s aggressive behavior is a cry for help. Make sure your child get the help he or she needs.

10 Responses to “Help! My Child Is The Bully!”


    I have a child who is four in my class who exhibits aggressive behavior. I try very hard and to a large extent I am doing what has been mentioned…but I have not been very successful but I am happy to know that I am doing the right thing. Will keep at it and hope I will be able to help him settle down soon.

    • Priya,

      For the four-year-old, you are so right. We teach and reteach our grace and courtesy lessons, such as how to ask someone to work/play with you, how to interrupt someone, how to ask for assistance, how to apologize.

      As new situations arise, we address what needs we see in that moment.

      It’s challenging. Keep up the good work!

  2. What specific examples of help could you offer for an 8yr old who still struggles with frustration management? He says mean/mad things when frustrated; he isn’t physical.

    • Sharyn,

      One of the basic ideas I try to share is this: that when we face a problem we need to work “with” our children instead of “doing to” our children.

      We need to involve them in the process of changing their behavior.

      My favorite tool to help do that is Five Step Problem Solving.

      In a quiet moment when this boy is not frustrated bring the problem to him.

      First step: Recognize the problem.

      “I have a problem and I was wondering if you’d be willing to help me with it.”

      Step Two: Identifying the problem

      “Great! Here is the problem. My job is to help you be a bigger better person and I see you having trouble dealing with frustration. I see you say mean things when you are frustrated. These words hurt other people. I know you don’t want to hurt people. My problem is this: how can I help you deal with your frustration in a way that makes you happy and all the people around you happy? Are you willing to work with me to come up with some ideas and solutions?”

      Step Three: Brainstorming for solutions

      During this step you both come up will all possible solutions on how to solve this problem. For example: Learning to simply say, I am frustrated. Removing oneself from the situation. Learning some breathing techniques to calm the brain. (Perhaps here explain how the emotional brain works. See the Kids Talk article, My Amygdala Made Me Do It) Most of the solutions should come from the child. Listen carefully!

      Write down all possible solutions even if they seem impossible or impractical.

      Step Four: Choosing the best solution

      Review all solutions and let the child choose the best one to implement. When the child owns the solution, he works hard to make it work.

      Write the solution down.

      Step Five: Check Back to make sure it is working

      Set up a time to see if it is working. Also, I like to add a phrase here: If you find your solution isn’t working, please let me know right away and we will problem solve all over again.

      This Five Step Problem Solving is a tool that works in the classroom, the playroom or the boardroom.

      Read more about it in the Kids Talk article, Five Steps To Problem Solving With Children.

      I also teach this tool and others in my Problem Solving Tools To Use With Children workshop.

      Sharyn, I hope this helps. The key to working with older children is exactly that. Working with them.

      Please feel free to contact me directly if you have any other questions about this.

  3. Hi Maren,

    My seven-year-old seems to exhibit exclusion tendencies. I have a hard time balancing the Montessori principle of respecting children’s play thus not forcing them to play with others and bullying behavior. I believe it has become a tool that she uses as a way to bullying and I’m wondering if you have any ideas of how to redirect and/or correct such exclusion activities?


    • Tamara,

      Yes, it is a delicate balance at times to respect the rights of the child and to teach how to be a kind and loving person.

      One of the most important books I read on the matter of exclusion is You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley.

      Here’s a Kids Talk article about it:

      Exclusion starts early in life and our role is to help our children learn to be inclusive.

      We have to be clear about how we treat others in our family.

      One of my favorite phrases to help continually communicate expectations at school or at home is this: In our family, we…. Or in our school, we….

      For example: In our family, we are kind to other people. In our school, we solve our problems using words.

      Those phrases lend themselves to discussions about issues like:
      What is kind?
      How can we solve our problems using words?
      What can we do if we are mad?
      What can we do if we are hurt or excluded?

      An oddity about the excluding child is that the child has been excluded and is only mimicking behavior that is seen as successful.

      Dr. Montessori told us that we don’t have to worry about stopping bad behavior. We only have to worry about stopping good behavior.

      (For Montessori aficionados please see Chapter XVII: Liberty in Education: True and False in Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work by E.M. Standing.)

      It is important that we as parents and teachers say, “You can’t say you can’t play,” and have the courage to teach our children social skills that help them become loving and kind individuals.

      Another Kids Talk article:

      Hope this helps. Please let me know how it goes, or if you need more information.

  4. We have a 4 year old boy who is cooperative and understanding in the classroom.

    But, once he gets to the playground he is a totally different child. I would call him a human pin ball. Or, to use another analogy, he seems to see the playground as a football field where he can tackle and push everyone in his path or not. A ball is an excuse to grab and run with it, keeping it away from others trying to play catch.

    We have tried showing how to play with the ball cooperatively, how to run and avoid his friends and even asked his parents to stop watching football with him- not what Dad wants to do. Would he be ripe for your 5 step problem solving, asking for his solutions to the problem?

    • Cindy,

      I’ve found that Five Step Problem Solving works with children as young as 2.5 years.

      For a situation like this I might sit with this boy and start off something like, “I have a problem and I’d like you to help me with it. Would you be willing to help me?”

      Once you get a yes answer (and sometimes it takes days) perhaps frame the problem as such: I have a problem. My job is to make sure that children at school are safe and learn to work together. When you are out on the playground and push and tackle other children when you play ball, the other children don’t feel safe. What can we do together to make sure children at our school do not get tackled and pushed so they can feel safe?

      Then go through the steps together.

      Also, it is important to involve the parents so they can be clear that school is not a place to play football and can communicate that to their son. Words like: Football is to be played only on a football field or in our backyard, or whatever will make sense to this boy.

      Also, the four-year-old is prone to fantasy if vocabulary enrichment is not available. I’ve had good luck taking a fantasy object (Batman, Ninja Turtles, Cinderella) and giving lots of vocabulary on the topic of bats, Renaissance artists, castles and medieval clothing.

      Perhaps this boy will connect to vocabulary lessons about parts of the football, parts of a stadium, parts of a uniform. My Visual Dictionary has perhaps a hundred terms for football.

      Here’s a couple of Kids Talk articles:

      I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes and if you have any other questions.

  5. I have a boy in my toddler class who is about 2 and a half (we will call him Johnny) who pushes children to the ground then will say “Johnny no push!”.

    He seems to target the smallest youngest children in the classroom.

    He also has an infant brother at home who mom says he climbs on. I feel he is looking for attention and has found a way to get it in a negative way. Talking to him about it doesn’t seem to help and he doesn’t seem to mind “taking a break “ aka time out.

    It is now happening so often that he has to constantly be with an adult and even then still manages to push a child or take something from another child, his second attention seeking behavior, to get negative attention from the other child or an adult.

    We just started trying to modify the behavior by giving him attention for doing good things and little to no attention for negative behavior. I’m not sure what else I can try. Any suggestions?


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