When your kid is the bully

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Bullying has become such a high-profile problem in Hawaii schools that abundant resources are available for parents who want to help prevent their children from being bullied.

But when it comes the parents of the bullies, some don’t know to look for help until their child gets into trouble.

That’s how it played out for one mother from Makiki. Her son, then in the fifth grade, got decent grades and participated in extracurricular activities, but at the same time he also apparently coerced classmates into giving him gift cards he could use to play online video games with.

“I was so surprised to find out my kid was the bad one,” she says, describing how the news came out during a meeting with her son’s teacher and counselor. As a resource teacher herself, she said she was particularly taken aback to have missed the behavior herself.

Her initial reaction was to ground him and take away his computer privileges. Then she went online herself. Finding his Facebook profile, she was stunned by the comments on his page, written by both her son and his friends. They were filled wth swear words, racial slurs and hate speech, she said. Her son, who had used a fake birthdate to create the account, took part in the attacks, and was also attacked himself.

“It wasn’t enough to delete the profile,” she says. “If I banned him from Facebook, he’d just find another way to get back on.”

So she talked to him, trying to broaden the focus from his specific, negative behaviors to a general discussion about how to treat people.

“We talked about empathy and compassion,” she says. “Or I talked and he stayed mostly silent, but I’m pretty sure he was listening.”

Her confidence stems from four years without another problem with other kids at school, at least nothing that’s played out in the principal or counselor’s office. She’s also remained vigilant, monitoring his computer activity and making sure he doesn’t seem to have more money or credit than he should. When she let him rejoin Facebook, it was only under the condition that he added her to his friend list.

“He still gets in trouble. He’s a teenager. But I’d like to think he’s outgrown his bullying stage,” she says.

Some parents of children who have been bullied say that the penalty isn’t always severe enough.

One Kaneohe mom said her 10-year-old daughter has had to deal with bullies who have teased her about her appearance since she was in the first grade. One of her daughter’s tormentors, whose mother led the afterschool program, threatened to go to her mom if she was told on for bullying. Ultimately, the victim’s parents were made aware of the bullying in the counselor’s office because their daughter was too afraid to tell.

“As far as we know, the bullies were talked to, but nothing else was done,” the mother says. “The problem did not go away, so we continued to take her to the psychiatrist.”

Three years later, her daughter still struggles with being teased, but handles it better, having put up with the problem for years in both public and private schools.

Another mom says her 9-year-old son was targeted by a bully soon after starting a new school. He got tripped, called names and generally bugged until the school got involved.

“The consequence was [the bully] was sent to the school counselor. He still bullies other kids, but not [my son] anymore,” she says.

Part of the reason for that is the private school boys realized they lived in the same neighborhood, and the bully decided he’d rather have a friend nearby than a victim, she says.

“No lasting effects, it was so mild.  There’s fine lines between bullying, just plain mean and attention-getting,” she says.

Numerous organizations, including The Bully Project, PACER Center and Education.com, offer advice for parents trying to stop their children from bullying others. Some of the most common tips include facing the problem head-on, staying involved in your children’s lives, teaching positive behaviors like empathy, compassion and respect, and if necessary, seeking professional help.


Treena Shapiro is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and editor. She has worked previously for the Honolulu Advertiser, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Associated Press. She currently lives in Windward Oahu with her husband, two children and a pair of cockatiels.