Is Your Teen a Bully?Last Friday, we talked about the important issue of teen bullying and discussed the warning signs parents should be aware of. Proactive parenting is key in detection and prevention of bullying and its many after effects.

So what do you do if your teen is the bully? How can you tell if this the case? Are there any warning signs?

We decided to take this question to Christopher Burgess, a long-time advocate for bullied teens, to see what advice he might be able to pass on to parents who feel as though their teen might be headed down the wrong path.

Let me start by saying that bullying is an easy habit to get into. It’s a bandwagon social phenomenon that leaves some believing that in order to fit in and avoid being bullied, they should take part in bullying. Often, a teen may be bullying someone without even realizing that their words and/or actions have an impact on the other person’s mental or physical well-being. After all, if no one is seriously hurt, what is the harm in a little ribbing?

What may appear to be harmless joking to one could be very different to someone else. Making light of someone’s weight may be the norm among one teen and their friends, but to someone struggling with their own self-esteem, a poorly placed joke could be the difference between being at peace with oneself and breaking down. Add to that the fact that this same student may be hearing these weight jokes from a dozen or more other students, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I’ve been the victim of relentless bullying in the past. Being overweight, suffering from severe acne, and not being particularly well-versed in social interaction didn’t help junior high and high school pass by any faster. There were times when I wasn’t on the receiving end of bullying, and was tempted to join in on whatever teasing was going on in the school yard at any given day.

This was about 10 years ago, and I still to this day feel terrible about ever having joined in on a single teasing incident. While I may have been the victim more often than not, my own participation in the act (although rare) is what haunts me years later.

Having my glasses flushed down a school toilet, my backpack stolen and thrown into the gym rafters, and the several bruises and scrapes I received at the hands of bullies pale in comparison to the long-term regret I have for ever teasing another student.

What Are the Signs of Bullying?

“Aggressiveness toward others; use of the rapier-like tongue to denigrate others; teachers/peers/parents telling you all fall within the realm of how you might become aware.” Christopher Burgess advises, “What you have to do is address the behavior and not push it under ‘kids will be kids’ carpet.”

StopBullying.gov, an online resource for parents, teens, and the community at large regarding bullying, posted a list of warning signs that may indicate a teen may be participating in bullying.

  • Get into physical or verbal fights
  • Have friends who bully others
  • Are increasingly aggressive
  • Get sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently
  • Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • Blame others for their problems
  • Don’t accept responsibility for their actions
  • Are competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity

Often, the warning signs of being a bully can be detected in the same ways you may look for signs of being bullied. How does your teen interact with others on social networks? Do they have a judgmental attitude with what other people say or do?

It’s easy to see your teen as a saint, and it’s often hard for a parent to accept that their child has played the role of the aggressor, but remember that participation in bullying may be a defense mechanism to guard against being bullied themselves.

What Can Parents Do When They Discover that Their Child is Bullying Others?

“Direct action — discuss and demonstrate compassion, acceptance, and empathy.” Burgess suggests, “Remember, there might be a number of factors that are driving the bully to act out. My good friend, Dr. Michele Borba, notes that the cause runs from peer pressure to mental disorders and that correcting the problem will take time. She also recommends enlisting the help of professionals — meeting with the other parents via a mediator can help everyone find solutions, and the mediator can help guide your child to better understand the pain their bullying causes.”

Meeting aggression with aggression can be counter-productive. If your teen is quick to snap at others or establish social dominance in a group setting, it may be a direct reflection of how they perceive their own situation at home. It’s no coincidence that a child acts one way at home and another way after visiting a friend or relative for a few days. The social environment is different, and the natural human condition is to adapt. Does that mean bullies are the result of bad parenting? Not at all. A perceived environment, however outrageous or misconceived, is only one of several factors.

“The commonalities of all who are bullied are those who do the bullying view the victim/target as different. It doesn’t matter if they are different; they are perceived [as being] different.”

It is a given that human nature pushes us to fear or act against anything we do not understand. When someone appears to be different, a teen may call that difference out in order to be perceived as more like the rest of the group. In a way, a school social setting is like two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. By creating an environment where differences are celebrated, you better your teen’s chances of being inclusive as opposed to exclusive. This removes the largest single commonality between bullies.

Final Thoughts

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are aware that they are doing it. The causes may range from a coping mechanism to a mental disorder, making it difficult for parents and community members to detect when bullying is occurring, especially if they’re not the victim.

Communication is key. Take time to sit down with your teen and ask them about what’s going on in their lives. Catch up from time to time, and keep an ear open as they speak with friends. Remember that being a bully and being bullied are actually very similar in terms of warning signs and resolution. Being a bully doesn’t mean there was a failure on the part of the parents, but that there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

More often than not, there’s a reason for any teen to act out. Determining what that reason is and how to best go about solving it is the best way to put an end to the vicious bullying cycle.