What do you do if you find out that your child is a bully?

Perhaps you received a phone call from your child’s school. Or maybe from another parent. Either way, if you think your child is bullying others, it’s very important to start working with him or her now. This behavior is already hurting their life—and will continue to do so if it’s left to fester.

Here’s what you need to know about why your child bullies other kids and what you can do stop it.

Why Do Kids Bully

Why do some kids turn to bullying? The answer is simple: it solves their social problems. After all, it’s easier to bully somebody than to work things out, manage your emotions, and learn to solve problems. Bullying is the easy way out and, sadly, some kids take it.

Look at men who beat or intimidate their wives and scream at their kids. They’ve never learned to be effective spouses or parents. Instead, they’re just bullies. And the other people in those families live in fear—fear that they’re going to be yelled at, called names, or hit.

With bullies, nothing has to be worked out, because the bully always gets his way. The chain of command has been established by force, and the whole bully’s mindset becomes, “If you do what I say, then there will be peace around here.” And that’s not all. When the bully uses force, it’s the victim’s fault for not doing what he said. So the bully’s attitude is, “Give me my way or face my aggression.”

I’m not just talking about the adults in the family, either. Countless children throw tantrums for the same reason: they’re saying, “Give me my way or face my behavior.” And if you as a parent don’t start dealing with those tantrums early, your child may develop larger behavior problems as they grow older.

Bullying Can Be Physical or Emotional

Ask yourself this question: how many emotional bullies do you know? They usually control others through verbal abuse and insults and by making people feel small. They’re very negative, critical people. The threat is always in the background that they’re going to break something or call somebody names or hit someone if they are disagreed with. Realize that the behavior doesn’t start when someone is in their teens—it usually begins when a child is five or six.

Kids Bully Because They Lack Appropriate Social Skills

Bullying itself can come from a variety of sources. One source, as I mentioned, is bullying at home. Maybe there are older siblings, extended family members, or parents who use aggression or intimidation to get their way. I also think part of the development of bullying can stem from some type of undiagnosed or diagnosed learning disability which inhibits the child’s ability to learn both social and problem-solving skills.

But make no mistake, kids use bullying primarily to replace the social skills they’re supposed to develop in grade school, middle school, and high school. As children go through their developmental stages, they should be finding ways of working problems out and getting along with other people. This includes learning how to read social situations, make friends, and understand their social environment.

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Bullies use aggression, and some use violence and verbal abuse, to supplant those skills. So in effect, they don’t have to learn problem-solving, because they just threaten the other kids. They don’t have to learn how to work things out because they just push their classmates or call them names. They don’t have to learn how to get along with other people—they just control them.

The way they’re solving problems is through brute force and intimidation. So by the time that child reaches ten, bullying is pretty ingrained. It has become their natural response to any situation where they feel socially awkward, insecure, frightened, bored, or embarrassed.

Typical Pre-Teen Bullies

Here is what an aggressive bully often looks like. He doesn’t know how to get along with other kids, so he’s usually not trying to play with them. When you look out on the playground at recess, he’s probably alone. He’s not playing soccer or kickball with the other children. He’s roaming around the perimeter of all the interactions that take place at school.

Whenever he’s confronted with a problem or feels insecure, he takes that out on somebody else. He does this by putting somebody else down verbally or physically. A child who bullies might also throw or break things to feel better and more powerful about himself. When the bully feels powerless and afraid, he’s much more likely to be aggressive, because that makes him feel powerful and in control. That’s a very seductive kind of thing for kids, and it’s very hard for them to let go of that power.

Adolescents and Gang Mentality

When we talk about adolescent bullying, we’re entering into another phenomenon altogether when compared with pre-teen bullies. The reality is that many adolescents in high school today are very abusive to each other. There are peer groups that will attack other kids verbally and emotionally, similar to a gang mentality.

When these kids start calling other students rude names and questioning their sexuality, it is all done to dominate and bully them. If a teen or pre-teen doesn’t want to be a victim, they have to join a group. The kids who don’t socialize very well—the shy or passive types—often become the targets. And the threat of violence is always behind it.

The gang mentality is common and very destructive. In my opinion, parents and school administrators who ignore the way kids abuse each other in high school are kidding themselves. This behavior is hurtful and harmful, and there needs to be a lot more accountability.


We often think of the child bully as being male, but the percentage of girls who intimidate their classmates and siblings is increasing dramatically. And as with boys, the abuse can be both physical or emotional.

Related content: Girl Fighting and Your Child

Bullying and Schools

Bullying is traumatizing for kids who are the targets. I believe children should be taught about bullying throughout grade school and into high school. They need to learn what it means, how to resolve it, and how to deal with a bully.

If this is not taught, kids who are the targets will think there’s something wrong with them. Kids should also be learning how to handle their impulses and control themselves when they want to hit, hurt, or intimidate others. Unless there’s a concerted effort to deal with bullying and bullies in school, nothing will change. It’s a challenge, but I firmly believe it can be done.

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Thankfully, many schools have adopted bullying programs. But, I believe that bullying will never completely go away—we will always have bullies. The important thing is that we do not ignore it and that we hold bullies accountable for their behavior.

Teach Your Children About Bullying from an Early Age

I think from a very early age, you have to teach your child what bullying is. You can tell them the following (or even post these words in your house somewhere).

You are bullying when you:

  • Force other people to do things they don’t want to do;
  • Hit other people;
  • Take or break other people’s property;
  • Call other people names.

Then you have to set a standard that says:

“We don’t do that in our house.”

Start that culture of accountability early. Teach them what the word means, and say directly to them:

“You’re accountable for that kind of behavior in our house.”

I think it’s also important that you talk about how to treat others. Ask your child:

“How should you treat others?”

And the answer is:

“You treat others with respect. If they don’t respect you back, walk away. Treating someone with respect means not calling them names, threatening them, or hitting them.”

You can also say to your child:

“Listen to others. Accept others. If they don’t want to play with your toys or they don’t want to share their things, you have to learn how to accept that.”

This is not easy for kids, but they will learn. Children need to have the concept of bullying explained to them numerous times. That way, when any kind of bullying is going on, they can identify it and stop the behavior, both in themselves and others.

Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home

I think the most important thing for every family is to have a Culture of Accountability in your home. This means your child is accountable to you—accountable in how he talks to you, how he talks to his siblings, and how he treats his family members.

When he’s bullying his siblings, don’t get sucked into his excuses. Just because he had a bad day at school does not give him the right to mistreat anyone in your family, for example.

Don’t forget, bullies often have cognitive distortions, which means that they may see the world in a certain way that justifies their bullying. So you’ll frequently hear them blaming others and making excuses for their behavior. Most of the time, they believe that stuff. They believe what they think, and that’s what you’ve got to challenge. You can say to them:

“It sounds like you’re blaming Jesse for the fact that you punched him. It is not Jesse’s fault that you hit him.”

Schools should also have a culture of accountability, and I think that many try. That’s what detentions, suspensions, and expulsions are all about. If your child breaks the rules, he should be held accountable. Support the school and don’t try to shield your child from the consequences of his behaviors.

The Skills Your Child Needs to Learn to Stop Bullying

A child who bullies needs to learn how to solve social problems and how to deal with their emotions without acting out. Have conversations with your child about problem-solving. Ask your child:

“What happens when other kids don’t want to play your games? When other kids have things you want and they won’t give them to you? How do you handle that? How do you handle it when you think you’re right and they’re wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

Your child has to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage his emotions. He needs to learn the skills of compromise, how to sacrifice, how to share and how to deal with injustice. He should also learn how to check things out, and to ask himself, “Is what I’m seeing really happening? Does Jonathan truly hate me, or is he just in a bad mood today?”

Kids have got to learn how to manage their impulses. If their impulse is to hit or to hurt or call someone names, they have to learn to deal with that appropriately. Many children and adolescents have the impulse to hurt others. They have impulses to do all kinds of things. But they need to learn to handle them, and kids who bully are no exception.

What to Do If Your Child is Bullying Others in School

Kids who are bullying others should be held accountable at home. They should be given consequences at home for their bullying behavior at school. And the consequences should look something like this: your child should be deprived of doing something he or she likes. So, no TV or computer games or cell phone, for example. And they also should have to do a task. For example, they should write an essay or letter on what they’re going to do next time they’re in the same situation or feel the same way—instead of bullying.

They must start thinking of other ways they can solve this problem. Understand that they may not have any ideas, and that’s where you have to interact with them and coach them as a parent.

In the Total Transformation Program®, there’s an interview process I outline where parents learn to talk with their children to solve problems instead of exploring emotions and listening to excuses.

If your child is hurting or bullying others, he needs to have conversations that solve problems. He does not need or benefit from conversations that explore emotions. Bullies tend to see themselves as victims, so the conversation has to focus on them taking responsibility for their behavior.

I think your child’s teachers should handle the process of having your child make amends for his behavior at school. But remember that bullies don’t stop bullying when they get home—they often target younger or weaker siblings.

Don’t forget, your child is bullying because solving problems by talking things out is difficult for him. So, he takes the easy way out and uses bullying. We all go through the growing pains of learning how to negotiate in social situations—in fact, we may work on this skill our whole lives. There should be no exceptions for anyone in your family when it comes to these skills. For a child who is using bullying as a shortcut instead of developing these skills, you have to work even harder as a parent to coach them on what to do.

When Bullies Grow Up

Make no mistake, if a child bullies, that tendency can stay with them their whole lives. Fortunately, some bullies do mature after they leave school. You’ll see them get into their early twenties and seem to be okay. They get married, they go to college, they start a career, and they stop their bullying behavior.

But sadly, you will also see young child bullies who become teenage bullies and then adult bullies. How do this behavior and lack of social skills affect them? These are the people who abuse their wives and kids emotionally and sometimes physically. These are the people who call their spouses and kids names if they don’t do things the way they want them to. Bullies may also become criminals.

Look at it this way: a bully is somebody willing to use aggression, verbal abuse, property destruction, or even violence to get his way. An anti-social personality disorder (which is how criminals are classified) refers to somebody willing to use aggression and violence to get his way. The criminal population is full of bullies who, among other things, never learned how to resolve conflicts and behave appropriately in social situations.

Therefore, don’t expect your child to outgrow bullying once he reaches adulthood. Address it now and you will give your child a much brighter future.

Related Content:
My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do?
Is Your Child Being Bullied? 9 Steps You Can Take as a Parent
Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (12)
  • Alison W

    My 6-and-a-half-year-old daughter Cassie is a bully. Especially at school. She was bullying a lot last week. She clunked her friends at lunch with her water bottle. Her friends did not like that. "It was not a big clunk,It was only a little clunk" was her line when her teacher interrogated her. But still the teacher put it in the report card.

    At recess when she was on the swings she pretended to be a superhero. Meanwhile ,her classmate Lisa was practicing balance on a rock. Cassie jumped off the swing to pretend to save Lisa. But then Lisa got mad. Their teacher told Cassie we don't tackle our classmates. Cassie said to him "She is not my classmate now-she is a giant alien visiting all the way from Mars!"

    Cassie has a great imagination, but she needs to learn to use it in a way that doesn't hurt or bother other people. We are trying to teach her by the time she turns 7 at the end of June. Do you have any tips?

  • How about rewarding "non-bullying" behavior

    This article talks about punishing bullying behavior.

    As I read the article I think about the "carrot and stick" philosophy.

    I think if one uses only the stick, that can create its own problems.

    Likewise if someone uses just the carrot, following the spare the rod and spoil the child philosophy, there are problems as well.

    I would appreciate your comments on using rewards when appropriate non-bullying behaviors are pursued. Balancing this with appropriate punishment as necessary.

    I'm not being critical of what you suggested in your article, I'm just suggesting that positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior can help encourage non-bullying behaviors.

  • Rose
    Hi you are a good person in every way.
  • Barbara Gilmour

    Thank you for giving so much space to the fact that bullying stems from kids' lack of social skills. I have been a manners/social skills instructor, developer of a comprehensive social skills/bullying prevention curriculum for early elementary grades, and books, award-winning music, and other supporting products. The fact that research is now supporting social skills, or social competence training, at young ages as the missing link in bullying prevention, solidifies the need for this training as early as possible. I've seen changed behavior when kids learn the skills needed to build healthy relationships. Much of the bullying or acting out stems from the many reasons listed in your article, including fear of being embarrassed because they don't know what to do in a new social situation. The bullying cycle has been identified: it starts with rudeness or incivility, steps up to bullying, and can then escalate into violence. Addressing the beginning of that cycle, the incivility, is the easiest part of the cycle to address and can help prevent much of the bullying. However, its a tough sell. Kids today are bombarded in school, their neighborhoods and the media with the message that mean, rude, and disrespectful behavior is cool, and that bullying is cool. We need to change that message so our children learn that kind, caring, and respectful behavior is cool, and that bullying is the ultimate in uncool.

  • John

    I don't appreciate the way you said, " Look at men who beat or intimidate their wives and scream at their kids". Well this just makes me say oh my goodness because not all men are like that. Women could be doing the same thing so I find this offensive thank you very much. I believe in gender equality so I don't approve of that quote.


    Angry man

  • Hanna

    Bullying takes many forms.  It is not always just the screaming or pushing/hitting etc.  Those are only the forms that get noticed by teachers/other adults.  The worst bullying are the ones that

    fly under the radar.  Quiet forms such as manipulation or eye rolling as you pass by in the hallway, or the teacher kicking your chair.  

    These are things that happened to my son as well as much more.  The worst bullying is the stuff that no one else picks up on because the bullies are sneaky.

  • Sally1974
    What actions should be taken if you figured your daughters best friend ( early teen) is a passive bully.   She has not fully  bullied my daughter but has said some negative comments towards her and then completely brushed them off as if it never happened.   I have spoken toMore other moms where she has left their daughter feeling pretty hopeless and alienating friends.    These girls are all afraid to stand up to her to make a formal complaint.    My daughter all ready is very self conscious and does not have the best self esteem.   She is very closed and hard to crack her shell to open up.   If I tell her she cannot be friends it would cause a huge fight.   Other than getting her to be more aware of what bullying is and helping her self esteem how can I help her not to get bullied....the bullier is amazing with words.....
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      It can be very

      difficult for most parents to witness their child being mistreated, or even

      bullied, by someone she considers a friend.  I agree that telling your

      daughter that she cannot be friends with this girl is not likely to be

      effective.  After all, most teens are developmentally geared toward

      relating with their peers rather than their parents, so it could end up

      actually strengthening their bond if you were to set this limit with your

      daughter.  You can talk with your daughter about what friendship means to

      her, and what she values in a friend.  You can also discuss some options

      for how she can respond if her best friend is making negative comments about

      her, as discussed in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-being-bullied-what-should-i-do/  I recognize what a

      challenging situation this must be for you, and I hope you will write back and

      let us know how things are going for you and your daughter.  Take care.

  • nise
    dont be a bully be nise to others.
  • Frances Mo
    My 15 year old son bullies me. He shouts at me, sweats, calls me names, pushes me, grabs me and continually and consistently defies me. I have a good man as my husband but we have come to a difficult situation. We blame each other and I feel, and tellMore him, I am not supported by him. I feel at such a low and don't know what to do. I have 2other children who respond normally with me. I have been to my gp but he didn't help- told me he would have been thrown out of the house. He is my son and I can see he is struggling and want to reach out to him but he won't let me near. He kicks me off his bed if I sit on it, pushes me forcibly out of his room or his way. Please who can help me? I have broken down in front of both my parents and my in laws but no one helps.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Frances Mo

      I can hear how distressed you are. It can be tough to know

      what to do when your child treats you so badly. One thing we find to be helpful

      is setting the limit and walking away when your child starts to talk to you

      disrespectfully. What this might look like in your situation is saying to your

      son something like “It’s not OK to talk to me that way. I don’t like it” and

      then turn around an walk away. You can take some time to take care of yourself

      before going back and holding him accountable for his behavior. Carole Banks

      discusses this and other tools for addressing disrespectful, abusive behavior

      in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/disrespectful-child-behavior-dont-take-it-personally/. I know this is a tough situation.

      You may find, however, that when you stop giving his disrespectful behavior

      attention, it will start to lose it’s power and will decrease in it’s

      frequency. We appreciate you writing in and wish you the best of luck moving

      forward. Take care.

    • Salena Blanchard
      Don't let that boy bully you.And if he does it again, you should put your FOOT DOWN. Show him whose boss. And if he does do what is right, by letting him go visit jail for like a day or two.
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