A View From a Bully’s Parent

We asked mom Maggie Vink to give us her view as a bully’s parent in hopes that it will spur other parents to get help for their kids who are bullies.

       The inner Mama Bear. I think all parents have that desire to stand up 
and protect their kids when they’re being hurt or wronged in any way. But while it is a parent’s job to advocate for and protect our children, if we’re not honest about our kid’s behavior we’re missing a great opportunity for education. 

       I adopted my son just before he started fourth grade. Soon after starting school, he came home with stories about this kid or that kid being mean to him. My inner Mama Bear was riled but — being a newbie parent — I wasn’t sure exactly what to do about it. Should I call the school? Call the other parents? While I hesitated on the best way to support my son, I did talk to him about how to handle the situation — I suggested ignoring it, playing with different kids, or telling an adult. What I didn’t do, was pause and question whether the story my son was telling me was the whole truth.

      One day I had the opportunity to go to my son’s school and watch the kids playing on the playground. Just sitting back and watching your child interact with a group is something all parents should do from time to time. What I saw surprised me… and not in a good way. My son was continuously being unfair or downright mean to other kids. He was literally pushing and shoving kids in order to be first in line. When playing basketball, he’d hog the ball and never pass it to teammates even when there was no way for him to get a shot. He would boot others out of the pitching position in kickball and then wouldn’t give up the position long after it should have been someone else’s turn. While he never called any other kids names or said mean things, he was clearly ignoring the needs and wants of other kids in order to get his own way. What’s more, he was joyfully playing and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was hurting the others’ feelings.

      While I believed his behavior to be unintentional and I knew he didn’t have any desire to hurt others, my son was being selfish. He was being unkind. He was being a bully.

      My son spent his first ten years in complete inconsistency, bouncing from home to home in the foster care system. While he was blessed to have several good foster homes, each had a different set of rules, each had different levels of involvement in his life, and he switched schools with each move he made. What’s more, when he was very young and still with his birth family, my son had had literally no exposure to other children and no opportunity to develop social skills.

       I immediately began working on social skills with my son. We talked about being a good friend and I’d make sure he treated me fairly when we were playing board games or kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard. I also watched all of my son’s soccer practices and would later discuss situations with him — trying to show him how other kids felt when he rudely stepped in front of them in order to be the first in a drill.

       My son was still having a difficult time seeing how his behavior could hurt others, yet he was acutely aware of how they could make him feel. It wasn’t long before his behavior on the school playground started to annoy and frustrate other kids. One group of boys in particular started making a daily habit of following my son around and quietly taunting him. They’d tease him, call him names, and encourage the other kids to exclude my son from play. My son had gone from being the bully to being bullied.

       My son’s school had a zero tolerance policy on bullying. While I believe the system to be good in theory, it’s unfortunately flawed. When the other boys would taunt and tease my son, my quick-to-anger child would fight back loudly and without concern of being caught. Subsequently, my son would get in trouble and the boys who repeatedly teased him would get off with no consequences at all.

       I could have just let the inner Mama Bear in me out. I could have fought with the school, denying that my maligned child deserved any consequences and arguing that the other kids were the real ones who needed punishment. I could have seen my son as completely innocent in the situation. But that would have done my son no good whatsoever.

       It was my job to talk to the school, accept the appropriate consequences my son was given, and to try to make sure that all kids involved were given consequences . And it was also my job to recognize that my son had a played a significant role in his playground woes and to help him overcome it.

       Bullying isn’t always clear cut. It’s not necessarily that “bad kids” are bullies and “good, innocent kids” are bullied. Sometimes it’s just low self esteem, poor social skills, or previous hurts that lead a child to act like a bully.

       Instead of letting my inner Mama Bear take over, I took a proactive stance. I enrolled my son in a bullying/social skills class at his therapy clinic, friendship skills became a frequent topic with his therapist, I invited other kids over to our house for one-on-one playtime that I could observe, I worked closely with my son’s teacher, I watched my son’s sports practices and games, and how to “think like a friend” became an ongoing lesson in our house. I also worked with my son on developing empathy and taught him how to read body language. 

       My son doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. When he started to understand how his behavior made other kids feel is when his behavior started to improve. My son has been with me for several years now — he’s lived with me longer than he ever lived with any one foster home. His social behavior has improved by leaps and bounds, but it continues to be a work in progress. He still likes to be first in line for everything and has to fight down that urge. He still wants to be quarterback or pitcher or goalie and has to actively remember to give other kids a turn. And he has to work hard to control his angry reactions when other kids aren’t very nice to him. But he’s more generous now, he pays attention to other’s feelings, and he’s more fair when playing. He now has a large group of great kids he can truly call friends — had his social skills not improved, I sincerely doubt that he would have these friends.

       It’s extremely hard as a parent to admit that your child can be a bully. But how can we help our kids if we aren’t honest about their behavior? My son isn’t a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination. But if I had simply fought to protect him when the other kids were teasing and excluding him, I would have missed the root of the problem. I would have missed the opportunity to teach my son how to be a better friend. And my son would have missed out on the opportunity to have real, non-combative friendships like he enjoys today.

What to do if your child is a bully

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