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No parent likes to think that their child might be aggressive or mean to a peer, or engage in bullying behaviors, and yet it obviously happens. Twenty percent of tweens and teens say they’ve been bullied. Someone is on the other side.

So what do you do when you realize your child has been the abuser, either because someone tells you or because you see it yourself? And how can you all move forward productively?

Don’t panic, but don’t dismiss it.

“It’s important not to panic if this happens. Equally important is not to automatically dismiss the report as bogus, ”said Elizabeth Englander, executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. “Children who are essentially good and friendly can still experience bullying behaviors because these behaviors can be a way to increase their social power.”

A child who has social difficulties might “try” bullying as a way to test whether they can gain more attention or admiration from their classmates, Englander explained.

Start by accepting that yes, your child may have done things that don’t align with your family’s values. Their behavior can seem really bad. But you also have the power to take immediate action and try to prevent this from happening again.

Make sure you understand what bullying means.

An increased awareness of the pervasiveness and harmfulness of bullying is good, but experts say it’s also caused us to become a bit slack with the tongue. It is important to distinguish between conflict (sometimes disagreeable and even aggressive disagreement, but both parties are on an equal footing) and bullying behaviors (which are unwanted, aggressive, intentional and repetitive).

It’s not just a question of semantics. Using the correct terminology means that when you speak with, say, your child’s teacher, you are both clear about the seriousness of the problem and whether it represents a role model.

And everyone should avoid the label “bully”.

“The language around this topic is important because it influences how students involved in a situation are viewed,” said Bailey Huston, coordinator at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Instead of labeling a child as a ‘bully,’ consider using the terms ‘bullying child’ or ‘child with bullying behavior.’ This recognizes first and foremost that they are a child and secondly, they have shown specific behavior. “

Talk to your child about the “why”.

Once you find out that your child has done something unacceptable – whether or not they meet all of the criteria for bullying behavior – it is your responsibility as a parent to at once talk about what’s going on. The conversation must be open and non-judgmental, Englander said. What you are looking for is to understand why they behaved (or still behave) this way.

“It allows them to explore what they may be feeling and talk about factors that can lead to that behavior, such as peer pressure or the harassment themselves,” Englander said. Then you can work to help them.

“Be completely unambiguous with your child that his behavior is unacceptable. “

It is also a chance for you to be very clear about what bullying behavior is and to be explicit that it is completely inappropriate or that your family tolerates something.

Emphasize that what matters is action, not intention.

Your child may seem genuinely surprised to be called out for their behavior, saying something like “Oh, that was just a joke”. Or, “he laughed while I was doing it.”

At this point, it is your responsibility to make it clear that there is a difference between joking (where all parties have fun) and teasing (where a person feels hurt or belittled). Explain that even a child who laughed in the moment might have done it to save face with his peers, but deep down he was really hurt.

“What we want to teach children is that it’s the impact of behavior [that matters], not the intention, ”said Carrie Goldman, author of“ Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending The Cycle Of Fear ”.

Your child may not have wanted to be mean, but that’s not what matters. It is your responsibility to make this distinction clearly.

Develop an action plan – and define the consequences.

Bullying behavior can absolutely be stopped, but it requires quick and focused action. Think about who else should be involved, Huston said, such as school staff, and work with them to come up with a specific, step-by-step plan of action. They are experts, so don’t panic if you’re not sure what to do. It’s your job to ask them what they’re doing, what you can do to help them, and to make sure you’re all working towards a specific goal.

Talking to your child’s pediatrician is also a good idea, Englander said. See if your child should be referred for evaluation with a mental health care provider – emphasizing that you are worried, not angry.

At the same time, you should also be completely unambiguous with your child that their behavior is unacceptable.

“Make your expectations straightforward and provide clear and consistent consequences for the bullying,” Englander said. “Be specific about what will happen if the bullying continues and try to find meaningful consequences that match the situation.”

Stay realistic.

Even after you’ve taken all of these steps and even though you feel like you’ve been proactive in tackling your child’s bullying behaviors – understand that they may not go away overnight. Again, don’t panic.

“It takes time to change behavior,” Huston said. “Recognize that there can be setbacks and be patient as your child learns new ways to deal with feelings and conflict. The most important thing is to keep your love and support visible.

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