What am I to do? My son is a bully

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years.
Send questions through her Facebook page, Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale, or via rachelbiale@gmail.com.

I am heartbroken and embarrassed to write this, but I must face the truth: My son is a bully. It started inconspicuously in third grade when he teased some of the younger, less athletic kids in his class. But now — he is in fifth grade — I see that he’s turned into a bully. I want to blame the two other boys in his “little gang,” but that’s a copout.

He used to be pleasant and cooperative at home (he’s an only child, so no sibling relationship issues), but recently I have noticed some of that behavior leeching into our family life. He’s ornery, speaks to us in a dismissive tone and rolls his eyes when we reprimand him or make requests and demands.

My husband says I’m overreacting, but I think he’s in denial. He has a “man’s man” exterior himself and says our son is just a typical boy. I don’t even know where to start. Help! — Worried in Petaluma

Dear Worried: You are wise — and brave — to write about this. While there’s plenty of advice and support for parents and kids being bullied, there’s not nearly enough for the bullies. You are absolutely right to be concerned. If it turns out your worries are justified, intervening early is crucial.

Begin with a systematic investigation: Inquire if your son’s teachers and schoolyard attendants have noticed any bullying. If your son hangs out with two other bullies, he may be clever enough to hide his tracks, so ask about the behavior of the other boys (letting the school know you will maintain confidentiality). You might consider hiring a child therapist or other appropriate professional (e.g., a shadow teacher already at the school who assists special-needs kids) to observe your son a few times.

If you discover that, indeed, your son is bullying, you need to address it directly with him, in a way that is firm and supportive. If you don’t trust yourself and your husband to pull this off, get help — from a therapist, a youth counselor, your rabbi or a trusted friend who’s “good with kids.”

Make it clear to your son that:

1. Bullying is unacceptable and is a behavior that often escalates with time and will land him in bigger trouble.

2. You understand that it’s coming from serious distress inside him and that you will be supportive and help him with whatever it may be. You should consider the following possibilities (among others, based on what you know about your son).

Is he feeling isolated, lonely, unable to make the kind of friends he really wants? This is often the underlying cause of bullying. Is he depressed? Is he insecure about his academic abilities? Anxious about athletic achievement or other competitive activities? Worried about his sexual/gender identity? Showing other signs of distress, such as lying, stealing?

3. Let him know there are programs to help him overcome bullying. These can take a variety of forms, including individual and/or group therapy or joining an anti-bullying campaign for kids. Start with the locally based Beyond Differences (www.beyonddifferences.org), which trains teens to champion school communities where no one is marginalized, and No Bully (www.nobully.org), which provides in-school interventions. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center has a simple “Do You Bully?” checklist, perhaps overly simple, but a good place to start (www.pacerkidsagainstbullying.org/kab/do-you-bully).

4. Ask yourself: Are there subtle behaviors at home (or on his sports team) that may give the impression that bullying is cool? It can be as innocuous as kidding around in a mock-bullying way. Don’t overlook violent TV programs or videos games, as well.

What you hope will follow these conversations is sufficient insight into why your son is bullying. (Be patient — it’ll take time, overcoming false starts, some denial and anger.) Next you want to help him understand the impact of his behavior and develop empathy for his victims. After arriving at this point, he needs to make new friends — in and out of school. Finally comes engagement in an alternative: joining an anti-bullying campaign at his school or with another local group.

Rachel Biale