When Your Kid is the Bully

Seven mindful strategies to help your children learn from their mistakes and heal the rifts they create with those around them.

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Every parent has had (or will have) that moment when your perfect child pushed another kid on the playground, or you get a call home that it was your little angel who was the bully in a schoolyard or snapchat incident everyone is talking about. And what are we to do?

First, we practice a little self-compassion ourselves. This can start with just noting to ourselves the pain, shame and disappointment we feel, before connecting to the universal human experience that yes, all parents will experience this at some point. And then, heart a little more open, and head a bit more clear, we move toward action with our child. But what is the best action to take? Do we make them apologize on the playground? Who is the apology really for—to soothe the other child, to teach our kid a lesson, or to placate the cross-armed parent staring us down as they wipe tears from their own child’s cheeks?

Still, some considerations are worth digging into when it comes to those playground apologies. We all know how the power of an authentic apology can be profound. Many of us who recall forced apologies growing up probably primarily recall more vividly the smug smirk by the apologizer the moment the adjudicating adult turned their back. And forced apologies can unwittingly teach kids that apologies are “get out of jail free” cards.

As parents, we need to look honestly at the efficacy of those artificial apologies. Who are we actually trying to make feel better—the other child, their parents, or ourselves? Sure, forcing your kid to apologize can be a handy social lubricant on the playground, but some other approaches are worth considering when you have the time or an understanding parent friend.

As parents, we need to look honestly at the efficacy of those artificial apologies. Who are we actually trying to make feel better—the other child, their parents, or ourselves?

7 Mindful Strategies For Kids Who Bully

1. Help kids make amends rather than apologies.  More effective at instilling lessons than apologies are amends. Amends are not apologies per se, but fixes and improvements (consider amendments to the Constitution). I recently watched my friend Julia suggest that her older son check in with her younger son to see if there was anything he could do to make it better after the older one had knocked over the younger one while playing. The younger boy responded that he wanted a hug, and the older offender offered one. I remarked on the profundity of the moment, and Julia laughed, saying, “It doesn’t usually go that smoothly, but that’s what we’re sort of aiming for.”

2. Keep your cool while guiding your children to respond. It helps to keep our own cooltoo, through mindfulness or whatever else might help us respond with clarity, like a brief self-compassion practice. Because when we jump on kids to apologize for a minor infraction, we may inadvertently drive them deeper into defensiveness. If they’ve just been in a conflict, their little fight or flight responses brains are already flaring from the stress of a conflict, and in no place to think things through with their prefrontal cortex. Worse, if our children associate apologies with shame or punishment, they are unlikely to spontaneously apologize in the long run. This is why Jane Nelson (author of Positive Discipline) recommends “connecting before correcting”—get down to the child’s level and help them calm down if they just experienced conflict. Compassion shuts down when amygdala is activated, so finding calm first is key. Doing this allows them to bring their insular and prefrontal cortices online, which enables them to take the other child’s perspective and find a creative resolution to the conflict.

3. Guide them through a recap. Once calm, we might help kids reflect on how their behavior made the other child feel, encourage them to reach out and see what they can do for the other child (if the other kid is willing)—whether this means an apology, a hug, or simply handing back the stolen toy. Kids who learn to make things right in this way are found to act more altruistically down the road.

4. Allow the timing to be right. Sometimes we are in a rush, especially when there are multiple kids in meltdown mode. In these moments, do what you need to do to help everyone find their calm, then later, perhaps on the drive home (one of my favorite places for non threatening conversations, and a captive audience) you can talk through or even role-play what an appropriate amends might be. Some useful questions (again from Jane Nelson) include the following:

  • What happened, and why?
  • What were the results, and how did they affect you and others?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can you make it better?

5. Know when consequences should follow an amends. Sometimes a consequence might still be in order, but if a child can make authentic amends, our validating and encouraging that prosocial behavior is far better than punishment for its own sake. If we create a space in which children feel safe, calm, and non-defensive, they’ll be far more likely to make amends or apologize on their own.

6. Model and practice making amends. We can also practice apologizing and making amends for our children, with our partners friends, and with them. Heck, we can even model self-forgiveness, which is incredibly important for kids to learn. Just as important is to model accepting amends and apologies from others and practicing forgiveness and letting go of resentment.

7. Share stories of your own mistakes. Once the storm has blown over, share stories about times in life we made mistakes, wish we could have behaved differently or made a heartfelt apology or amends. Relating with our children in this way not only changes the culture of our family but also nudges our larger communities toward problem solving, connection, and forgiveness—and away from perpetuating a punitive culture of “zero tolerance” for ourselves and others. Take some time to reflect on how it feels for you to make amends. What are your values around making amends or apologies? What were you taught as a child? How do you model these for your kids? When was the last time you apologized or made amends to your partner or someone else in front of your children?