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Why do kids bully and what consequences should follow?

Bullying behavior in children has occurred for centuries. The forms it has taken have become more advanced with the development of technology and social media. However, the purpose is much the same. Bullying is about power.

According to the United States government website Stopbullying.gov:

"Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems."

Whether it be politicians or parents at a sporting event, adults often use language or behaviors that are not kind. Kids are still learning. They learn from others in their environment. Most notably, they learn from the adults in their life and from those celebrity figures that they are exposed to through social media.

Bullying is about power. Kids engage in bullying behavior because they get something out of it. It may be a sense of acceptance from their own peer group or a sense of domination over the well-being of another. Power is difficult to give up. This helps to explain why kids who engage in bullying behaviors sometimes struggle with discontinuing the behavior. In more stubborn situations, a child who bullies others may become more subtle or sophisticated in how they engage in the behavior. Ultimately, they do not want to get caught. Often, children who engage in bullying behavior need repeated consequences to change the behavior.

What parents and school staff can do is become more aware of the power dynamics that are present in their home or school environments. Older siblings and popular children often engage in bullying behavior because of their perceived power. Children with disabilities, children who are younger and children who are perceived as more vulnerable because they are different in some way are more likely to be the targets of bullying attempts. While differences should be celebrated, in the developing years of children and teens, differences are often seen as a form weakness. This is, in part, explained by the fact that children and adolescents have not yet mastered the ability to see other points of view—to walk in someone else's shoes.

Parents and school staff can immediately address bullying behavior when it occurs and reduce the social or emotional reinforcement that is likely to help maintain the behavior. Talking with children who have engaged in the bullying behavior is one step. Identifying appropriate and logical consequences is the next. When kids receive a verbal warning or reprimand, it rarely deters further bullying. On the other hand, if a child bullies a younger sibling, a consequence that includes an apology, doing the younger sibling's chore, or requiring the older child to spend more time with the younger sibling or family members and less time with friends or recreational screens—in order to practice and master respectful behavior towards others—can help children more quickly learn that bullying behaviors have a very real cost.

The immediate consequences for children who bully are really intended to be prevention for a much more serious set of problems that are now well established in the scientific community. Children who engage in bullying behavior are also more likely to engage in substance abuse, drop out of school, have criminal convictions, and be abusive in their romantic relationships or with their children when they become adults.

As parents and educators, this set of challenges is yet one more compelling reason to help eliminate bullying behavior in our children.

Jeff Reiland, MS

Author

Jeff Reiland, MS, Child and Family Therapist, Gundersen Health System

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