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Why labeling kids as bullies is bad

There is increased social and news media attention on the problems associated with bullying.

It is common to hear people refer to the child who engages in bullying behavior as a "bully." This is a short cut in our language that has subtle but very important implications.

Kids are not born or predestined to become bullies. These behaviors are shaped and influenced by the world around them. Most notably, those environments include their home and school environments. While there is no one-size-fits-all in determining which child will grow up to engage in bullying behavior, there are several characteristics that seem to be common themes among many children who bully others.

First, many children who engage in bullying behavior are, themselves, victimized by some form of aggression. This aggression can come in the form of harsh discipline from a parent or bullying from an older sibling. It can also involve bullying from another child in school or daycare. Children learn from their environment and from the relationships around them. They learn to imitate the behaviors of those influential relationships. These patterned and negative interactions can become learned behaviors that are repeated as the child grows older.

Second, children who engage in bullying behavior have more difficulty with empathy. They struggle with imagining the circumstance and plight of another. This is a developmental challenge that all children encounter. As children grow, their ability to see another point-of-view or to imagine another's pain—to have empathy—emerges. With repeated modeling and positive reinforcement over time, children learn how to show compassion for others. Even adults sometimes struggle with imagining and relating to the life or circumstances of another. It is too easy to judge another as "less than," which is what we risk doing when we fall into the trap of labeling children by one word that describes a behavior.

With a simple five-letter word, b-u-l-l-y, we close our minds to consider what else the child is or how they got to that place. Consider how quickly any of us would react if our own child were labeled a "bully." Would we not be quick to point out all of the other ways that they could be defined: nice girl, smart, quick to help others, kind, thoughtful, good leader? Can these qualities co-exist within a child who also bullies? Quite often, they do.

Using thoughtful person first language in describing children who bully helps us be open to pondering the child's own unique story and gives us clues for the strengths or assets the child possesses. These strengths and assets will become the part of the solution for helping that child change their behavior and become more compassionate.

Say this:
Ava made an awful comment about Jane today.

Instead of labeling:
Ava was such a bully at school today.

Say this:
Joe was being mean to me at recess.

Instead of labeling:
Joe was a bully to me at recess.

Say this:
Why are you saying hurtful things about others?

Instead of labeling:
Why are you being a bully?

Say this:
When you participate in bullying behavior, other kids won't want to play with you.

Instead of labeling:
When you are a bully, other kids won't want to play with you.


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

Jeffrey Reiland

1900 South Ave.
La Crosse, WI 54601

(608) 782-7300

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