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Why Punishment Won't Stop Your Child From Being A Bully

There's a big difference between 'punishment' and 'discipline'.

01/06/2016 9:52 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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27 percent of students are being bullied ‘every few weeks or more often’.

No one likes to imagine their child is a bully. But with one in four Year 4 to Year 9 Australian students (27 percent) reportedly being affected by bullying, we can't ignore a) the fact it's happening, and b) that there are some children out there who must be responsible.

So, as a parent, what do you do if your child is the culprit? And is there any way you can tell?

Warning signs

"First of all, it's quite hard to know if your child is the bully unless you witness something or hear of something," Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia's leading parenting experts and author of the parenting best seller 21 Days To A Happier Family, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"If the child is being the bully, then they are probably coming home from school and being fine. They don't have anything to hide from you, they aren't coming home with ripped shirts or cuts or bruises, they're not coming home and going to their bedroom in tears.

"The thing with being the bully is you're at the top of the tree, you're the king of the heap and everything is fine."

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Chances are, if your child is bullying, you'll either be informed of the fact by someone involved (for example, a teacher or another parent) or you'll accidentally make the discovery yourself.

"You might overhear conversations with peers, or, as parents are constantly being encouraged to monitor or supervise their children's actions online, you might -- say if you monitor their iPad -- come across something unkind, or something of a bullying nature being spoken or shared," Coulson said.

"Or you'll get a phone call from the school saying your child has been involved in a bullying incident, but they are not the victim.

"Whether it's your child [leading the incident] or your child is somehow involved, the decision then is what to do. This is where it gets really tough​."

Research into bullying is still telling us we are failing. Bullying interventions are not working.

What to do

According to Coulson, the way in which we are currently dealing with bullying is proving by and large to be ineffective.

"Our typical way of responding to bullies only makes bullying a bigger problem," Coulson said. "The typical things that we do means we actually become bullies ourselves. Because when you look up the definition of bullying, it is basically repeated attempts to cause emotional, physical or psychological harm to a person, or even social harm, by excluding them.

"If you think of the typical way of responding to a bully, it's repeatedly and intentionally trying to cause harm to them by punishing them, isolating them, excluding interaction with others -- so we, in our attempts to stop bullying, become bullies ourselves.

"And it's not working. Research into bullying is still telling us we are failing. Bullying interventions are not working."

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Would you know if your child was bullying?

In fact, Coulson believes we should ditch the idea of punishing children for bullying altogether, though he is keen to highlight the difference between 'punishment' and 'discipline'. (But more on that later.)

"If we come across a child that is bullying, if we discover it's our child, the number one thing we need to do is not punish them," he said. "I'm not suggesting we get all lovey dovey and soft and cuddly, but there's no point giving kids any kind of punishment when they don't have empathy or respect for another person.

"Punishment won't teach them that. Punishment just makes them more selfish and less empathetic.

"Think about the things you might say if you discover your child has been involved in a bullying incident. 'If I ever find out you've been bullying again, so help me, you are going to wish you were never born'.

"What you're likely to get back is 'don't worry, Dad. You'll never catch me bullying again'. And what they mean by that is 'I'll be much sneakier next time'. What you're doing is pushing that behaviour underground, and making them more sneaky, so they don't get sprung."

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Behold, the teenage death stare in all its glory.

Why it happens

A more effective practice, Coulson says, is to try to figure out why the child was bullying in the first place.

"I want to stress this doesn't excuse their behaviour at all -- put that in capital letters if you need to -- but it does help us understand where it's coming from. Once we know that, then we can do something about it rather than resorting to punishment."

According to Coulson, there are three main reasons as to why your child might be bullying.

"It could be their relationship needs are being thwarted at home, or they are feeling incompetent, or it could be they are constantly being controlled and so want to control other people."

Relationship problems

"I want to tell you about one boy I worked with who was was bullying. He was six years old and things were so bad, he threatened to kill another student. Seriously. The student had an anaphylaxic reaction to peanuts and the six-year-old took peanuts to school and threatened to kill him," Coulson told HuffPost Australia.

"What we found was his family had fallen apart at home. His Dad had left for another woman, and his Mum was dealing with four kids under the age of six. She was also highly reactive and, quite frankly, not coping. So his home life was in tatters.

"While this doesn't excuse his behaviour, it does help us understand why he was acting out in this way. We needed to focus on building a solid, secure relationship for him at home, so he didn't feel like he he had to behave in monstrous ways to get help."

It's important to remember bullying isn't always about low self esteem. Sometimes the child actually does think they are better, entitled, and can do what they want.

Competence

"Sometimes kids will bully because they feel like they are incompetent," Coulson said. "They feel like they are dumb, they can't read very well or keep up in class, and are jealous of the smart alecs.

"So they tease the kids who are nerds.

"Of course, this is a very simplistic view of the situation, but it is a viable explanation for a child's behaviour."

Autonomy

"Sometimes, if a child is being raising in a very, very controlling environment, he or she think it's appropriate to control others.

"It's important to remember bullying isn't always about low self esteem. Sometimes the child actually does think they are better, entitled, and can do what they want."

What to do next (discipline vs. punishment)

"Discipline does not mean punish. Discipline means teaching good ways to act. It is my belief, if your child is bullying, they don't need to be punished, they need to be disciplined," Coulson said.

"If you want a child to listen to what you have to say, they need to feel understood. They won't listen otherwise."

Once the child does feel understood, Coulson advises parents to invest time in the relationship and work hard to take their perspective.

"Ask yourself: what need is not being met? Why do they feel that need?"

If you have a kid doesn't feel like they can trust you, you are going to get 'I dunno' answers at every turn. If the trust is there, you are going to get more productive answers.

He also suggests setting clear limits as to what behaviour is appropriate and what's not.

"The best way is to do that is to encourage them to take the perspective of the other child," Coulson said. "So instead of saying, 'don't do it anymore or you're not going on that holiday,' try asking, 'when you did that to that boy at school, how do you think he felt? What do you think he's talking about with his parents tonight? How do you think he feels about coming to school tomorrow knowing he is going to see you again?'

"If you have a kid doesn't feel like they can trust you, you are going to get 'I dunno' answers at every turn. If the trust is there, you are going to get more productive answers.

"Once they start to see the perspective, you don't need to tell them what to do. You ask them. They come up with the answers. They know it's not okay, and they will know how to fix it."

Keen to find out more? Justin will be speaking at the National Centre Against Bullying Conference held on the 28th and 29th of July 2016 at the Crown Conference Centre, Melbourne.

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