published Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Upton: Is your child a bully?

No parent wants to hear that their child is being bullied at school, but few consider the fact that their own beloved child may sometimes be the bully.

Bullying behavior can range from taunting others, excessive pranking, social humiliation, rejection and outcasting of certain individuals to outright fighting, cyber gossip and the spreading of vicious rumors -- all manner of targeted aggressive behavior on someone perceived to be more vulnerable.

The reasons vary for why children and adolescents bully. Some popular, outgoing and assertive children bully simply because their social position allows them to include some in their own group and exclude others. Sometimes children may feel they have been mistreated in some way and feel justified in lashing out in anger. Others have a strong emotional need for dominance and act out this need for control on those they have a physical, emotional or situational advantage over.

Studies suggest that some children who are playground bullies may grow up to become adults with a tendency toward criminal behavior, but parents should know this is not necessarily the case for many children. Some kids bully without realizing their behavior could be classified as such. In these instances, educating them on appropriate behavior and giving firm and consistent consequences for the times they veer off might be especially helpful.

Experts point to the fact that often children who bully lack a strong sense of empathy in these situations, which in simplified terms is the ability to sense, anticipate and have compassion for what others are feeling. Teaching empathy has been shown to be extremely helpful in curtailing bullying behavior. A school-based program called Roots of Empathy has had a 90 percent success rate in decreasing bullying behavior in children.

The concept, created by a woman named Mary Gordon, is simple and amazingly affective. An infant is brought into an elementary school classroom several times throughout the course of a year. The children are invited to gather around and become familiar with the baby's cues. If the child cries, they discuss what may be wrong. If the baby throws a tantrum, they are invited to give ideas for what he or she may be feeling, such as anger or frustration.

In so doing, the students develop a vocabulary for emotions and learn to recognize them in others. They are asked to tell of times in their own lives when they have had similar emotions -- thus helping them to develop insight and self-knowledge. As they uncover difficult emotions, they sense their connection with others.

The idea is that this live interactive experience helps children learn social and emotional competence in a much more potent way than lecturing them about these skills ever would. As they grow in empathy, they are less likely to be aggressive toward others.

Signs that your child may tend toward bullying behavior:

• Aggressive behavior (which can be directed toward both children and adults) such as pushing and teasing others.

• Exhibiting dominating and manipulative behavior.

• Often able to talk his or her way out of tough situations.

• Being easily frustrated, having a high need for control.

• Frequent behavioral complaints from friends, parents, teachers.

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Some helpful resources on bullying include Tennessee Voices for Children and StopBullying.gov.

Email Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

about Tabi Upton...

Tabi Upton, MA-LPC is a therapist at New Beginnings Counseling Center.

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