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When Your Kid is the Bully

Columnist Maggie Quale explores the gray area between 'kids being kids' and when your own kid is actually the bully.

The horrific tale of 13-year-old Nadin Khoury, whose attack by a gang of bullies was videotaped and posted on YouTube, has been haunting me for weeks. As a mother, my heart literally aches to imagine any child in pain; to see it is simply unbearable.

Consequently, I’ve been hyper-aware of bullies big and small lurking behind every corner lately—in movies like Karate Kid, on reruns of Malcolm in the Middle and on Mission Street, where I see them shouting obscenities at pedestrians out their car windows. But I definitely wasn’t expecting to encounter a pint-sized bully in my own home.

Last week there was a serious rift between my 9-year-old son and his buddies at school. Apparently, the little angels decided to kick one friend out of their bro’ clique. The darlings actually voted and, by process of a democratic caucus, forcibly ejected friend No. 4. His mother was understandably furious. The term “mean kids” was tossed around rather liberally, and their teacher was even brought in to help diffuse the situation.

I was left in the shocking position of being the parent of the bad kid. Not surprisingly, I’ve spent days obsessing about the issue and keep coming back to the same question: Where do we draw the line between “bullying” and “kids just being kids”?

By definition, bullying is a type of abuse, which can be emotional, verbal or physical, and typically involves subtle methods of coercion, such as intimidation and humiliation. Bullying becomes a concern when hurtful or aggressive behavior appears to be unprovoked, intentional and repeated. 

Bullying can stem from a personal dislike for an individual or can take the form of systemic discrimination of a group of people. Last year the term “bullycide” became popular during the rash of teen suicides across the country. Although the highly publicized cases were LGBT youth, bullying is just as frequently about a child’s ethnicity, weight, height, economic background and countless other factors.

Fortunately, California holds some of the most pervasive anti-bullying laws in the nation. According to the Human Rights Campaign, it is one of only 11 states that prohibit bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Unbelievably, there are still 14 states with no anti-bullying laws in place at all.

On March 11, Santa Cruz high school teachers, professors and investigators will tackle the dynamic within our own community in a symposium called, "Victim and Perpetrator: Clinical Portraits of Bullies and the Bullied and Gang-Affiliated Youth." The event is designed to help parents, educators and mental health professionals raise awareness and devise practical solutions.

As a parent, I’m all for practical solutions. We often walk a fine line between encouraging children to be non-retaliatory and becoming victims themselves. The big challenge for us is to remain in a place of compassion AND still teach our children that there is a right and wrong way to behave.

Returning to my own little third-grade bully drama, I am going to go out on a limb to say that my son and his friends aren’t bullies; however, their behavior was “bullyish” and, therefore, 100 percent unacceptable. We came up with some pretty severe consequences for him, because I wanted this incident to function as a significant, teachable moment. 

For starters, we had a very serious conversation about friendship, culminating in massive tears and adolescent hysterics. I made it crystal clear that his actions jeopardized his friendships with his remaining pals, because what parent wants their kids hanging out with friends who act like thugs when they’re together? That really got his attention.

At the end of our chat he was asked to write a heartfelt and honest letter to friend No. 4. I heard through the grapevine that the next day at school, he gathered the other culprits together and apologized, face-to-face. There were other consequences, too, of course. He lost playdates for 10 days. Video games have been unplugged indefinitely.

But my main goal was not just to punish him, rather to incite some empathy by helping him to understand how lonely, powerless and hurt his ousted friend felt. Imagining himself losing his friends as a result of his actions was the tipping point. As he cried that day in his bedroom, I pointed out that friend No. 4 probably went home and cried, too. I asked how it felt to know he made someone feel so sad and scared. I think he got it.

The reality is that all kids, teens and even adults are going to be bullied at some point or another. Conversely, we will all have moments when we act like big fat jerks ourselves. I think the difference between a child acting like a bully and being a bully is decided in the countless small moments like this. I truly hope I was able to advocate for my little bully in this situation, just as fiercely as I would have advocated for him had he been the victim.

If you want to read more, the California Department of Education offers tons of free helpful resources and publications on bullying and teaching tolerance: cde.ca.gov/ls/ss/se/bullyres.asp.

For more information on the "Victim and Perpetrator: Clinical Portraits of Bullies and the Bullied, and Gang-Affiliated Youth" symposium, visit: calcianoyouthsymposium.org.

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