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When Your Kid Is the Bully

It's the phone call no parent wants to get. The school is on the line, and our son or daughter is accused of bullying. Now what?

The first thing to remember: This does not mean you have a bad kid. You just have a kid who acted badly. "It's never helpful to label kids 'bullies' and 'victims,'" says Marlene Snyder, Director of Development for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which advises schools around the United States on how to prevent bullying.

"Children are changing those roles constantly throughout the day," Snyder says. In other words, the boy who's labeled a bully this afternoon may have been someone else's target that morning.

Yes, bullying is that common. Some 28 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school in the 2008-2009 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It starts in elementary school, when girls are more likely to be targeted than boys, according to the Olweus Program. Then it flips: from 6th grade on, it's the boys who are more likely to suffer bullying.

Who bullies the most? Eighth-grade girls and 12th grade boys, Snyder says. In general, she adds, "kids are more likely to bully others as they get older."

No matter what the age of your child, if she is accused of bullying, you need to talk to her.

"First, try to understand why they are doing whatever they are doing," says Deborah Temkin, Bullying Prevention Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Education.

Sometimes, kids bully others because they want to fit in, Temkin says. Or, they do it because they worry that they will be the group's next target. Other times, there's something troubling them, such as a problem at home, or they're upset because they're not doing well in school, and they take their frustrations out on others, she says.

The next step is to confront the behavior itself.

"Make her understand that what she is doing is wrong," Temkin says.

One way to do that is by role-playing with your child. "Have them put themselves in the other person's shoes," Temkin says. "Help them learn to read other people's body language. If that other person is crossing his arms, or looking unhappy, he may not like what's going on."

Often, kids will think they are just being funny or joking around, "but they may be hurting someone," Temkin says.

Sometimes, they'll deny the charges.

Brenda Weinstock, a retired elementary school principal for the Los Angeles Unified School District, has been there before.

"Many times, the kids are lying," she says. "You say to them, 'You know, I want to believe you, but I've heard from four or five different sources that you did this, so stop it right now. If you didn't do it, then I won't hear about it anymore.'

"I used to say to the kids: 'If it continues, I will know.'"

Finally, make sure your child understands that any further bullying will not be tolerated. "It's one thing to say, 'Don't bully,'" Temkin says. "It's another to follow through—with consequences."

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