Parents never think their child is a bully.
They worry their child isn’t safe at school because of bullies. They wonder whether bullying will get worse, whether it will follow their child home and whether anyone can do anything to stop it.
But of all the parents who talked to The Daily News about bullying, not one worried their child was a bully.
Studies say as many as one-third of children are bullied at school by other children. So who are the parents of those other children?
Some of us are raising bullies
Explaining bullies is complicated, said Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida and an international authority on bullying.
Espelage was a keynote speaker and panelist at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in May in Sweden. Princess Sofia of Sweden, who has a 1-year-old and is expecting another baby, spoke at the beginning of the conference, and surprised the experts, Espelage said.
Some of us are raising bullies, the princess said.
“When you ask kids who the bully is at school, before sixth grade they give different names,” Espelage said. “By sixth grade, they name the same kids.”
Her research has found that among third- to eighth-graders, 17 percent are ringleader bullies and 8 percent are bully-victims.
Ringleader bullies have high social capital and are skilled in understanding who to target and how to manipulate events. They are popular and can charm adults. They bully to dominate others.
Another category of bullies are bully-victims who can’t regulate emotions and were victims of bullying themselves. They bully because they don’t know how to resolve conflicts.
“We’re very concerned about this group,” Espelage said. “They have the highest rates of depression and chance of suicide.”
Children who see bullying or domestic violence at home learn the behavior and repeat it, sometimes at school and sometimes at home, Espelage said.
Spanish researchers in a 2016 study published in the journal “Child Abuse & Neglect” found that parents who were severe in punishing their children were more likely to have children who bullied others.
“Therefore, intervention programs must involve parents to make them aware about the important role they play in this process and to improve their parenting styles,” the researchers said.
‘School climate matters’
Studies show that some children have a genetic predisposition to being bullies, but that switch won’t be turned on in a classroom where people are caring, Espelage said.
“But if I go to school every day, if I see violence there and if I see disrespect, I’m more likely to be a bully,” Espelage said. “School climate matters.”
Teachers can be dismissive of students complaining about bullying or can insist on rigid definitions of bullying that require a formula of repeated behavior, Espelage said. Teachers don’t necessarily get proper training on bully prevention, but if they model proper behavior, it can do a lot to stop a bully from emerging, she said.
Parents can get defensive when outsiders criticize how they’re raising their children or what kind of home environment they provide. Experts understand this and offer parenting classes, but even that remedy can seem condescending.
Instead of telling parents they could be raising a bully, professional therapists should try a different tactic, one Galveston psychologist said.
“Flip it,” Beth Auslander said. She prefers to change negative statements into positive ones and to encourage parents to encourage empathy.
Auslander is mental health director at Galveston-based Teen Health Center Inc. and also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
‘A teachable moment’
Parents can have influence when they supervise, communicate, model behavior or discipline, she said.
“If you are supervising, make it a teachable moment,” Auslander said. “Communicate what you expect to see, not just what you are upset about.”
Changing behaviors such as name calling, spreading rumors, hitting others or texting threats requires empathy, she said.
“It’s taking that other perspective and understanding how it feels,” Auslander said.
If a child wants to hit someone, for example, parents should walk them through the different solutions. They could hit the other person back or call them a name. They could tell a teacher or walk away. The idea is that by talking about it, the child will weed out the negative behaviors and land on a positive choice, Auslander said.
Assertive comebacks can help children deal with peer pressure, and children can practice those with parents.
“It’s more than just saying no,” Auslander said. “It’s pushing the pressure back.”
Changing the subject is another technique that children can practice.
But one of the best tools is teaching empathy, she said.
“Watch shows together,” Auslander said. “What were people experiencing?”
Parents and children can look at characters and talk about their body language, facial expressions and intonation, all clues that tell you what someone else might be feeling, Auslander said.
A cycle of attacks
Parents don’t always help their children by telling them to toughen up and learn how to take unwanted actions or when they suggest retaliating against an aggressor in kind.
“Many parents say fight back,” Espelage said. Her research found that 67 percent of middle-school students say one of their parents told them to fight back if a bully harassed them.
Fighting back continues a cycle of physical attacks, school administrators said.
The irony is that many of the kids who do get in trouble for bullying at school are often the victims of bullying who finally had enough and reacted, juvenile defense attorney Sharon Meier said. She practices law in Galveston County.
And in some school districts, students who bully others face legal charges such as assault or terroristic threat, Meier said.
Consequences of bullying
Teenagers found guilty of crimes face lifelong consequences of not being eligible for certain jobs or other opportunities, she said. Bullying can be a gateway behavior that leads to crime, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
It’s helpful for parents to teach children those consequences of bullying, attorney Dorene Philpot said.
Philpot is a Galveston lawyer who specializes in special education law. Many of her clients have children who have been bullied or have retaliated against bullies.
‘Children are watching’
She tells her clients it’s important to know when to stick up for their children. For example, students who do not pass the STAAR exam are supposed to get intensive remediation services to close the gap and allow them to try to pass it, she said. Another example is that school districts are required to approach a parent and tell the parent that they suspect a child might have a disability such as dyslexia or autism. Parents need to ask the district for evaluations, and do it in a letter to document the request, she said.
“Parents are not aware of their rights and when they become aware of their rights, they become angry,” Philpot said.
That kind of passion parents have for their children’s well-being needs to balance with how parents want their children to act.
“Children are watching at all times,” Auslander said. “They watch how you are addressing conflict.”