Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents. She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz boy with arms crossed 150x150 My Sons a Bully. What Can I Do?Question:

My 8-year-old son has been labelled a bully by his teacher and some of the other parents. He’s a kind, sensitive child who used to be curious and enthusiastic, but is becoming increasingly unhappy. What can we do?


Bullying has become a hot-button issue. Some schools are establishing ‘zero-tolerance programs’ where 7-year-olds who hit other 7-year-olds are suspended from school, and parents are indignant when their kids are involved on the losing side of a normal dispute. So, while you have to take bullying accusations seriously, you should start by talking with your son about his perspective on what’s happening and why. It might not be as bad as it seems.

That being said, these accusations can’t be taken lightly, either. You need to work out a game plan with your son so he’s not the victim of any more of these accusations. That means understanding what bullying is, and why he might be engaging in it, and then it means working to prevent it in future.

Kids who are labeled bullies often feel like victims. Your son might be trying to address perceived slights, to prevent others attacking first, to get attention, to be liked by others, or to gain some kind of social power. His bullying behavior might be an immature and clumsy attempt to avoid being (further) victimized, although of course this is not how most teachers or parents interpret bullying when it happens. Alternatively (or additionally), his bullying might stem from feelings of entitlement and contempt for others. If that’s the case, there are probably self-esteem issues too, resulting from (as well as perpetuating) a lack of meaningful friendships.

The best bullying antidotes emphasize community, respect, empathy, and friendship-building. Start by taking a look at what goes on at home—families with a climate of mutual respect are less likely to produce kids who bully, whereas families where the parents are demanding, angry, directive, and unresponsive produce more than their share.

Help your son learn more effective problem-solving and relationship-building skills. That means showing him how to be more tolerant of others, stop taking offense so easily, and think before going on the offensive. Specifically, help him learn

  1. to talk with you or someone else he can trust about his issues, concerns, and questions as they arise;
  2. to identify when he’s taking offense at what someone has said or done;
  3. to refrain from responding immediately to words or actions he finds offensive;
  4. to think about whether there might be an innocent, reasonable, or even benign motivation for another person’s comments or behavior;
  5. to consider ways to respond to the good intentions that might underlie the words or actions he finds offensive; and
  6. to build networks of social support, involving other kids as well as adults.

Children who feel good about themselves and are proud of their achievements are less likely to participate in bullying activities, so you can also help your son by celebrating his individuality and achievements. Look for meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for him. Working together with others on projects that interest him can be a great catalyst for meaningful interest-based relationships that can help him acquire the social skills he needs to make friends and keep them. Give him lots of love, encouragement, and affection, of course.

If all of this doesn’t help, find a counselor with expertise working with kids with bullying issues.

This topic is very much in the public eye right now, and there are lots of great resources out there.

For more information:

Thirty blogs featuring advice on stopping bullying:

Ten psychology studies that shed light on the nature of bullying:

Carrie Goldman’s book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear. For an excerpt:

Resources from the Cyberbullying Research Center:

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What do you think?

One Response to “My Son’s a Bully. What Can I Do?”

  1. Smart Kids, Bullying, and Cyberbullying: Complications, Solutions, and Prevention | Raising Smarter Kids Says:

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