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How To Parent: Understanding Bullying Behavior

The Truth About Bullies

The Truth About BulliesThe public perception of bullying is that bullies are acting out to cover their own fears. They may indeed be afraid, but accepting this as a reason makes bullies sound like victims of their fears — like we’re supposed to feel sorry for them and not hold them responsible for their abusive actions.

The issue is not whether bullies are afraid. Bullies bully other people to feel powerful around them and to feel power over them. Bullies start out feeling like zeroes, like nobodies. When they intimidate, threaten or hurt someone else, then they feel like somebody. The key is the feeling of power.

We often think of the child bully as being male, but the percentage of girls who intimidate their classmates and siblings is increasing dramatically. Bullying doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, either. Whether bullies are at home, at school, or they’re threatening and intimidating other kids on the Internet, they’re going to act out to make themselves feel powerful. Many kids who are bullies at school are bullies at home. The most common victims are their innocent siblings.

What are the consequences of bullying? You may have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when it comes to sexual victimization or assault. PTSD can occur any time people feel they have no control over the way their pain is delivered. They live in fear, not knowing when they’re going to be hurt. Kids who are constantly bullied and not protected will develop symptoms of PTSD — constant anxiety, constant fear, idiosyncratic behaviors to compensate for those feelings. They’ll fall behind in their development.

Dealing with bullies requires holding them strictly accountable for the abusive, hurtful or disrespectful things that they do to feel powerful. They need to practice appropriate ways to feel powerful — using social skills, articulating their feelings, communicating honestly with others and solving problems. Those skills are difficult to develop. It takes work; it’s like learning how to multiply or learning how to add. But it can be done. Holding bullies accountable for inappropriate behavior gives them boundaries and gives them a roadmap for doing that work.

If your child is a bully

If your child starts to exhibit bullying behavior, the first thing to do is realize it’s something you need to address. You can’t kid yourself that it will go away on its own. If adolescent bullies are not stopped, and not taught more appropriate ways to solve problems, they become abusive parents, spouses and bosses. We all feel powerless at times, but there are better ways to deal with that than to abuse other people.

You as the parent have to set a standard: No excuse for abuse. There’s no excuse for cursing someone out, for breaking something, for hitting anyone. The bully always has an excuse, a way to justify this behavior. This justification is so powerful that it takes the place of empathy for the other person. That’s why you have to have a no-excuse standard.

A kid may curse out his sister and say foul things to her and then make up some justification about what she was doing to him — “She went into my room again” or “She wouldn’t get off the computer.” Let the kid tell you the excuse, and then reiterate, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Don’t shut off communication, but don’t validate the thinking errors that go into the justification of abusive actions. There should be consequences for abuse. Later, you can talk about appropriate ways to handle a problem.

If your child is bullied

If your child is a victim of bullying, it may be because he is the sort of child who has difficulty standing up for himself. Bullies look for easy targets, because that makes them feel powerful. If you can teach a child not to respond to bullying, to walk away, bullies are less likely to press that child.

The most effective strategies for dealing with bullies are “avoid” and “escape.” These are things you can teach your children: Avoid bullies when you can. Walk away from them if they’re in your vicinity. If you’re being bullied and that doesn’t work, you need to get help from somebody who has more power than the bully. You shouldn’t have to fight because somebody else is a bully. Go to someone who has more power than the bully, like the teacher or the police. Teach your child that he has to hold that person responsible. Getting hit in school is still assault, and parents shouldn’t back off if that happens. You want the other kid’s parents down at the police station. You want them to be as uncomfortable as you are.

It hurts to be bullied, and this fact should never be minimized. Teachers, parents and school officials are sometimes inclined to say, “Well, they’re only kids. It happens.” It shouldn’t happen, and it’s adults’ responsibility to provide a healthy environment for our children. The best schools are the ones who develop a zero tolerance for violence and zero tolerance for bullying, and parents should demand that and support it.

At the same time, if your child is experiencing abuse at the hands of another child, ask this question: “What would you find helpful?” Find out what your child would find helpful to improve the situation. Here’s why this is important. If a child is being bullied at school and his parents just take over the situation, then he’s powerless on both ends. Be encouraging, give him a chance to work it out, offer some help and ideas. But also let him know that if it’s still a problem, you’re going to step in and protect him.

The Truth About Bullies reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: How To Decide If Kids Need Medication

Out of Control Behavior: Should I Medicate My Child?

Out of Control Behavior: Should I Medicate My Child?The recent death of a four-year-old Massachusetts girl from an overdose of medications for ADHD and bipolar disorder has brought the issue of medicating children for behavior problems to the forefront of public consciousness. While this sad case shows the extreme end of the issue, it reminds us of the fork in the road many parents face daily. We have a behavior problem. Should I medicate my child? The question of medication is a complicated one, and many parents have understandable reservations on medical, moral or spiritual grounds. This month in Empowering Parents, James Lehman takes a candid, straight-ahead look at what medication can and cannot do for your child.

James Lehman:
It’s natural for parents to look to the medical system when they are faced with out-of-control behavior. If the child is diagnosed as having some medical condition — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example, or depression — the parents may breathe a sigh of relief. “At last! We know what’s wrong, and there’s medication for it.”

Unfortunately, a diagnosis and medication aren’t always a solution. Medications that target behavior problems are at best a shot in the dark and at worst can have many undesirable side effects and alter the child’s personality. Often, the medication that works on one child won’t work on the next one, so a period of trial and error may have to take place, requiring patience from the parent and the child. Even the diagnoses can be slippery when it comes to adolescents. Depression, which can be treated medically, can look like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which cannot be treated medically.

Parents need to know that medications aren’t meant to change specific behaviors. What they may do is rebalance some chemicals in the brain to give the child who is taking them a longer fuse or a little more flexibility in thinking about a situation. Kids who are acting out often turn to a fight-or-flight response. If a medication is working well, it won’t change this tendency toward “fight or flight,” but it may give these kids a little extra time to consider the best thing to do.

If you and your doctor determine that medication is the best choice for your child, be observant as your child starts the medication. Look for signs of behavior change. It is possible that they may occur. More likely what you may find is an increased receptivity to alternate problem-solving techniques. A longer fuse or more patience, for example. Then realize that the pills don’t teach the actual problem-solving techniques; it’s up to the adult to teach them and up to the child to learn them.

If a medication is working well, parents should see an increase in ability to focus on tasks such as homework and chores. Conversely, a child who simply becomes lethargic or unemotional is probably not benefiting from the medication, because he is not receptive to learning new problem-solving skills and may need a different medication, a different diagnosis or even a different approach to the problem.

For some young people, psychoactive medications can mean the difference between being functional and doing the work of growing up, and being a constant behavior problem, with all the consequences that implies. I’ve also seen children and teenagers be put on medication who didn’t need it. Their problem didn’t have a medical basis. They needed to learn problem-solving skills, and their parents were not properly trained to teach them these skills.

The key thing to remember is this: With or without medication, many young people who have behavior problems are best treated by creating very structured situations in which to learn appropriate behaviors. Generally, school is a structured environment, so a child may perform better and cooperate better at school where things are more structured. Behavioral change is hardest to measure in the unstructured environment of home. You can teach problem solving skills by starting small and setting limits and offering coaching around one problem you want your child to change at home. Focus in on one thing: doing spelling homework, doing one nightly chore, or talking nicely to your sister. Coach your child toward success with this one thing. Then move on to the next behavioral issue.

As parents, it’s important that we manage our expectations around medication. It can help your child to focus and accept another way to work through is behavioral issue. But it will not solve the problem. Only you and your child, working in a structured, problem-solving environment, can do that.

Out of Control Behavior: Should I Medicate My Child? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: Is Violence On Tv Bad For Kids

How to Keep the Violence Out of Your Home

How to Keep the Violence Out of Your Home Fifteen minutes with Grand Theft Auto–San Andreas and Josh (age 14, under the persona of CJ in the game) has killed ten gang members and made off with over $100,000 dollars. He pulls another “Baller” out of his car and cuts him in half with a chainsaw. Then another. Slices into him again for good measure. He grabs a bazooka and blows away the guy in the back seat. There’s blood everywhere. He’s on fire today. He buys two prostitutes with his chump and gets a lap dance.

Sam, Josh’s 12-year-old brother is scanning channels in the next room. He lands on a rerun of The Sopranos. Josh looks up just in time to see Christopher Moltisanti put a bullet in the brain of a Hollywood screenwriter. Gray matter splatters all over the place. Awesome.

Violence has always been a part of American culture and civilization in general.

If you don’t want your child to become desensitized to violence, you need to re-sensitize him to the values of your home.

It’s an undisputed fact that the more violence kids are exposed to, the more desensitized they become to it. But it’s not the violence that’s the problem for families now. It’s the delivery systems used to bring that violence into the home.

It used to be that you could manage your home to keep the violence outside. You only had three channels anyway. You could turn off the TV. There wasn’t a lot of violent music and talk on the radio. In those days, all we had was music about puppy love, lost love and love for the open road. We didn’t have a lot of music about hurting, abusing or killing people.

The delivery systems that bring violence into the home have changed and multiplied. 200 plus channels on TV, and the higher you climb on the remote, the more violence you see. Rap music downloaded and embedded in your kid’s ears via I-pod. Satellite radio with no restrictions. Video games with a parental rating system and little else to guide you on the content. The way violence is delivered into the home has changed and that’s a very difficult thing for families to manage. Meanwhile, our kids are becoming ever more desensitized to the images and sounds of people being mutilated and degraded. The more brutality they see, the less they feel it.

The challenge for parents today is to establish the separation between what’s going on inside their home and outside their home. The delivery systems of violence—especially sadistic violence–into the home have to be minimized. There’s a difference between a football video game where people are being tackled, hit and knocked down, and a game where people are being machine-gunned, stabbed and dismembered. Parents have to cut down on the delivery of sadistic, senseless violence into their home using whatever technology and empowerment they have at their disposal.

If you don’t want your child to become desensitized to violence, you need to re-sensitize him to the values of your home. Keep the inside of the home separate from the outside. Here’s an effective way to do it. Instead of saying, “You can’t listen to rap music,” say, “You can’t listen to rap music in our home.” Instead of saying, “You can’t play violent video games,” tell your child, “You can’t play violent video games in our home.” Instead of giving your child unrestricted access to all 200 plus channels on TV, use the parental controls and say, “You can’t watch violent movies in our home.” You have every right and the power to establish these rules, and you should do so if you’re concerned about your child’s exposure to violence.

Realize this. You can tell your child about the standards in your home, but don’t be surprised if they watch and listen to violent music, games and programming outside the home. Here’s why. The forbidden is always very alluring to kids. This is something parents need to know and understand. A kid can know something is forbidden, but doesn’t always understand that it’s hurtful. For example, take speeding on the highway. People know going over sixty five is forbidden. But they don’t realize it’s hurtful. They just think they can drive safely, that their car’s made for it, that the highway’s safe, that they’re good drivers. They don’t understand the potential for hurt there. It’s the same with kids. They know certain things are forbidden. But they don’t know how it’s really going to hurt them. They don’t know why it’s forbidden, and if you explain it to them, the explanation may or may not stick with them. Most of the time, it doesn’t, because the allure of the forbidden outweighs logic with kids.

But kids do understand values when you establish them. So you need to demarcate areas where unacceptable things are not going to happen. State firmly and clearly that you are not going to do this in our home, and then uphold it.

Establish a policy of zero tolerance for violence in your home. Say this to your kids: “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Establish this as a cardinal rule in your home now, before you discover your kids being hurtful with one another. If you do have a problem with a child who hurts you or his siblings, now is definitely the time to establish this policy. If this kid gets violent in your home, call the police. If he hits his siblings, press charges. If he hits you, call the police. Go to court. Call it what it is: domestic violence. Just because you’re the child’s parent doesn’t give him the right to destroy your home and to hit other kids.

When you control the delivery systems of violence in your home and establish a zero tolerance policy, your kids can internalize that structure and understand that your home and family is not a place for violent images or behavior. They learn to separate fantasy from reality. Remember: reality is in the home. This is how we talk to each other here. This is how we treat each other at home. This is what we listen to. This is what we watch. These are the games we play. These are our family values and our family standards. Reinforce this with your kids consistently, and they will learn to make good choices outside the home and live their own lives that way. They will learn that violence is wrong and they won’t become desensitized to it.

How to Keep the Violence Out of Your Home reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

How To Parent: How Child Behavior Problems Affect The Whole Family

The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings

The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings Q: What do the other children in the family experience when they have a brother or sister who’s hostile or acts out chronically?

It’s traumatizing when something hurtful happens to you, and you can’t control it, you can’t stop it, you can’t predict how hurtful it’s going to be, and you can’t predict when or whether it’s going to happen. Children who grow up with a chronically defiant, oppositional sibling grow up in an environment of trauma. They don’t know when they’re going to be verbally abused. They don’t know when their things are going to be broken. They don’t know when there’s going to be a major breakdown in the kitchen, and someone’s going to be restrained as they’re yelling and screaming. Often, acting out kids target their siblings as sources of power. It makes them feel powerful to say mean or abusive things or to hurt their siblings. They like that feeling of power, so they do it over and over again.

Several things happen in the mind of a child who lives with this kind of trauma. First, the siblings of acting out kids become used to witnessing outbursts, and it has a negative effect on them in the long run. These are people who grow up willing to accept higher levels of abuse in their marriages and their friendships. They become desensitized to disrespect and abuse. They become numb to how it really feels to be called a name. They tolerate higher levels of disrespect and abuse in other areas of their life once they become adults. Their ability to be assertive also diminishes.

It’s also important to have a “safety plan.” Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child.

They learn not to assert themselves. They learn how to avoid people and situations, and it can hamper their social skills. In our world, a certain degree of assertiveness is necessary to communicate in a way that gets your needs met, and these kids don’t learn how to do that.

I’ve worked with the siblings of kids who act out in my practice, and they are, by and large, nice kids, but they have a lot of problems asserting what the problem is with their sibling and confronting it. They make a lot of excuses for their sibling’s behavior and abuse. They tend to defend him to outsiders, and it develops a very unhealthy social persona in them.

Q: The child with the behavior problem tends to get most, if not all of the attention in the family. What effect does this have on the other children?

My experience is that this manifests itself in two ways. One is that the sibling becomes what is called a “lost child.” This is a child who avoids family situations. When a family discussion starts to get a little heated, this kid disappears into his room. As things get more complex and as he gets older, he stays in his room more. He avoids conflict and confrontation. In emotionally charged situations such as dinnertime, the lost child will tend to avoid dinner because the acting out child uses it as a forum for his aggression. The lost child will tend to say he’s not hungry or his stomach hurts. Anything to get away from the tension and abuse.

On the other end of the spectrum, kids will develop higher levels of attention-seeking behavior that we call “adaptive responses.” For example, a child who’s adapted to a calamitous situation at home shows his adaptive response in school by hiding out. He doesn’t raise his hand. He doesn’t get involved in group activities. He uses an avoidance adaptation in school that makes him stand out as if there’s something socially wrong with him, and it’s how he’s adapted at home. Some kids will act out even more than the hostile sibling, although this is rare.

An adaptive response to trauma means avoidance of anxiety and hyper arousal—in other words, watching out for trouble, listening very carefully to catch wind of tension, always remaining on high alert for hostility so that they can catch the pain before it comes.

Q: What should parents do to minimize the negative effects of the acting out child on the other children in the family?

The first thing parents have to do is make every effort to make the sibling safe. And that leads to them not holding the acting out, abusive kid accountable. No matter what he does.

If parents are afraid of backtalk because it makes them feel powerless, it’s very likely that they’ll tell the defiant child to stop doing it, and the child will say, “I don’t have to listen to you.” The parent feels as though there’s nothing they can do about it, and that leads to them not hold the child accountable because they don’t want to be embarrassed and feel powerless. Inevitably, parents stop setting the limits. The result is the other children in the family wonder who’s really in control, and they identify the acting out kid as the person in charge. As the defiant child acquires more power, the siblings challenge him less and give in to him more.

However, if a parent does tell a kid, “Stop that. It’s not acceptable” and turns around and walks away, and the kid says, “Screw you,” the siblings don’t see him as powerful; they see him as primitive. That’s the important thing. If the parent holds the child with the behavior problem accountable and takes away his “power,” the siblings see the parent as in control and see the kid as out of control. Most important, the parent reduces the environment of trauma for the siblings. Instead of wondering when the pain and chaos will erupt next, they will know the parent is in control and nothing will erupt.

It’s also important to have a “safety plan.” Just as families are encouraged to have a plan of action if there’s a fire (where to meet, how to get out, what to do), I have always encouraged families to sit down and talk about how they can help the acting out child. Do this without the child being present.

I have taught parents to say this: “If Johnny starts acting out, I’m going to deal with him. I’d like you go to your room for five minutes. The best thing you can do to help Johnny when he’s acting out is to leave him alone. Don’t feed into him. Don’t fight with him. Just let me know.” When parents set up this structure, the siblings have a plan for what to do when this kid starts to melt down. When they know what to do, it reduces their feeling of panic and helps them to ease the trauma.

The plan should be framed as how can we help Johnny. Parents should say openly, “We’re going to help Johnny by holding him responsible for his behavior and setting limits. But Johnny doesn’t always respond to that, and sometimes it takes us a while. The best way you can help Johnny is to stay out of it and go inside.”

Remember that trauma comes from not feeling that you have any control over the situation. If the children have a plan for what to do, then it’s not traumatizing because they have some control. The situation may be annoying and frustrating for them, but it’s not traumatizing.

The Lost Children: When Behavior Problems Traumatize Siblings reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”