little girl frowning Bullying — which psychologists define as repeated aggressive behavior that takes place within the context of a power imbalance — touches all kids’ lives; studies typically find that 30 percent of kids are involved in bullying on a weekly basis, whether as victim or bully or both. And most of the remaining 70 percent of kids are bystanders to bullying.

So what can parents and caregivers do to prevent their kids from growing up to be bullies? We asked Stephen S. Leff, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and co-director of CHOP’s Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) for his best tips on how to avoid raising a bully. 

Start early

No matter a child’s age or gender, don’t dismiss examples of insensitivity or exclusion as being developmentally appropriate. “Aggressive behavior can show up in kids as early as the preschool years,” says Dr. Leff. “While all kids have moments when they don’t share their toys or tell a child they’re not inviting them to a birthday party, if your child repeatedly engages in these behaviors, this could be a sign of early relational aggression,” says Dr. Leff. Help teach your child empathy by asking, “How would you feel if your friend didn’t share his toys?”  

Be respectful

Model respectful behavior at home. “Kids can be influenced by how a temper is expressed at home, in their peer group, and in the media,” according to Dr. Leff. Parents should be careful not to lash out at each other or other members of the family. They can also demonstrate respect and caring for others by creating a sensitive home environment that values and encourages inclusiveness.

Cultivate self-control

Teach your child the importance of pushing the pause button if she feels hurt or angry. This is especially true if your child tends to be impulsive. “Kids need to develop problem-solving skills and an important part of doing that is learning to take a deep breath and trying to look at the situation calmly and differently,” says Dr. Leff. Help children learn to count to 10 silently, or imagine a happy place like a beach, in order to allow them to slow down so they can look at a situation before reacting. You can also help your child learn to ask himself questions about the situation so he can see it from the other person’s perspective instead of making assumptions.

Open the lines of communication

Check in with your children for five to 10 minutes every night starting in the early years. “When they start going to school, be sure to ask about their day and what they did with their friends,” suggests Dr. Leff. “These early conversations keep the lines of communication open and lay the groundwork for children to open up to their parents when they get older and might have problems to talk through. They won’t feel as though their parents are probing by asking these questions because the questions will feel natural by that point,” says Dr. Leff.

For more tips on how to prevent and handle bullying, check out the prevention tools and educational fact sheets from CHOP’s Violence Prevention Initiative.

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