How to know if your child is a bully, according to a psychologist.

How are you ever to know if your child is the one inflicting pain on somebody else’s?

How are you to know if your child is the cause of someone’s else’s despair, another parent’s worry and someone else’s tears?

And perhaps more importantly – how in the world do you fix it?

When it comes to talking to children about bullying, so much of our narrative is – perhaps rightly so – focused on the victim. The support to offer, the words the give, the ways to encourage confidence when self-esteem is inevitably shattered following a verbal or physical tirade.

But what’s often lost in the dialogue are ways, helpful ways, to spot a bully before they truly become one.

According to developmental psychologist Dr Heidi Gazelle of The University of Melbourne, spotting a bully in a child isn’t as easy as it sounds. After all, there are different types of bullies, and the methods of uncovering aggressive or manipulative tendencies differ from child to child.

Despite this, there are things you can do. These are just some of them.

What signs can I look for?

Dr Gazelle says the first thing to look for is whether the child is aggressive towards other children. Then, once that is established, it’s crucial to analyse whether the child is initiating the aggression or if they’re responding to it.

“It can be hard to tell, the parent may need to watch the child at play to see how they interact,” she tells Mamamia.

“The key thing to look for is whether the aggression is normative to other kids relative to age. Is this standing out as unusual or is the aggression typical of what would be going on at with other kids?”


As we know, bullying isn’t always physical. In fact, you could argue that some of the greatest damage is done through emotional bullying. According to Dr Gazelle, bullying of an emotional kind is much, much harder to spot. After all, it’s not normally happening in an adult’s line of sight.

“Bullying can take on a number of forms. Sometimes it might be intended to hurt, sometimes it might be more goal-oriented. For example, a child who wants to take another’s lunch money. It pertains to a particular benefit or goal.”

Emotional bulling is more likely to be spotted by a teacher, and in that case, it’s all the more important for a parent to take those concerns seriously, and not brush them off as “kids being kids”, Dr Gazelle says.

What can I do to change the behaviour?

“One of the techniques that is very widely supported is to point out other peoples feelings,” Dr Gazelle says as the key way to reform aggressive behaviour.

It’s important, she says, because the thing that inhibits these types of actions is empathy – especially with young children.

She recommends asking a child “how the other child might feel”. For example, to say something like this: ‘When you did X, how did you think that made the other child feel? How would you feel if someone did that to you?’

Image: iStock.

"This will encourage the child to take on the other child's perspective and we know that perspective taking is fundamental to social skills. Not only is the parent going to hopefully decrease the aggressive behaviours [by doing this], but also contribute to the child's ability to be more socially skillful," she says.

In terms of emotional bullying, Dr Gazelle says in these instances, "pointing out the child's feelings maybe isn't sufficient". However, she says, it can't hurt.

"That kind of behaviour of obtaining goals detrimental to other people can be an outgrowth of social skill," she says.

In short, it's not that these kids don't have any social skills, it's that they do. And therein lies the problem.

"There will eventually be complaints, and parents need to take [them] seriously.


"These behaviours can continue if they'r e not addressed. It's not helpful to say children just do these things. Parents need to emphasise feeling and confirm to the child that it's not the type of behaviour they want to see."

Need a bit more parenting help? Check out our parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess. Post continues after audio.

If my child is a bully, will they always be a bully?

Above all else, Dr Gazelle says it's important to consider that a bully won't always be bully.

"Generally, children engage in more physical aggression when they're young and that diminishes over time," she says.

It's why young children are always encouraged to "use their words"; to talk their way out of problem rather than doing so violently.

Is a child born a bully, or does a child become one?

Dr Gazelle says the idea that a child is born bully isn't black and white and always subject to change.

"On the one hand, yes, children are born with different tendencies. Some may have a greater propensity to be aggressive, but they also may experience really different responses from parents when they are aggressive.

"A child that is encouraged to use their words is more likely diminish being aggressive, while a child who isn't receiving these responses is more likely to persist," she says, saying parents should never "reward" aggression.

At the end of the day, Dr Gazelle says parents have real power in these kids of scenarios. The likelihood of a child continuing being aggressive and a bully "depends on the response of the environment". So yes, you absolutely are relevant here.