CORE VALUES: Children need sensitivity training by putting themselves in their victim’s shoes. Ask: If this was you, how would you feel? Picture: Pexels

Denial. Disbelief. You’re over your shock, here’s how to deal with your child. By Marchelle Abrahams

For single mom Janice Johannes, raising two boys on her own is hard enough. So when she received a letter from her six-year-old son’s teacher saying he’d pinned his classmate against the wall, she was gutted.

“There was some altercation. Sasha felt his teacher was giving this pupil more attention than him, and things escalated from there,” she recalls.

It started with red letters from his Grade R teacher telling her of his behavioural problems. She couldn’t understand the reason for his outbursts, and every time she was called into school, she looked at him with resigned indignation, thinking: “this isn’t my son”.

Johannes admits that Sasha’s strong personality does play a part: “He’s very domineering and jealous. It seems like he’s always competing for my attention with his brother - I find it all very tiring.”

Many parents find themselves in the same position as Johannes. With countless stories doing the rounds about incidents at school, accounts are always related from a victim’s point of view.

But what happens when your child is the bully?

Parents want only the best for their children, and hope the core values they instil in them will put them on the path to becoming happy, empathetic adults.

In Johannes’s case, she was at her wits' end and even resorted to threatening Sasha with expulsion from school.

“Parents are key to dealing with the issue,” says child rights advocate Joan van Niekerk.

They should “clearly label bullying of all kinds - cyber, physical, emotional as totally unacceptable”.

Van Niekerk is also quick to point out that victims and perpetrators need help - punishment on its own means little. In fact, it may push the behaviour into something more subtle.

Many times, the bully has a history of being bullied - at home or at school.

“Bullying another child deals with their sense of disempowerment and anger."

And here’s the mistake that many parents make; often out of frustration, some will resort to physical punishment: “One cannot deal with any form of violence with violence and then expect behaviour to change.”

It starts with you

Liane Lurie, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist who has a special interest in adolescent personality disorders and bullying, says very often parents insist on punishing the bully and giving the victim counselling.

Van Niekerk’s sentiment resonates with her, and she agrees a “child that’s bullying is also a child in distress”.

“With children we say their behaviour has communication value - what is it that the child is trying to communicate with their aggression?"

Lurie adds that bullying behaviour is not one-dimensional. For instance: What is it in their lives that they feel helpless or powerless about?

“We live in a world where everything is about instant gratification. Normal methods of problem solving through verbal means need to be instilled in children.”

Here, she makes an important observation, saying that children need sensitivity training by putting themselves in their victim’s shoes. Ask them: If this was happening to you, how would it make you feel?

As parents, you need to keep an open, non-judgemental space with your child. “Allow them to speak to you about stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily do,” adds Lurie.

She says the key to dealing with bullying is to involve all systems, from the family to the school, even parents of the victims.

“And don’t wait for it to escalate. Get your child the help they need so that they can channel their feelings into something constructive.”

Sasha is now in a new grade, and thankfully for Janice, also has a new mindset. "We finally got to the root of the problem. I discovered that he was acting out because my hectic working hours didn't afford me the time with my children."

After changing to a less-demanding job, she has seen a significant change in her child. And the best part is: "no more red letters!"