a boy bullying another boy

Our discussions with kids about bullying typically cover such topics as what they can do, who they should tell, or why kids bully in the first place. But where does that leave the kid who feels the only way to keep himself safe is to bully other kids? Does he have anyone telling him that he is not alone in his dilemma, or helping him navigate that chasm between his conscience and the social pressures he feels to conform to stereotyped ideals about masculinity?

Teachers and parents: Here are some ideas for expanding the conversation about bullying and addressing some of the more hidden but strongly operative dynamics underlying aggressive behavior among children.

In Schools:

Talk about the pressure kids feel to shake off being teased or excluded by perpetrating the abuse on someone else. Wonder out loud about the kind of moral dilemma this might be for some kids who abhor violence and don’t want to fight but feel that their choice is taking someone down or being taken down. Find kids who are willing to volunteer to tell their stories about this dilemma, including some who succumbed to the pressure, and what kind of effect it had on them. Looking back, how would they have preferred to handle it? How could teachers or school officials have helped? What would they do now that they didn’t know to do then? What advice do they have for kids who are in a similar situation? Would they be willing to be available to kids who want to talk about their own struggles with these matters in a confidential setting?

At Home:

Ask your son if he has ever felt the need to bully or tease somebody as a way of getting kids to leave him alone? You can start by normalizing the behavior—not as something that’s okay, but as something that happens. Let him know up front that you’re not trying to “trick” him into telling you something you’ll later be angry about. Explain that you’re trying to help him figure out how to be the guy he truly is rather than the guy the other kids think he’s “supposed” to be. Share with him any stories from your own childhood that have to do with either bullying or being bullied for seeming different from the other boys. If you did a lot of bullying, or were the leader in making other kids feel excluded from a group, talk about how you evolved from a person who thought it was funny or cool to get another kid to cry or get mad, to the person you are now.

— Janet Sasson Edgette