TORONTO — Little Johnny may not be a perfect angel, but his parents believe he's a pretty good kid all around. But then comes a call from the principal that bursts that particular bubble: their son has reportedly been bullying other kids — a complete no-no given many schools' zero-tolerance policies for such behaviour.
So why do kids bully and what are parents to do?
In many instances, bullying is an adaptive behaviour for a child, teen or adult, says Tony Volk of Brock University, pointing to U.S. President Donald Trump as a particularly glaring example.
"The first thing that predisposes people to doing it is that it's effective at getting what you want in many cases," says the professor of child and youth studies at the St. Catharines, Ont., university. "They want to get something out of it — popularity, sex, resources, the best place at lunch.
"And if you're able to do it well, it often comes with relatively few costs, especially in the short run," he says, noting however that the price for victims of bullying is often much higher, leading to what can be long-term effects on mental and physical health.
Psychiatrist Dr. Susan Baer, medical director of out-patient mental health services at BC Children's Hospital, says a common reason for some children and teens to target someone in their peer group, for instance, is because they feel powerless in other aspects of their life.
Bullying is a means of obtaining power, she says.
"Other things can be wanting to gain social standing or attention, admiration from friends. Interestingly, one of the more common (reasons) is being bullied themselves.
"And sometimes, there can be sort of a culture — a bullying culture — either that the child has been exposed to in the home or in the school."
Still, it's not always clear whether a child is being actually bullied or if they are on one side of what would be considered merely conflict with another.
"So kids who might be very sensitive or have had a history of being bullied, they might experience some things as feeling bullied, whereas another child who is maybe more resilient, that kind of rolls off their back," says Baer.
"In general, though, if you think about bullying there's a feeling of power differential — that it's not an argument between two people who are on an equal footing in a relationship."
Research compiled by PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of children repeatedly bully others and the same percentage of kids is repeatedly bullied.
Younger children in elementary and middle schools are more likely to engage in bullying, which decreases in prevalence as children grow older, says PREVNet, a group of 130 Canadian researchers and 62 national youth organizations.
While there is less physical bullying as kids age, verbal, social and electronic bullying tend to rise between the ages of 11 and 15 — persisting "well into the high school years." Studies have found a quarter of Canadian kids admit to cyberbullying, while one-third report having been the recipients of online persecution.
"Bullying is a thoroughly negative behaviour," says Volk.
"The costs are very real and they're not limited to just the victim, but the people around the victim, the other kids who observe it happening," he says. "The social costs are potentially enormous."
PREVNet says kids who are bullied have a higher risk of suicide — but so do those doing the bullying.
Many schools across the country are trying to discourage bullying by instituting zero-tolerance policies, with some also providing programs aimed at helping kids build self-confidence as well as healthy interpersonal relationships with their peers.
But what can parents do?
"The first step before you start thinking about trying to address it is trying to understand what lies behind it," advises Baer.
"Sometimes kids with ADHD have a lot of impulsivity, maybe somewhat immature social skills.
"Or a teen might be developing depression and just feel really angry and irritable and that might be underlying it."
Baer suggests that parents pick a time when they are feeling calm to talk to their child about what might be driving them to pick on other kids.
"Be direct and tell the child what you've heard, but then really take the time to listen and try to understand and ask questions," she says.
Once a parent understands why the child is acting out, "you want to set very clear limits, that their behaviour is not acceptable. That might involve setting consequences."
If a child has been engaged in cyberbullying, a consequence could be the loss of Internet privileges for a certain period. Parents may also insist that their child apologize to the victim — either in writing or in person — and help them figure out how best to do that.
"The child may be lacking in social skills to a certain extent, so then the focus might be on trying to develop friendship skills," Baer says. "They might need some help with developing empathy and understanding what other people's feelings are like."
Parents also need to explore whether their own behaviour — such as marital conflict in the home — may be creating stress in their child, causing them to lash out at others, she says.
Volk says in some cases, parents who are hyper-competitive and value winning can become unwitting role models of bullying behaviour.
Such parents should "take a really hard look at themselves in the mirror and make sure they're not setting an example that 'Look at me climb the ladder, I was able to grind out my rivals.' If you're acting like that, there's no surprise that your child is saying 'This is what's working for Mom and Dad, so I should do the same thing.'"
Parents also need to make sure they're emotionally connected and involved in their kids' lives, including monitoring their behaviour, he says.
"Talk to the teacher, talk to the other kids, get involved, because if this is occurring and the parent doesn't want it to occur, then chances are really good the child's been deceptive," he says. "So you really have to build those channels of communication with your child as early and as often as you can.
"Stay on it and be vigilant because it's not likely to be a quick fix, especially if it's persisted in the past. It's going to be tough to change it in the future, but don't give up."