Family, Kids & Relationships

What to do if YOUR child is the cyberbully

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We’ve all heard about the dangers of cyberbullying. But what if your child turns out to be the one bullying someone else online?

It’s an extremely hard situation for parents to confront, of course. You may be feeling guilt, humiliation, anger, or disbelief. But let’s remember to lead with compassion, because it’s a sign that your child is going through something.

Kids who are involved in cyberbullying others are more likely to experience other issues as they grow up — including drug and alcohol use, self-harm, and even criminal convictions. But with your support, they can find alternatives to these worrying patterns of behavior.

Some of the common signs that your child might be harming others online:

  • Excessive and secretive use of digital devices
  • Reacts strongly when you limit phone use or screen time
  • Has multiple accounts on the same online platform
  • Has been involved in other bullying or cyberbullying incidents (either as victim or perpetrator)
  • Shows signs of IRL aggression

While no one wants to hear that their child is antagonizing others, families have an opportunity here to help repair the harm done, break the cycle of online abuse, and make the internet a safer place for everyone.

Admit there may be a problem

Even if you’re not sure, you need to be open to the possibility that your child is the aggressor. Keep in mind that they may not even realize they did something harmful, because cyberbullying can include subtle actions like:

  • Taking or sharing photos/videos without someone’s permission
  • Teasing someone and not knowing when to stop
  • Chiming in with others who are posting hurtful comments
  • Assuming fake identities out of boredom, and getting carried away

Talk calmly and objectively

Don’t yell or punish—instead, tell your child you’re here to figure it out with them. When you discuss what happened, start with the facts of what you’ve observed or heard.

Do, however, help them understand why it’s harmful. Your child might not understand what the big deal is, so help them get into the other person’s shoes. Ask questions about how they would feel if they were on the other side of this interaction.

Don’t label

Keep in mind that this situation, and this behavior, does not define your child. So rather than labeling them as a bully or mean kid, talk about it as a series of choices they made—and remind them that they can always make a different choice.

Find out why they’re doing it

There must be underlying reasons, so open up conversations with your child about what’s going on with them. Maybe they’re lacking confidence and just want to fit in, maybe they’re struggling with something at school or at home, maybe they’re lonely, or maybe they need a healthier outlet for their energy or stress.

Stop the bullying immediately

Make it clear that the harmful behavior needs to stop right away. Explain that you’ll need to monitor their online activity more closely — and that if they do it again, there will be a specific consequence, like not being able to use their phone for a certain length of time.

You can give them a choice: Maybe they would rather take a break from social media or their devices right away, so they’re not tempted to do something similar again. Having alternative activities for them to do will help them redirect their time and energy into something more productive.

Apologize directly

Work with your child as they admit to wrongdoing, form and deliver a genuine apology, and come up with a plan to improve the situation and prevent it from happening again. You will also need to speak to the victim’s family to let them know you are aware of what happened, you are taking it seriously, and you are working on the issue with your child.

Determine what interventions are necessary

If it’s your child’s first time being involved in cyberbullying, you might not need more than some ongoing family discussions — along with a change of scenery in the form of some IRL activities for them — to help turn things around.

But if you suspect your child is struggling with an aspect of their mental health, or has repeatedly harmed others, reach out to a school psychologist or family counselor for support.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.