Take a deep breath. You may have just realized that your child might be a cyberbully. Ugh. And now you’ve got to a) Find out if it’s true, and b) If it is, try to address it so that it stops.

Whether you read a social media post, heard from another parent or teacher, or overheard a conversation, something has made you wonder if your child is cyberbullying. It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible parent if your child is being aggressive online. While it’s healthy to think through anything you may have done that could contribute, it’s essential to focus on helping your child, because cyberbullying harms young people. Addressing it and dealing with it can promote the safety and wellbeing of your child and those they come in contact with.

So, what even is cyberbullying? It’s using an electronic device to intimidate, threaten or humiliate another. This most often involves being aggressive online toward people from school or the neighborhood. 

What are some warning signs that your child may be a cyberbully?

While there’s no substitute for ongoing conversations between you and your child, this list from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may be helpful.

  • Dramatic changes in technology usage. Yes, some kids seem to be glued to their devices. Keeping an eye out to see if they are on their devices more than usual or suddenly seem to not care if they are on an electronic device could raise some red flags. They may be super interested in seeing how others respond to them or even feel some guilt and not want to know. Either way, this may be a sign of bullying behavior. 
  • Are they jumpy, hiding devices, or changing screens when you enter the room? Savvy kids can try to hide behavior and screens from you. Learning how to look up search history and digital usage can unlock their electronic behavior.
  • Unwillingness to talk about what’s on their screens. Maybe they give one-word answers; they avoid the topic or ignore the question. Pay attention when they’re unwilling to answer questions about what’s on their screens. This could indicate involvement in harmful online behavior.

Let’s be honest. Most of these bullet points probably sound like normal teenage behavior on a regular basis. It’s difficult to accuse your child of cyberbullying when you’re not 100% sure.

However, these tips can help you address the issue whether you just suspect it or want to prevent it from happening.

  • Dig deeper to get a feel for what’s going on in your child’s heart and mind. Look at pictures, posts on social media, text messages, etc. Try to find out what’s happening behind the scenes in their life. Many times, the digital trail will give you quite a bit of insight and greater understanding.
  • Think through what it takes for you to be open, honest, and vulnerable with someone. Then think through what it takes for your child to be open, honest, and vulnerable with you. Be that person when you talk with them. This will increase your chances of working together to overcome the situation and form an open, honest relationship of accountability for the future.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child gets defensive. Children can be persuasive when it comes to avoiding “trouble.” They’ll say things like, “I can’t believe you’d think I would do that!” Focus on ensuring that bullying behavior isn’t acceptable by anyone in your home, but also look for the “why” behind the behavior. Your relationship with them is about so much more than punishing them. Your goal is to guide them where you’d like to them be and lead them to make healthy choices.
  • Discuss cyberbullying with your child. Learn more about it by using reliable websites like Cyberbullying Research Center and stopbullying.gov, powered by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Look at examples. Watch stories of bullying victims. Ask them what they’ve seen on gaming sites, social media, or text messages between friends.  
  • Ask your child if they’ve ever done something that might be considered cyberbullying. Or if someone has cyberbullied them in the past. Help them think it through. You may talk about how easy it is to take things (especially in a text) the wrong way. Sent a message that made someone feel uncomfortable? Made fun of someone and hurt their feelings? 
  • Help your child think from the other person’s perspective. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to understand what they may be feeling can build empathy.
  • Talk about your family expectations regarding online conduct and how to treat people at all times. Set the standard. Your children must know precisely where you stand regarding any kind of bullying by them or toward them. Discuss and enforce consequences for engaging in any type of bullying behavior.

Many forms of cyberbullying violate schools’ zero-tolerance policy and may be addressed by a school counselor. If you find yourself in this position, it’s important to encourage your child to do as they’re asked at school and use the situation as an opportunity for growth instead of a form of punishment or unfairness. Let them know you’re on their team and you’re there to work through it with them.

Oh, and one more thing. 

Many bullies target others because of something they have experienced themselves, and they may have never told anyone else about it. Professional counseling may help your child work through issues that trigger the cyberbullying behavior. Your child needs to know you are there for them, and that you will do what it takes to support their growth as they navigate the world of online relationships. They won’t get it right every time, but they can move forward with your help.

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