We all want to protect our children from bullies, but it takes a village. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says to create an anti-bullying culture, we need to include the bully instead of further excluding them.

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An image of a slice of birthday cake on a kitchen table.
Credit: Getty Images.

Any bullying scenario rightly puts a parent in their most protective mode. Personally, any time I witness a child acting with meanness or aggression toward another, I feel that protectiveness flare-up, even when the child on the receiving end is not my own. As a child psychologist, I know too well the long-lasting harm left by bullying. At the same time, our protective mode can blind us to how the bully is also harmed. As counterintuitive as it may feel, excluding the bully from a group may actually reinforce and worsen their bullying.

Why Kids Bully

There is no one set of answers to the question of who becomes a bully and why. Bullying can take several different forms (relational, physical) for different reasons (temperament, popularity, marginalization). According to research, however, the most common risk factors include experiences of abuse or neglect at home (one common problem is sibling bullying), low self-esteem, difficulty understanding how to relate to others, low empathy, poor frustration tolerance, and their own history of being harassed by peers.

Although not all of this is the case for every bully, it's clear that children who bully others are not doing well, and their behavior should be considered a symptom of bigger problems. Obviously, this does not mean we collectively excuse the behavior, but it leads to the next important part of the answer to your question: what do we do about it?

How to Prevent Bullying

The single most powerful prevention tool for bullying is a positive cultural climate. This applies to school cultures promoting prosocial behaviors and teaching skills for bystanders to stand up against bullying, but can also include neighborhoods and communities. Bullies often feel marginalized and a lack of social connection, which is why a cultural climate of inclusiveness and empathy is more beneficial in the long-term than targeting bullies with punishment and exclusion.

Of particular relevance right now, pay attention to how adults are behaving, and how that might be affecting what our children are learning about bullying versus prosocial behaviors. In the current national climate, there are plenty of examples across social media and TV of adults acting like bullies, and our kids are watching. And learning. We need to be vigilant about what our children may be observing in our communities and the cyberworld, and directly address it: "What do you think about how that woman was talking to the school board?" Children can be the most astute judges of conduct, and we need to make sure we are not implicitly sanctioning adult bullying behavior by ignoring it.

What to Do About the Party

I'm guessing your child is a younger age since it is an all-inclusive birthday party. Younger elementary-aged children are primed for learning social skills, and this party may be an opportunity to model positive social behaviors for the bully and bystanders. If you will be present as part of a group of parents, you can keep a close observational eye and gain some understanding of how this bully behaves. If you keep in mind some of the above risk factors, watching may even help you understand why. (Impulsive? Unsure how to interact with peers? Easily frustrated?)

Whether you are there to observe, or you enlist your friend to monitor the situation, either of you can respond by viewing this as a learning opportunity for your son's class. If an adult places limits on behaviors while also modeling empathy and inclusion, everyone wins. An example: "Hey, at this party, we are all here to have fun and say kind things to each other! We want to make sure everyone feels part of the fun." Redirecting attention from negative interactions to positive ones reinforces the positive over the negative.

What About the Other Parents?

I'm curious how well you know the other child's parents. Are they aware of the behavior? I know some parents either do not believe their child would behave in such a way, or their low involvement is actually part of the problem! I bring this up to include a caveat to the inclusion approach: threats to physical safety. If physical safety is at all at risk, it is important to communicate to the child's parents that their child will need to be picked up early in the case of threatening behavior. You and your friend can decide the best way to handle this communication, but since your son has been the victim, I think it's most powerful to come from you.

Not Blaming, but Helping the Victim

Bullying interventions at schools used to rely on facilitating dialogue between bully and victim to resolve the problem. This does not work, and can even place the victim at more risk due to the power imbalance. In general, bullying prevention and intervention involve building up skills of bystanders, and developing an anti-bullying culture.

So, your son is not to blame for being bullied; however, he can also benefit from skill development. The most well-researched tool for an individual to respond effectively to bullying behaviors is to use assertiveness skills. For younger children, this can be as simple as, "Stop calling me names. I don't like it and it's not nice." Role-playing this interaction at home first can help your son practice the potent combination of calm and clear; using a loud voice, but not yelling.

The Bottom Line

A child being bullied is a serious situation that rightly fires up our parental protectiveness. I encourage any parent dealing with bullying to balance this protective instinct with empathy, as difficult as that can be. But we can do it all: protect our child by addressing the problem at the community level, build their assertiveness skills at the individual level, and model empathy for the other child who is surely struggling. Instead of possibly leaving long-lasting harm, taking this approach to the bullying may instead promote stronger social relationships and a more positive community overall.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.