How to parent cruel teens

A scene from the television show Ja'mie: Private School Girl.

A scene from the television show Ja'mie: Private School Girl. Photo: Ben Timony

Following the tragic suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, Florida sheriff Grady Judd wrapped up his report saying they were trying to decide whether the parents should be charged. “I'm aggravated that the parents aren't doing what parents should do," he said. "Responsible parents take disciplinary action."

It’s a big and complicated decision because yes, parent reactions are a factor in bullying, but it’s also not that simple: parenting is part of the bullying puzzle, and the wrong kind of ‘disciplinary action’ can actually make teens more likely to bully. The media also tends to automatically assume it’s bad parenting and every time a judgemental or sensationalist stand is made there is a lost opportunity for education, raised awareness – and prevention.

Bullying is, unfortunately, common, with about one in six children aged 10 to 17 exhibiting bullying behaviours and cyber-bullying affecting 30-50% of teenagers. And while certain types of parenting can contribute, around 4 percent of children are born with a genetic predisposition to aggression according to Psychologist Evelyn Field, "but it's still very much down to the environment in which children are raised as to whether they become the sort of child who bullies others," she says.

It has been recognised that being bullied can be traumatic and even lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and although there is little research, it’s also possible that bullies themselves may suffer from the same thing.


It can be shocking and devastating for a parent to find that their teenager has been bullying others and there is a great temptation to react strongly, particularly if that’s what’s expected or there is pressure to do so, but remaining calm and taking the time to get to the bottom of the situation not only stops the behaviour, but supports a child in their self-development and relationships with others. Working in conjunction with a psychologist to do this could be helpful. One of the first steps would be to work out if it really is bullying, or just an isolated incident.

When deciding a course of action, it’s helpful to first examine family and outside influences over the past few years. Has the child suffered any losses? Have they been bullied themselves? Has something happened that they may be angry about but not know how to express in a more constructive way? Feelings drive behaviour. What is the child feeling and why?

It’s hard to have compassion for a child who has trouble with empathy, but modelling is key. Parents benefit from first having compassion for themselves. If the bullying is due to temperamental or behavioural issues, it’s likely that these date back to early childhood, which may have been a very difficult time for parents. Well supported parents can have the capacity to parent very differently from the same parents under difficult circumstances. The more we are able to ‘hold’ ourselves, the more we can then understand where a child is coming from and the easier it is to have empathy for them, this is one reason why getting to the bottom of things, rather than just disciplining the behaviour is important.  

Parenting a child with any sort of challenge is a marathon so good self-care is vital so internal resources don’t get sapped. Realise that people who judge do so because they don’t understand, and that’s their problem. One of the most important thing is that there is an alignment between parents on how to manage the situation as any cracks between parents creates tension and can ignite more negative behaviour. It’s often differences in parenting philosophy that creates inconsistent discipline or one parent undermining the other’s efforts. When this happens, it’s not uncommon for teens to play one parent off the other, but this just destabilises the family more and can lead to further distress. Surround yourself with friends and family who understand the challenges and keep boundary between those who don’t.

Psychologists recommend to explain the harm caused by their behaviour and teach teens empathy by asking them to put themselves in the other person’s position. Teaching anger management and assertiveness skills can replace aggressive attitudes and behaviour or passivity that can explode sporadically. Make expectations clear, set consequences for poor behaviour and follow through. Also to make sure bullying behaviour isn’t being transmitted from bullying behaviour at home.

It’s commonly thought that bullying is linked with low self-esteem but researchers have found it is more linked with shameful “I am no good” feelings which might be linked to a teen’s appearance, relationships with friends or romantic partners, individual performance, socio-economic status, or thoughts and feelings about the behaviour of other family members. This is one reason why it’s so important not to shame a child for their behaviour. Shame is an extremely painful emotion that is frequently disowned and projected on to others – thus much of bullying is with an intent to shame others.

Instead, psychologist Mary C Laima, advises the following for parents to support a bullying child: Bottom of Form Work towards developing personal boundaries to keep yourself from getting pushed into feeling shame that really don’t belong to you.

Find your confidence. Something that triggers shame in you can make you feel inadequate about your whole self. Separate out what is making you ashamed from everything else about yourself.

Stand tall and look confident even if you don't feel so sure of yourself inside.

If you tend to take your shame out on others (like bullying), remind yourself that you want people to respect you rather than be afraid of you.

Experiment with showing kindness to people and see if that helps you to feel better about yourself.

Don't be afraid of your weaknesses. They're part of being human.

From self-awareness comes self-acceptance, from self-acceptance comes self-compassion and from-self compassion comes the capacity to have compassion for others.


  • I was a bully, and not for any poor little bully excuses, but simply because I could and wanted to. I was popular and thought I was better than everyone else and no one told me otherwise, I exceeded in my classes and did charity work after hours. It wasn’t until I was caught and my parents were notified that I stopped and thought about what I was doing and it had nothing to do with the victims, it was the shear look of utter disappointment and sadness on my mums face that I could not deal with. It took a while to understand why she was so upset and during that time I also thought about my actions and how they were affecting others. I apologised to those I had hurt and to my parents for letting them down and made the effort to be a better person. Sometimes there is no dark secret behind their behavior, they do it for fun, knowing that if they’re caught and cry about a sad home life they’ll get away with it, even if their actions have caused a death. There is no reason for teens to be better humans these days, not when such deplorable behaviour gets them filmed and for five minutes famous on social media, there are little to no consequences for their actions, either from parents, schools, police or society and they know this. They can pretty much can get away with murder, and wake up the next day feeling safe whilst eating their breakfast knowing that they won’t be held accountable for their actions. So how are they meant to grow and learn and become well rounded intelligent human beings, when they do not have to think about the consequences of their actions, or inactions.

    Date and time
    October 31, 2013, 8:20AM
    • Bullying starts way, way before teenage years, bullies do not just develop overnight. My daughter has been bullied on and off by two girls, one in particular, since the middle of kinder. One of those best friend/worst friend type of friendships. More than two years later, it is still continuing. Despite arming my daughter with text book advice, talking and writing to the school, the pattern continued. The school is now managing this more seriously after the other two were trying to have my daughter and another girl expelled from the school. These are all kids in Year 2. I think all sides need to jump on this behaviour early, the teachers need to listen to the children and to their parents concerns before it escalates to what is really concerning behaviour. While I understand that there are valid, though often hidden reasons, why kids bully, it needs to be addressed early with the child and their family. The problems teenage bullies have, are the same problems much younger bullies have and adult bullies have.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 10:32AM
      • Bullies bully because they percieve weakness in their victims. We should be teaching our children, insofar as possible, to not be weak or show any signs of weakness.

        Date and time
        October 31, 2013, 11:51AM
        • Teach your kids to be strong people who call out bulls*** when they see it. Whether it's happening to them or someone else. Most people with school aged children have failed them with over-parenting, and a lack of clear boundaries or discipline. So now kids are either cowards, or monsters. All of them are selfish and lacking in instinct compared to previous generations. Not many kids are balanced people anymore. There's too much fear in our society to allow parents do their job in peace, and it's screwing over our youth. That is why bullying has become more prevalent. Kids are frustrated, oversheltered and just looking for a victim to feel the pain and anger they feel. They're tearing each other apart. Obviously all kids are different but a lot of this seems to play a role.

          Date and time
          October 31, 2013, 4:05PM
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