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.