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John Rosemond is America's most widely-read parenting authority! He is a best-selling author, columnist, speaker, and family psychologist.

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Stop 8-year-old's bullying behavior before it gets worse

Q: My 8-year-old son is a poor sport. He’s been asked to leave several sports programs because of rudeness to other players and disrespect to adults, but he doesn’t seem to care. I think he’s just not as sports-minded as his dad wants him to be. His teachers report that he is a bad sport if he can’t be first to do whatever the class is doing. When other children make mistakes in class, he makes fun of them. What can we do to shape him up before he becomes the most un-liked kid around?

A: First, you need to pull your heads out of the sand. It gives me no pleasure to tell you that you are not describing a child who is simply a “poor sport.” As his teachers have told you, his behavior is a problem whether the context is or is not sports. Furthermore, this is obviously not a simple problem of not being “sports minded.” Your son is exhibiting some very pronounced anti-social behaviors which are likely to worsen over time. For example, children who are verbal bullies at age 8 are likely to be physical bullies in their early teens. The anti-social child is nearly always described, by the way, as not caring what consequences ensue as a result of his or her behavior.

It’s often but not always the case that children who frequently engage in anti-social behavior of this sort come from families where there is a high level of marital discord. If this describes your situation, then it’s vital to your son’s emotional and social health that you and your husband seek marriage and family counseling. Even if this doesn’t apply to you, it would be a good idea for you to seek a family health evaluation from a qualified and experienced professional.

As I said, it is not always the case that anti-social children come from problematic families. When family health is not the issue, I’ve had the best outcomes with an approach I call “Kicking the child out of the Garden of Eden.” The child in question comes home from school one day to find that his room has been “sterilized”—that all of his possessions save furniture and essential (not to include favorite) clothing have been removed and transferred to a storage unit that the child has no chance of accessing. In addition, any and all electronics—television, video games, computer, CD player, even a radio—are prohibited for the duration. At that point, the child is put on a program that allows him to earn back possessions and privileges one at a time, beginning with those he values the least.

A comprehensive list of “misfit” behaviors is drawn up and a copy is given to the child. In this case, the list would include making fun of or laughing at other children, being rude to other children or adults, becoming angry if he can’t be first, and so on. Next, after checking with his teacher, you have him write a one-page letter of apology—a letter, mind you, not a sentence or paragraph—to each and every child in his class or on a team that he has ever made fun of or been rude toward. He must also write a letter to his teacher and to his previous coaches. In these letters, he must not only apologize for disrespectful behavior but also tell the person why the behavior was wrong. Future anti-social outbursts require more letters of apology.

Every week, you meet with his teacher for the purpose of getting a progress (hopefully) report from her. On Friday evening, you have a home conference with your son at which his progress, or lack of it, is reviewed. He can earn nothing back for two weeks, after which good reports from his teacher along with good behavior at home and elsewhere results in the restoration of either one possession or one privilege. (Remember, you determine what he gets back, not him, and possessions/privileges are returned in “reverse order.”)

Given the seriousness of this problem, and regardless of your family situation, you would do well to contract with a professional who can help coach you through the inevitable backsliding and relapses that will occur. At best, this is going to be a relatively long haul, and the more support you have, the better.

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