However, even without a call from an authority figure, some experts suggest that parents can sense when their child's aggression crosses the line into bullying in situations such as play dates or interaction with siblings.
Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, The Bullied and The Bystander, offers the example of a parent coming across two of her children fighting in the family room. "What you notice is not only that your daughter stops twisting your son's arm when you come into the room, but also the little smile that she has on her face as she's intimidating him and he's saying that there's nothing wrong," Coloroso says. "Children fight and that's normal and natural. Bullying is neither natural nor normal—it is a conscious willful activity. The bully is getting pleasure from somebody else's pain."
Since all children have some natural aggression, what separates bullies from the average child? Too often, children who bully have learned the behavior at home, from a parent who is authoritarian or who bullies his or her own children or spouse. Authoritarian parents set rules with little input and don't allow challenges, Mandel says. "There can be severe punishment in these households for violating the rules, and children aren't going to learn how to interact appropriately and exercise their own judgment." Adds Coloroso, "There can be one of two things happening when a parent doesn't recognize that their kids are bullying: either they are a target of a spouse, or they are bullying the children themselves."
There also are gender differences in the way kids bully. "Girls are almost always going to bully as a group, while boys will do it almost any way possible," Mandel says. Physical bullying is the least common form as kids use gossiping, shunning, and even email and instant messaging to bully. These verbal and emotional forms of bullying work only as group interactions, which leads to another question: what if your child is part of group that has been bullying others but isn't the ringleader of that group?
Coloroso is adamant that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying. "You have to ask what your child was doing there in the first place. She may have gone along with the bully because she wanted to please. She could be the passive supporter and you won't even know about her, unless you hear about it in the carpool. She could be the disengaged onlooker or even the potential witness—the child who is afraid of the bully."