Friday, June 27, 2014

Dealing with Bullies

  Kids can be so mean sometimes. I am not sure if it is harder to watch your child be bullied or to be the bully.

In my case, for a period of time when our daughter Lauren was four, she was getting routinely picked on by another little girl at preschool. To compound things, this girl was in my carpool. I would drive the kids to school three days a week. Carpool parents - be aware of this astonishing fact. You are invisible. You are privy to all sorts of interactions and conversations that might leave you either horrified or amused as you drive the car full of kids hither and thither.  In this case I had to watch Emily torture Lauren every single day, impervious to the fact that I was in the car. (As you can imagine it was pretty infuriating.)

This is what I would hear, with mild daily variations:

Emily:   "Your shirt is ugly"
Lauren (clearly upset):     "what? why?"

Emily: "I have a special thing I brought for show and tell and I am going to let everyone else in the car have a peek except you"
Lauren: "But I want to see it too!"

Emily: "You can't come to my birthday party"
Lauren (even more upset): "Why?"  

After a few weeks of this I realized that I needed to stage an intervention.

I drew a smiley face with pretty eyelashes and a grumpy frowny face. I then said to Lauren " Which one would you like to be?"
I was dealing with a four year old girl, this wasn't rocket science. As predicted she pointed to the smiling one. I touched the grumpy drawing and said  " Emily seems to want to turn your smiley face into a grumpy face. I wonder if you could keep the smile face on even when someone is being mean. Let's try!"

We got out the trusted barbie dolls and did some role playing. We spent a dramatic session as Barbie cheerfully let all sorts of slights and insults roll of her very shapely back.  We created an assortment of interesting scenarios. Barbie never lost her cool.
I wasn't quite ready to paint Emily as a complete bully. I liked her parents and she wasn't mean 100% of the time. I tried to give her an out. As we put the Barbie's away I said, "I wonder why Emily says mean things sometimes. Maybe she is feeling grumpy herself because she is a little tired."

The very next day in the car we I was interested to see if all of our practice would make a difference. It didn't take long to find out.

Emily: "your shirt is ugly"
Lauren (with a big fake smile plastered on her face.that I could see through the rear view mirror):      "Luckily, you don't need to wear it. I think your shirt is pretty."

Emily: "you can't see my sharing"
Lauren: "I am sure it is very interesting"

Emily. "You can't come to my party"
Lauren: "I hope you have a fun time"

From the drivers seat I watched Emily become more and more confused and upset that her power seemed to be slipping. I refrained from giving an audible whoop and driving into the bushes.

And then...
Lauren (in a sickeningly sweet voice):    "Are you a bit tired Emily?"
Emily (grumpy): "NO, I'm NOT tired"
Lauren (knowingly): "I think you must be a little tired"

No one watching could have accused her of doing anything wrong but she had discovered a way to gently torture Emily a bit, and she was running with it.

A few weeks later I was at a school event and I bumped into  Emily's dad who drove the carpool the other two days. He said to me, "something is going on in the car that I don't understand". "Oh? What would that be," asked innocent mom. "Lauren keeps asking Emily if she is tired and Emily starts getting very upset".

Finding one on one time and playing through things can be quite effective. Another thing that might be helpful is to identify the "nice kids" in the class. Ask your child who they might like to play with, reach out to that family and try to arrange some play dates outside of school time. If your child can have some solid allies in the social group, it makes it much easier to stand up to, or deal with someone else who is unkind. Keep in mind that it is a rare friend that is completely reliable. They all have days where  they "might be tired".  

Looking for other ways to empower your child? Check out  www.  This is a fabulous organization that came out of Santa Cruz.  They now have groups and classes all over the place. They have an entire section devoted to dealing with bullying with all sorts of really excellent resources:

If all of your efforts at home don't seem to be taking care of the issue, talk to your school to see if they have any anti bully programs in place. There is a wonderful program , that got its start in San Francisco. Talk to your school about looking into it. Keep in mind that most of the time you won't actually witness the bullying. Pay attention to your child's mood and behavior. If you notice any dramatic changes make sure you find opportunities for your child to communicate about what may be going on. Sitting with them in a quiet room before bedtime is a great time to do a daily debriefing about the day. In my family that was a ritual.

Let's turn the tables. If you are hear that your child is the bully, or you get to see them in action, make sure that you carve out some one on one time to work on some skills. Some kids seem to be bullies because they simply want attention and don't know a better way of making and keeping friends.Talk about kindness. Talk about choices. Find one particular situation that you know about and work on that. "You pushed your sister and made her cry. What was going on? Were you mad, sad, frustrated? What were some other choices that you could have made? What should be the consequence if it happens again? What should be a nice treat/ reward if you make a better choice the next time you are in that situation?"

If you find that you are having issues on either side of this spectrum that are beyond your scope, the next step may be having a meeting with your child's teacher.

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