Sticks and Stones

The feared class bullies and their victims.

Nine-year-old Kevin threatened his classmate Michael that if he didn’t do what he said, he’d beat him up after school. When asked what happened next, Kevin answered, “He told the teacher, but I don’t care.” When his teacher reported this incident to Kevin’s parents, Kevin was grounded for a week. He did care about that. It made him feel angrier inside.

Eleven-year-old Rebecca, distraught because her best friend told a classmate her secret, felt betrayed because, “I can’t trust her anymore.” Rebecca’s Mom explained that if she didn’t tell her friend how much that hurt her, she’d keep on doing things like that.

Whether a child is a bully or the victim of one, I have found that repeated punishment, and even more positive strategies as suggestions and explanations are ineffective.

In my 30 years of research, I have learned that children can, or can learn to, think for themselves in ways that will help them successfully resolve conflicts with parents, siblings and peers. I call this way of thinking the “problem solving” way. Children can learn to think about how they and others feel when, for example, they threaten someone, what might happen next and what they can do so that the situation won’t happen. Children who are victimized can think about how to stop the bullying, what might happen if they do that and, if needed, what else they can do.

This kind of thought requires skills: Recognition of one’s own and others’ feelings, anticipation of potential consequences to an act and ability to think of solutions to reach one’s goals. I have found that children can learn to think the problem solving way as early as age 4.

Here’s how one Mom learned to talk to her 4-year-old son Adam, whose only way of getting what he wanted from his brother was to lash out and hit him.

Mom: Adam, what’s the problem?
Adam: Timmy won’t share his truck.
Mom: What happened when you hit him?
Adam: He hit me back.
Mom: And how did you feel about that?
Adam: Mad.
Mom: How do you think Adam felt when you hit him?
Adam: Mad.
Mom: Can you think of a different way to get him to share his toy so you both won’t be mad and he won’t hit you?
Adam (thought for a moment): I could let him play with my men [action figures]. Mom: Good thinking. You’re a good problem solver.

This Mom applied a technique I call “dialoguing.” Dialoguing is a two-way conversation that involves the child in an active way. She didn’t yell at him, or suggest he ask for the truck. She didn’t even explain that if he hits his brother, his brother might not let him play with his toys at all. Instead, she gave her son the freedom to come up with his own idea. Children who think of their own ideas are much more likely to carry them out than ideas demanded, suggested or even explained by an adult.

While this kind of talk with very young children may help to prevent a child from not caring about what happens to himself and others, Kevin’s Mom learned how to dialogue with her son, too.

Mom: Kevin, how do you think Michael feels when you threaten to beat him up after school?
Kevin: Scared.
Mom: What happens when you do that?
Kevin: He told the teacher but I don’t care.
Mom: What was it you really wanted him to do?
Kevin: Play with me. He never plays with me.
Mom: Oh, that’s the real problem. Can you think of a different way to get him to play with you?
Kevin: I guess I could stop scaring him.

Kevin and children like him often believe that bullying others will make them look up to them, and want to be their friend. Kevin’s Mom is helping him realize that what he is doing will create the opposite effect. Kevin might not be successful in getting what he wants right away. But Mom is planting a seed that there are other ways to satisfy his needs and that threatening others only prevents him from getting what he really wants— friends.

How did Rebecca fare? Her Mom helped her think about why her friend might want to do this— and what she could do or say. Rebecca found out that her friend talked about a party in front of her that she was not invited to. While Rebecca let her know she felt bad about that, she couldn’t be her friend if she couldn’t trust her. Her friend realized she had betrayed her trust and told Rebecca she was sorry. By turning a problem into a problem that could be solved, Rebecca saved a friendship that might otherwise have been lost. It might also have saved her self-esteem, because if not nipped in the bud, repeated “emotional bullying” could cause her to not like herself, and in time, to not want to go to school.

If children learn to solve problems important to them now, they will be able to solve problems important to them later. And if we change the way we talk to our kids, it will change the way they talk to us, to their peers, and more importantly, to themselves.