My son, Troy, is nine years old and he is being bullied by a younger child at day camp, a seven year old. He tries to stay away from him, but this child seeks him out, and seems to have a real gift for knowing when the adults will be looking the other way. I’ve asked Troy why he doesn’t stand up to the other boy, and he says he’s tried telling him to stop. But the child does mean things like closing his fingers in drawers and he can’t always be confronted before he does them.
Troy is getting angrier and this makes him scared he’ll do something that will really hurt the boy and get himself into serious trouble.
This sounds like a very painful situation both for you and your son. You don’t say how long it’s been going on, but even a day or two without resolution can cause an enormous amount of strain for a child.
I assume that you’ve made the day camp teachers and director aware of the situation? This should be the first thing, of course. If you can increase the awareness of the teachers somewhat, the child will find fewer opportunities to target Troy. Be sure to include Troy in a conversation with the teachers or director. It will be most helpful if Troy can talk about his experience and feel heard by those who are in charge of safety at the program.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to go to work on helping Troy to feel safer and more empowered in general. A child who is targeted by bullies typically is experiencing feelings of disempowerment in a general sense, not simply where the bullies are finding him.
How often are feelings discussed in your family? What are the rules for sharing feelings? If someone is scared, who can they tell? Can a child tell a parent if the parent scares them? Under what circumstances? How would the parent react?
The single most important gift a parent can give a child is to be interested in knowing and loving who they are: warts and all. No one on Earth is perfect, that is the nature of our Earthly existence. We all embody goodness and flaws. In some families, the emphasis on good behavior is so strong that a child can struggle with handling the darker emotions such as disappointment, anger and disgust. Children need more support with these difficult feelings, but often they receive less.
For example, sometimes the behaviors children engage in when they’re in the midst of challenging feelings cause a parent to feel out of control, so the parent exerts control over the child, perhaps by saying “go to your room!” A child who is expressing disappointment or anger in a usual, childish way, maybe by having a tantrum or using rude language—then receives this message from being sent to their room (1) that disappointment and anger are inappropriate emotions to have, (2) there must be something wrong with him for having them, and (3) he will be banished if he has these feelings, so he’d better learn not to have them.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Troy has had tantrums. You make no mention of that. But it does seem that Troy may have somehow gotten the idea that it is not okay to have anger. And however that happened, as his parent, it is now up to you to help him learn to trust all of his own feelings.
How to do this? Happily, it doesn’t have to be difficult, and it will be very positive for you both.
The most important thing to do is to establish connection with yourself. Since you are the parent, you are leading your child by example, and you cannot teach what you don’t embody. This involves acknowledging and validating all the feelings inside of you when they happen. There are some journaling techniques that are helpful for identifying and connecting with our feelings, and other foundational parts of ourselves. Here’s a short video based on the work of Virginia Satir talking about those parts, and a companion exercise called “Drawing your Iceberg.” These videos are only 10 minutes each and if you can incorporate these concepts into your daily life, you will find that all aspects of your life and your child’s life start coming into alignment. Watch the videos once and try for a week, you’ll see.
After establishing your connection with your Self, and from that foundational point, you need to support your child’s connection with himself. This should be easy and fun, and hopefully the two of you will come up with creative ways to do this.
If you’re looking for ideas to get started, you might watch Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out together. It’s a wonderful introduction to the feelings that live inside us and their helpful nature. Children’s books, and literature in general, offer the opportunity to talk about the feelings of the characters. The author of the Harry Potter series did a particularly good job of developing the emotional lives of her characters. Even older classics, such as Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, offer similar opportunities. And children can be read to up until the age of 11 or 12, there’s no need to stop just because a child is a competent reader.
Once conversations about feelings have begun, it becomes natural for the child to share more about how he feels. All of a child’s feelings should be validated—that is, accepted for what they are. There are no wrong feelings. Feelings are messengers that inform us of how we are impacted by something. They may suggest actions, and unsupported, they may lead to actions, but feelings are not actions in and of themselves. When a child shares his feelings, he is inviting you to become a trusted advisor. And all that is necessary is that you validate those feelings, to hear them and allow them to be.
I haven’t said much about how to advise him about the bully. I’m afraid that spending time talking about the bully isn’t going to help your son, and it really sends the wrong message, that bad behavior is what gets attention. Talking about how your son FEELS about the bully, and validating those feelings, that will be helpful, even if it takes many conversations.
Being present with your own feelings about the situation, apart from your son if they are intense or disturbing for you, that is the first step. How do you feel about your son’s situation? Really explore this. Write your feelings down, in a list. Look at the list of feelings. Validate them. You may not be happy to see those feelings on the page, but they are messengers, and we’d rather know some unpleasant truths than shoot the messenger, right? Nobody’s happy to get an overdraft notice, but if the bank didn’t send them and rather just let our accounts deplete until they were forced to close them… well we wouldn’t like that, would we?
Validate your own feelings and sit with them. Then do the same for your son when he tells you about his. Express your love for him and your confidence in him to find a solution. Because he can. Hold him and love him when he cries. He doesn’t need to worry about following instructions when dealing with a bully. He needs to remember who he is, to remember that his experience matters too, and that you always want to hear about it. The actions he takes when he is connected to Self, well, they’ll be a bully’s kryptonite.