Bullying & the Behavior Window: The Bullied Child (Part 1/3)

Bullying & the Behavior Window:

The Bullied Child (Part 1/3)

When I teach, all sorts of scenarios come up including, of course, bullying.

It is recognized that this phenomenon is best dealt with preventively and systemically rather than as an interpersonal matter. And yet, what does a P.E.T. parent do if our child becomes a target or is bullying others?

This post, Part 1, will deal with the bullied child and Part 2, the bully. (In real life, the distinctions can be more fluid but, for our analysis, they will surely help.) In Part 3, I will address the bystander and the larger question of prevention.

I'm not an expert; I have only read about the phenomenon and attended a workshop held by Robert Pereira, a master P.E.T. instructor and consultant on bullying. My goal -- as in the course itself -- is to help parents benefit from the Behavior Window paradigm so they can mindfully choose roles and skills that help the situation with their child.

When a Child Is Being Bullied, Who Owns The Problem?

The Behavior Window is our filter for looking at our children's behaviors, that is, what they do or say. In this context, the behaviors might include:

  • Son says that others throw food at him and he responds by sitting still
  • Daughter reports that she doesn't drink fluids so as not to have a full bladder because she is regularly prevented from entering the girls' bathroom 
  • Daughter changes her eating or sleeping patterns
  • Son asks to stay home from school, claiming he is unwell

Where would the following scenario fall in the Behavior Window?

Our daughter is being excluded and does not know what she has done to warrant it. One girl is leading others -- including some of our daughter's own friends -- to pretend that she is invisible. The girls say nothing if she joins them or get up from the lunch table as soon as she sits down. Our daughter stays silent when she hears them say "I don't see anyone, do you?" "Nope."

Our daughter cries and asks us to promise not to tell anyone.

Child Owns Problem?

Yes. Our daughter is showing verbally and nonverbally that she is stressed out by this situation.

No Problem?

Emphatically not!

Parent Owns Problem?

No. A scenario falls in this box when the child is showing no emotional upset.

Both Own Problem: Conflict of Needs?

No. She has the same need that we have: safety. 

Both Own Problem: Values Collision?

Maybe later.

At the beginning, this is in the Child Owns Problem box. Once we have supported her in finding her own solution to the problem, she may resolve it.

If not, then we may become worried that our daughter's behavior has a concrete and tangible negative effect on her well being.

I'll go into this a little more later.

Applying the Skills 

Once we know where we are in the Behavior Window, then we see what role we want to play and what our options are.

When our children have problems, the Helping Skills, especially Active Listening, aid them in processing their feelings so they can be more logical and resourceful in devising their own solutions. 

Active Listening

. . . fosters . . . catharsis.

. . . helps children become less afraid of negative feelings.

. . . promotes a relationship of warmth between parent and child.

. . . facilitates problem-solving by the child.

. . . influences the child to be more willing to listen to the parents’ thoughts and ideas.

. . . ‘keeps the ball with the child.’
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, pages 65-68

Let's hit the pause button for a reality check:

It might be reeeaaaallllyyy difficult to calmly be a helper and acknowledge that this is our child's problem if every cell in our body is screaming for us to pick up the phone and do something to make the problem stop!!!!

Hearing that our child is on the receiving end of bullying behaviors is painful. One crucial way to help, however, is to get ourselves out of the way and to focus on our long term goals for her, such as self-awareness, determination and resilience.

We have to bear the pain that our children share with us, pain that might break our hearts or annoy us or remind us of our own horrible peer experiences. And we have to keep a perspective about all that pain. Indeed, the first rule of worrying as a parent is to take the long view.
— Michael Thompson and Lawrence Cohen, Mom, They're Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems, pages 5-6

Only after we follow the lead of one mother profiled in Thompson and Cohen's book whose "internal work [served] to untangle her own past from her son's present" (Mom, They're Teasing Me, page 14) will we be able effectively to use the skills. 

Active Listen

Reflecting back what the child is telling us coupled with a guess as to her underlying emotions is a vote of confidence that she can solve her own dilemmas. Energized with new insight, she may find a solution to meet her needs. (This doesn't mean we might not ever have a bigger role to play; more on that below.)

Though she uses the Roadblock of questioning, it's useful to see how one bullying expert illustrates this process:

Listen in a non-judgmental way about your child and about the teaser. Let your kid do the talking. Don’t try to solve the problem. Ask, “What happened? How did that make you feel?” to draw your child out. And try to find out more about the kid who’s doing the teasing. Don’t say, “Oh my God, what a rotten kid,” because you’re just getting a part of the story. Your child doesn’t need you to go ballistic or take on the problem as your own. Your child needs to know that he’s being heard and that his feelings matter. Once you’ve got the whole story out, depending upon what’s happened, you can take your next step. For a parent to be explosive about the situation will cause a child to recoil. If I march to school and confront the bully on the playground, my child is not going to feel safe telling me anything about this again. I’m taking on his battle for him.
— Elizabeth Wilkins, My Child Is Being Bullied -- What Should I Do? https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-being-bullied-what-should-i-do

So, maybe the conversation would develop along these lines:

Daughter (crying and shaking head): "I don't know why she's being so mean."

Parent: "You're really at a loss as to why she's doing this and you feel so sad."

Daughter: "It's not just her either. She got Tabitha to go along but I thought Tabitha was my friend."

Parent: "The fact that friends are following her is truly painful."

Daughter: "I just don't know when they're going to play that horrible game. Last week Stella was sick. But today she was back so it started again."

(Silence, allowing space for the crying.)

Parent: "Not knowing what you'll be facing any given day is really stressful."

Daughter: "I don't know what to do."

(Silent nodding -- Acknowledgment)

Parent: "Yeah, it's difficult to know how to respond" 

(The Acknowledgment and AL can all give her room to keep on thinking out loud.)

Daughter: "Well, I'll just make sure I have a book to read. If they don't want to play with me, that's ok. Recess is not that long."

Can you feel the energy shift as she taps into reserves of resilience and creativity?

This happened, by the way, to my own daughter Claudia a few years ago (with her permission, I share her story here). She determined to ignore the girls claiming not to see or hear her and made sure always to have a good book. This strategy kind of worked; the bullying was intermittent instead of relentless. (Later, the nature of the bullying changed -- keep reading!)

Sometimes, it may not be this easy. What if the child is stuck and asks us what she should do?

Facilitate a Problem-Solve

In this type of Problem-Solve, we simply provide structure and guidance.

1. Define Problem in Terms of Needs

The first step is accomplished through Active Listening, which we've already done. We might sum up this way:

"Well, it sounds like you need clarity and security knowing who is your friend and what's going to happen on any given day. You also would like to feel strong and independent that you can survive free periods even when they ignore you. Under it all, you need acceptance and belonging and that's why this experience is really hurting you . . . . . . Any other needs, honey?"

2. Brainstorm

Parent: "What are some ways you can think of to meet these needs?"

Let her come up with some ideas. We may add some too, based on what we know about bullying, the girls involved and our own daughter.

3. Evaluate, 4. Choose & 5. Implement Solution

Let her decide what she'd like to do. We can contribute to the evaluation process through Door Openers, questions that invite her to think through the consequences. 

6. Decide on a time to check in

This will send a strong signal that we have her back if her first tries don't work.

Throughout this process, we take care to restrain ourselves in order to empower her:

[L]et your kid come up with ideas. Ask him questions like, ‘What do you think you can say next time? What do you think might work?’ Help your child see what the outcome might be of their words and actions; help them see that this is a problem they can solve on their own terms. For example, your kid might come up with the idea of saying to the bully, ‘Leave me alone, you jerk.’ Instead of the parent saying, ‘That’s a bad idea,’ respond with, ‘What do you think is going to happen if you do that?’ Let them figure out that the bullying might escalate if they resort to name-calling.

Your child might then shrug and say, ‘I could walk away from the bully.’ You can suggest that they walk away the first time and say what they need to say the next time. We have to be honest about how hard it is to face a tormentor. It’s also important to ask your child this question: ‘What’s going to make you feel better about this situation?’ But make sure you’re not the one coming up with the solution. It’s important that your child feels like they’re solving the problem on his or her own terms. It’s a skill you can teach them that will last a lifetime.
— Elizabeth Wilkins, My Child Is Being Bullied -- What Should I Do? https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-being-bullied-what-should-i-do/

If a child's solution doesn't work and the bullying continues (or the way she solves her problem goes against our values) then we have a Values Collision. 

A value is a belief (or an ideal) that shapes behavior. Here, the beliefs might include:

I have no power to do anything.

The best thing to do is keep my head down. 

Adult interference will make the situation worse for me. 

To help her change the beliefs driving her behavior, we might choose the following skills.

Confrontive I-Message 

In the context of Values Collisions, the three part Confrontive I-Message focuses on the impact on our daughter. 

"When you keep silent (behavior), I'm really worried (feelings) because I've read that bullying often continues if you're seen as a soft target and I know you really want this to end (effects on her)."

As with all confrontation, we can prepare to Shift Gears to Active Listen any defensiveness or resistance.

"Oh, sweetie, you're annoyed at me for bringing it up that way because you'd like acknowledgment that you have actually thought this through and this was your decision."

After another Confrontive I-Message -- "It's just that I'm not sure the girls are getting the strongest message from you and that concerns me." -- perhaps she will share her reasons for choosing to silently walk away. 

One outcome is that maybe our deep listening will change our perception of the matter: "By encouraging the child to express the way he is feeling, the parent sees the whole situation in a brand new light." (Gordon, P.E.T., page 153)

Or, as a result of this genuine dialogue, maybe our daughter's emotional temperature will lower and she will soften into wanting to hear more about why we believe in verbal assertiveness. Then (or maybe later if we need time to do some research) we can move in with Consulting.


When we are anxious to share our wisdom, experience and expertise with our kids, Thomas Gordon recommends these three steps:

1. Get Hired

This means we have to have our daughter's ear. 

So we choose a time that is good to talk. (Ideally we have addressed our own anxiety first.)

"Hey, there's something I want to share with you. It's really important to me. I'd like to take some time to discuss it today or tomorrow."

If she's evasive, we can AL that:

"Oh, I see this is probably the last thing you want to talk about, especially when things seem to have calmed down at school."

The more we listen to whatever resistance comes up, the more willing she will be, finally, to listen to us.

When we reassert how imperative it is that we hold this discussion, we can be congruent and show the intensity of our feelings! 

"I'm super anxious about you! I see that you have lost some hair even and that you haven't been eating as well as you used to. I really want to share some information." 

2. Give Facts and Figures

Beforehand, we have prepared by going to some trusted sources to learn about best ways of responding to bullying. Here are some points we might choose to make:

~~ Blame v. taking responsibility -- It's not our daughter's fault she is being victimized but she can take responsibility for her own well-being.

~~ Practice makes perfect -- People can benefit from role-playing what if scenarios ahead of time. We might use our own example of how practicing in the P.E.T. course led to using skills successfully at home.

~~ Advisability of school involvement -- Many experts think it's best to have parent-teacher communication over a bullying situation earlier, rather than later. 

We should be ready to Active Listen throughout this sharing. For instance, my daughter was very reluctant for several months to allow me to speak to her teacher. 

3. Let the client decide

When the child deeply senses that we understand and respect her needs and concerns, she is more likely to accept our consultancy. 

If she agrees to work with us, we may help her think of:

  • Comebacks that show the bully she's resistant -- "Oh, I think I've seen this old game before."
  • Things she wants the bully and the other girls to realize -- "I disagree -- everyone belongs at this school."
  • Strategies to use if the bully retaliates -- Maybe she can get a new friend to make a stand together with her, or to call her over out of a tight spot.

(For the six most effective ways to respond and tips on delivery, click on this article.)

It's a balancing act but we must respect the fact that our daughter's fear of being further ostracized as a "tattletale" is very real. (Children who report bullying often face severe retribution, according to Thompson and Cohen.) Instead of us speaking to the school counselor, principal or teacher, she may want to try to handle this on her own, especially if she feels newly confident about confronting the bully.

Pause button again please!

Is power ever justified? Should we ever overrule our child for her own safety? 

As shown in the Values Collisions strategies visual in the workbook (page 106), using power is the highest risk but is necessary in cases where safety is an issue.

In our family's case, after giving Claudia the invisibility treatment on and off for months, the bully started saying Claudia had stolen something from a friend while at her house, and that girl did not deny it.

At that point, I felt my daughter was in over her head. I explained to Claudia that, as someone who had joined the school only the year before, her reputation was especially vulnerable because not many kids knew her. I Active Listened her terror that she would be made to pay if the group of girls found out her mother had reported it. 

Once she felt like she had had a full hearing with an empathetic audience, Claudia was able to absorb my point of view and finally agreed that I could speak to her teacher. She asked me to make it clear that she was very afraid and to urge the teacher to proceed with caution.

What if my daughter had not given consent?

In the context of bullying, sometimes we parents must be strong advocates, even resorting to drastic measures to ensure the child's safety.

10. Don’t hesitate to intervene.
Your job as the parent is to protect your child. That means that in addition to teaching your child to stick up for herself, you may well need to call the teacher or principal. Don’t give your child the message that she’s all alone to handle this. And don’t assume that if there isn’t physical violence, she isn’t being wounded in a deep way. Despite the old rhyme about words not hurting, mean words and isolation are terribly damaging to our psyches, and cause lasting negative effects. If the school cannot protect your child, consider transferring to a different school, or even homeschooling.
— Dr. Laura Markham, 10 Ways to Empower Your Child Against Bulllying, http://www.ahaparenting.com/Default.aspx?PageID=7652608&A=SearchResult&SearchID=9671222&ObjectID=7652608&ObjectType=1

If power has been only sparingly employed in the past, master trainer Kathryn Tonges believes the relationship will be able to withstand us acting in this instance without her full consent: "I imagine that if you use power and damage the relationship, it will be temporary and repairable."

Here's where a surplus of trust and good will built by democratic parenting over time comes in handy. It is the payoff that comes from refraining from using power -- we find, to our great relief, that we have influence.

In our case, Claudia had a happy ending. The teacher and school counselor were receptive and shared that the ringleader came from a sad, broken family and had a long history of bullying behavior stretching back to kindergarten. They each agreed to speak to her and promised that my daughter would be placed in a different classroom from her for the rest of primary school. The bullying stopped. 

Please continue to read the two upcoming posts because children may find themselves the subject of bullying one day, but the aggressor or passive bystander another. It's important for us all to help each other be our best selves.

This series is a complex undertaking for me! I welcome your feedback, especially if I have missed something big or small.

Credits: Bullied child image (http://media4.popsugar-assets.com/files/2015/09/30/693/n/1922398/bcbeb274_42-19632554.xxxlarge_2x.jpg)