Bullying & the Behavior Window: The Bully, Part 2/3

Bullying & the Behavior Window:

The Bully, Part 2/3

As I mentioned in the first entry in this bullying series, I hesitate to use labels because roles are fluid; all children -- including victims themselves -- are vulnerable to slipping into this behavior.

“[A]t one time or another all children do yearn for power over others. They long to command the attention, respect, admiration, obedience and love of others . . . At one time or another all children compete for the applause of the audience composed of their classmates. Sadly, one of the ways to entrance that audience is to pick on a smaller, more vulnerable child in front of a crowd . . .
— Michael Thompson and Lawrence Cohen, Mom, They're Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems, page 32

It is also sometimes hard to distinguish bullying from teasing or other types of social cruelty.

But what if we get that dreaded phone call saying our son has been bullying? 

If the school is using that term, there's a good chance he has exhibited some of the behaviors listed in the definition at StopBullying.gov:

. . . unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

-- http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html

A quick search online yields a number of articles that tell us to stay calm, to thank the caller, to listen to our child and try to find out the facts, and to let the child know his behavior was unacceptable. Some even say to impose consequences or punishments. The approach may differ depending on which type of bully the child most resembles; in some instances, it may be advisable to seek professional help.

I've chosen to apply the Behavior Window analysis to a scenario that reflects the heartbreak I have heard from parents of older kids who face the prospect of: 

  • a lot of relationship repair
  • painful reckoning with ourselves as parents and
  • forging a new path of open, honest communication

When Our Child is Bullying Others, Who Owns the Problem?

Child Owns Problem?

Yes. Our son is showing that he is not happy. Even if he maintains a non-apologetic front of "that kid deserves it," we know that his actions are not aligned with his truest, highest nature.

Some might feel uncomfortable with saying the child owns the problem but I think it's an assertion that can make all the difference:

The toughest part of the entire bullying dilemma is how to respond to those who bully. Part of the challenge, as I see it, is that we are habituated to create a dichotomy between compassion and responsibility. Compassion appears to many of us to mean letting someone “off the hook”, whereas responsibility seems to mean punitive consequences which would get diluted and rendered ineffective if kindness were to be introduced into the equation. The impulse to punish is based on wanting to protect the bullied child by getting the behavior to stop, and believing that delivering consequences will deter the behavior.

[D]ealing with the behavior without attending to its causes doesn’t change anything. Instead, understanding the causes of bullying and reversing the conditions that support it are the only way forward . . . My basic foundation is the clarity I have that no one would ever bully, nor engage in any other harmful behavior, if all their needs were met to their satisfaction, especially developmentally.
— Miki Kashtan, More About Bullying, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/acquired-spontaneity/201206/more-about-bullying

No Problem?

No way.

Parent Owns Problem?

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

Both Own Problem: Conflict of Needs?

If addressing the behavior in the Child Owns Problem box does not resolve the problem, it might arguably come to fall in this box. A child would not reasonably deflect concerns with "What's it to you if I bully or not?"

Yet, more than a question of us being unable to meet our needs, we are anxious about his well-being. When we are more troubled about the negative concrete and tangible effects on our children, then the situation falls in the next box. 

Both Own Problem: Values Collision?

Yes. If the behavior continues, we would be worried about the deleterious effect on his well being, not to mention that of others.

A value is a belief or an ideal that shapes behavior. Here, the beliefs (conscious or not) might include:

The only way to get acknowledgment is through intimidation.

People don't respond to me unless they fear me. 

I am unlovable so it's safer to push people away before they have a chance to reject me. 

It's hard to pinpoint what the driving values are exactly, yet we know that someone who bullies is not operating from a place of strength and connection:

We all need to feel powerful in our lives. If we don’t have access to power in healthy ways, it can be hard to resist using it in unhealthy ways. And for a child or teen who often feels powerless in her life, abusing power by bullying can feel as potent as a drug. If he’s hurting inside, it can help him feel a little better for a short time. If someone has humiliated, threatened, or hurt him, those feelings often threaten to overwhelm his psyche, and he lashes out, wanting to humiliate, threaten or hurt someone else. Unfortunately, then, kids who are hurting often hurt other kids.
— Laura Markham, Ten Ways to Empower Your Child Against Bullying, http://www.ahaparenting.com/Default.aspx?PageID=7652608&A=SearchResult&SearchID=9716249&ObjectID=7652608&ObjectType=1

Applying the Skills

Choosing to be a helper requires empathy that may be hard to drum up when we hear our son has intentionally, repeatedly hurt someone. Flooded with adrenaline, we might instead jump into lecture mode: "What are you thinking? Can't you see that hurts the other person? It goes against everything you've been brought up to believe!"

Yet, if we can try to connect with what's under our anger we might find a number of primary emotions:

  • Fear -- What's going to happen to him?
  • Sadness -- I am heartbroken to see my child so alone and cruel in his dealings with kids he thinks are weak. 
  • Anxiety -- This is a case of too little, too late! 
  • Shame -- I have created a monster and have failed in my most important job.

Starting to forgive ourselves is courageous and arduous work, and utterly necessary. We do whatever it takes to come to a place where we can accept that our child is very much hurting; then we can become a helper and try to turn things around.

Support growth and change: Yes, there is a problem but remain optimistic. The message: Life is full of opportunities to reinvent ourselves if we are willing to do the hard work of owning our mistakes, understanding the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors involved, and getting new tools and strategies for trying on different behaviors. The most important thing for us as a family is to be honest, responsive, and accountable.
— Catherine Steiner-Adair, What to Do If Your Child Is a Bully, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/18/what-to-do-if-your-child-is-a-bully/

And that goes for us too! Being the parent of a bullying child may nudge us to admit that change must involve us, since research indicates that bullies:

• Lack empathy and compassion for others’ feelings
• May be expressing anger about events in their lives
• Want to be in control
• Have low self esteem
• May be trying to impress their peers
• Come from families where parents or siblings bully
• Do not receive adequate parental attention or supervision
• Have parents that do not enforce discipline
• May be the victims of bullying and are trying to retaliate

-- Mary Pulido, My Child Is the Bully: Tips for Parents, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-l-pulido-phd/bullying_b_1435791.html

Major repair work can start meeting some of the child's needs for love, belonging, acceptance, safety, security, understanding, acknowledgment and mattering. 

Active Listening Plus

Active Listening is paramount! This was the lesson that stood out for me in an interview with Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the two shooters at Columbine High School:

I wish that I had had the ability to delve deeper and ask the kinds of questions that would’ve encouraged him to open up more to me. I had parented my kids, in many ways, the way I had been parented, which means you listen to your kids’ problems and you try to fix them. ... I think what I needed to do with Dylan more was to just shut up and listen, to try to get him to say to me what he was feeling and thinking about something, rather than to automatically jumping to a way to make him not feel that way or to fix the way he felt.
— Columbine Shooter's Mother, I Carry Him Wherever I Go, Always, http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466618817/sue-klebold-mother-of-columbine-shooter-carries-him-everywhere-i-go-always

Older kids sometimes have built up layers of protection against the world, and us. I think that, in addition to AL and the other Helping Skills, we may need to pepper our efforts with Relationship Skills from the No Problem box, namely Declarative I-Messages and Positive I-Messages. 

The exchange might take place in fits and starts:

Parent: "I got another call from school today about your behavior, this time with Tommy. I'm really worried and would like to help." (Declarative I-Message)

Son: "It's none of your business. Tommy's just a crybaby and he deserves whatever he gets."

Parent: "You're really wanting me to stay out of it and think the school is making a big deal . . ." (Active Listening)

Son: "I'm not talking to you." [Shuts the door to his room]

Parent: After a pause, perhaps with hand on our heart, offering compassion inwardly. "You don't trust or feel close enough to me to talk. (Active Listening) I want you to know I'm really trying to be a better listener. I feel sad knowing that I have let you down in many ways. I think I have shut you down a lot and not let you have a say in our home. I'm really, really sorry." (Declarative I-Messages). 


Parent: "I'll go fix dinner but I'd like to try to talk later. I check in with you again. (Door opener) I will not be punishing you; I want to put that behind us because I know now that it harms relationships." (Declarative I-Message)

[Later, after dinner]

Parent: "You seem really angry at me and sad in general." (Active Listening)


Parent: "It's scary but I'm willing to try to understand the mistakes I have made as a parent and to work with you on this. (Declarative I-Message) I want to help because I remember the little boy you once were and I still love you." (Positive I-Message)

Son: "Stop talking like that."


Parent: "You don't like the old me nor my new approach. (Active Listening) The thing is, I have read enough about what it might take for someone to act towards Tommy that way -- I'm not saying you did, and I would like to hear your side of the story -- and there were many points that made me rethink my communication patterns with you. I need to change. I believe you may want to change because you don't seem happy." (Declarative I-Messages)

Son: "I've never been happy in this sucky family."

Parent (crying): "You've suffered so much growing up with us. (Active Listening) I'm truly sorry. I don't exactly know what our next steps should be but I know that we owe it to ourselves to be happier and closer and that the kids around you will benefit from you being more at peace at home and with yourself. (Declarative and Positive I-Messages) Would you be willing to consider that?"


Parent: "Well, thanks for listening. (Pause) I'd like to share something. You know I've taken P.E.T. and change has not come easy for me. I'm taking steps to support myself. I've decided that there's no shame in reaching out for help. (Declarative I-Messages) You are worth it to me." (Positive I-Message)

For an example of how to discuss the bullying incident itself, read this excellent article.

Modify the Environment & I-Messages

Over the next days and weeks, to continue addressing the causes of the bullying, we can Modify the Environment and use Declarative and Positive I-Messages.

For instance, we can make an effort to be around more, cutting things out of our own schedule to free up time to just be. We might choose to make some of his favorite meals, or buy his favorite type of bagel.

We might have to Active Listen, though, if he expresses displeasure at our newfound availability.

"You seem upset to have me here because you like your privacy after school and are mistrustful that I'm spying on you and your friends." 

When he feels ready to hear us, it would be powerful to continue our new pattern of self-disclosing:

"This is not about forcing you to be with me, but about being more available. I want you to know that I am trying to believe that it's never too late and that I can try my best to make up for lost time. (Declarative I-Messages) I love you and want to spend time around you and to be here if you need me." (Positive I-Message) 

I believe strengthening the bonds with our children and helping them to feel "felt" whenever they are upset increases the efficacy of our parenting. It can, however, feel awkward, embarrassing or daunting:

[O]ur job is to insist on connection, to assume that children want more contact and more affection underneath their rejecting or obnoxious behavior . . . We can reclaim that extremely warm, close, deep connection that most of us thought was no longer possible . . . I keep insisting on connection, but I want it to be on the child’s terms as much as possible.
— Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting, pages 172-175

In fact, repairing a relationship with our child may be the hardest work we'll ever do, but would there be anything more worth it?

What if, after we have used our Helping Skills and Relationship Skills, the bullying behaviors continue? Let's look at what other skills we can use with a child who is now, hopefully, more open since he has already felt heard, accepted and understood by us.

It is a universal experience that when someone will listen to one’s own point of view, it is then easier to listen to his. Children are more likely to open themselves up to receive their parents’ messages if their parents first hear them out.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 67

Confrontive I-Message

In the context of Values Collisions, the third part -- the effects -- are focused on the child. So we could say:

"When you call James those names and get friends to stand in front of his locker, I'm really worried because your connection with others gets more and more frayed and the principal is considering suspending you which would just add to the very hard year you are having."

Shifting Gears to Active Listen will be crucial to understanding what the underlying needs are. Maybe the child will open up about a time he was treated unfairly; maybe getting turned down by someone was so excruciating that he started targeting James. He will be better in touch with what's really been tearing at him the more he has a nonjudgmental sounding board.

Hopefully, all the AL we have been doing will have created enough emotional intimacy for him to realize he actually does -- or wants to -- have the same values as you.


Our child is more likely to accept our consulting if he respects us (not out of fear but from genuine regard). All the efforts we've made so far have been helping us to have true influence with our son. Here's how consulting might look. 

1. Get Hired

In the No Problem area, we send a Declarative I-Message.

"Hey, it's really important to me that we follow up on our talk about what's going on at school. I'd like to do that sometime before or after dinner."

If there is resistance, we AL that:

"Oh, you're tired and annoyed that I still want to be involved. You don't like all this talking especially when it's already eaten a large chunk of your time."

The more we listen to his upset or defensiveness, the more he will listen as we reassert:

"This is a crucial part of my job, to feel like I've given my all to help you enjoy smooth social relations and friendships. Part of that comes from handling our own negative emotions. I have a lot to share and it's really important to me."

2. Make our case

Once we have his ear, we can impart our knowledge and expertise. Here are some things to consider:

It's all about needs ~

We can share the affirming mainstay of the P.E.T. approach that all behavior is to meet needs. How comforting if we can remind him we are looking past his behavior to determine his unmet needs and pledge to help him meet them in more socially acceptable ways! 

~ Neuroplasticity ~ 

Thank goodness science is backing us up and we know that, no matter how hard the past has been, we can change. Acknowledging and releasing emotions, mindfulness, making implicit memories explicit, self-compassion practices and reparenting ourselves can be powerful ways out of unhealthy patterns. 

~ The redemptive power of stories ~

We might share a healing story from Susan Perrow, or help him write and re-write his own life stories.

~ The power of practice ~

If we've taken the P.E.T. course, we know that skills-building works; now it can be our turn to facilitate this type of experiential learning for our child.

Help your child adopt alternative strategies to use instead of bullying. Remember, bullies aren’t born; children can change. It’s not necessarily “once a bully, always a bully.” Role play how they will handle future conflicts with their peers. Change characters and have your child play the part of the child that is being bullied, it will help them understand why their behavior must change.
— http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-l-pulido-phd/bullying_b_1435791.html

3. Leave the decision to the client

We can only change ourselves. Of course, if our child's behavior is a threat to others we have a duty to ensure the safety of those individuals. [See discussion of the risks of using power at the end of the first bullying post.]

Modify Self

Carving out time to support and grow ourselves will be important if our son is still falling back into bullying behaviors. Strategies such as meditation, counseling, journaling or EFT tapping can be options. Or, as Gordon points out, we might continue meeting with others after the P.E.T. course in "advanced groups" to achieve "greater effectiveness as a person and parent." (P.E.T. page 321)


I will discuss modeling at greater length in the next post on the bystander and prevention. I do, though, want to highlight the transformative values on display if we help and respond to our child as in the conversations above:

  • I am responsible for conscious and unconscious decisions I made (responsibility, honesty)
  • I strive to forgive myself because I want to believe I am worthy of love and belonging (self-compassion, kindness)
  • I am in charge of my future (hope, resilience, problem-solving)
  • Painful work is worth it if it brings me closer to the ones I love (family, love)

Our son is watching, taking it all in. As we heal, we are on our way to helping him become more whole.


All this work deserves a deep breath of acknowledgment for the magnitude of the task.

A crisis like bullying may spur a parent on to realize that nothing less than a paradigm shift is needed to help our child and to revive our relationship with him.

If this post speaks to your experience, I truly hope it has helped. 

Sending waves of compassion your way,

Catherine xo

Credits: Bullying photo (http://www.duhaime.org/Portals/duhaime/images/bullying2.jpg); Mary Oliver quote (https://excellentjourney.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/img_1042.png)

A note on Facilitating a Problem-Solve: 

Sometimes Active Listening moves seamlessly into problem-solving [see the first post]. Yet, in this instance, our child has been at a loss as to what to do to meet his needs, and thus reached for bullying behaviors. While a guided six step problem-solve might work later, the focus of this post has been on the delicate work of mending relations with the child and taking action to start meeting his important needs. 

Please let me know what you think! Boy, this one was a tough one that really touched into that aching sense of how vulnerable parenting can be for US.