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Sara, the mother of seven-year-old Aiden told me her son was complaining that his friend of several years, Noah, a boy a year or two older, had been bullying him.  Apparently, Noah had pushed him into a closet where he and another boy hit him.  This had happened a few times and always out of view of any adults.  Additionally, the boy told him if he tattled that he would hit him again when no one was around.  This was happening when both boys were at either at Aiden or Noah’s house.

Although the occasional abuse made her son reticent, he still wanted to visit and play with his friend.  His mother was concerned because this was one of very few friends Aiden had and she and the boy’s mother were also friends.

What to do?

To understand how to respond to bullying we must first understand its motivations.  Bullying is an attempt to exert social power.  Bullying is not the result of the bully’s lack of understanding about right and wrong, or their lack of empathy.  Quite often a bully is conflicted between their desire for power and their empathy.  It’s not that a bully doesn’t understand or feel empathy, it’s just that their desire for social power is stronger.

Social power is increased when a child shows disregard for the opinions of adults.  Grade school children are uncertain about who they are, and there is nothing cooler to their peers than a child who shows that he not only doesn’t need the approval of adults but is unafraid of their opinions or outrage.

Consequently, there are generally two effective approaches to handling bullying.  One is to consequence the bully and the other is to coach the bullied.  The biggest mistake adults make is to intervene by lecturing the bully or otherwise telling him how his or her actions are wrong, bad, shameful or disapproved of.  Berating or lecturing the bully in front of his peers is particularly ineffective as is provides a perfect platform for the bully to display social status and power.

So what to do with Aiden and Noah?

I suggested the mom start by coaching her son in effective ways to handle the situation.  Ask him to look out for the first signs of the bullying and when he sees it going that way he should say to his friend, “I don’t want you hitting me.  If you hit me I won’t play with you.”  Then if his friend does hit him, he should immediately tell the adult who’s at the house that he wants to go home or he wants his friend taken home.

Sara asked me if she should sit Noah down and tell him that she knows about the bullying and that it isn’t okay and I told her no.

There are two problems with Sara, not Aiden, confronting Noah about his bullying.  First, it undermines the power of Aiden by demonstrating that he must rely on his mom’s power and can’t assert his own and it denies him the opportunity to assert that power himself.  Second, it gives status to Noah’s actions by allowing him to flaunt his opposition to Aiden’s mom’s wishes and approval, inadvertently increasing Noah’s social power.

Then Sara asked me if she should talk to Noah’s mom and have her talk to Noah about his behavior.  My answer was no.  Again this will increase Noah’s status and show Aiden’s lack of power and status.  If she does talk with Noah’s mom it should be to ask for her support of Aiden as he negotiates this problem while specifically asking her not to talk to her son.

This way Aiden can exercise the power of following through with what he said he would do.  When Aiden comes to either adult he should be coached to say simply, “I want to go home now” or “I need you to take Noah home now”.  And the adults should honor his request immediately without questioning him or reproaching Noah.  This gives Aiden a tool to exert his own social power and to take away social power from Noah.

The other effective approach to bullying is hard to do in this situation since the boys are always playing alone when it happens.  However, in other situations I would advise the adults to stay close and within eyeshot when possible and intervene with an immediate action consequence that lowers social power.  Telling the bully to take a break for five minutes away from other children, without discussing with them why, can be a good way to do this.  Once the adult says why, or what the bully did was wrong, they inadvertently increase the status of the bully.

My wife told me about a teacher she had as a child who insisting that any child he caught bullying wear a big pink bow for the rest of the day.  While I’d never recommend this kind of shaming, her teacher clearly understood the root cause of bullying and attempted to counter it with something that diminished social power and status.

As we move forward in our attempt to eliminate the growing epidemic of bullying it’s essential that we respond with more than simple outrage and moralizing for the bully and empathy for the bullied.  Our responses must consider why it’s happening and which actions will undermine, or strengthen, the true motivations for it.

Joe Newman is a Behavior Consultant and the author of Raising Lions

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