Q. Ines, 8, is a very sweet playing, sporty, capable but gentle friend. On the playground one of her better friends at school is starting to bully her. Tonight she was crying as the girl was telling her to go into a dark shed in the playground. Ines said she didn’t want to as she was afraid of the dark. The friend teased her for being a cry baby and insisted etc. My question is what do I do? I encouraged her to say STOP! and that you don’t like the way she is treating you, but she says that is not kind and she doesn’t want to be like her friend. I said to her that she needs to say stop for her friend’s sake too. She ‘practiced’ saying it but sounded like a mouse… that’s not going to transmit a message of strength. She’s going to a party tomorrow and this friend will be there. Ines is afraid that this girl will insist that the room be dark. I know the parents well and could talk to them but of course this would be highly embarrassing… I could speak directly to the girl, but I feel that’s probably not appropriate?
A. Your work is with Ines to help her find her voice without pushing her to use your voice. You do not have to have the answer for her—nor should you. If “Stop” doesn’t feel right to her, something else will, but she needs to find it. She is very concerned about remaining nice and not being a bully herself. Let her know that you see that and fully respect that. She sounds like a very gentle soul and gets uncomfortable with any kind of confrontation.
First try a role play. Ask Ines if she will play a game with you. You play her friend and tell Ines that she gets to say or yell whatever she wants to you because there is no one there who would think badly of her or care at all what she says. Encourage her to pull up from deep down whatever it is she feels when her friend tries to make her do what she doesn’t want to do. If she has a hard time with this, you might offer some prompts with: You know, if I were you, I bet I would feel put down and small. I think I also might feel powerless or helpless when she tried to make me do something scary. I’d feel really mad at someone who tried to hold that power over me. If she affirms that’s how she feels, see if you can encourage her to get mad at you playing her friend.
You can also encourage her by asking her what it is she wants from this girl. She will probably say something like she wants her to just be her friend and not try to scare her. Then ask her, What can you think of that you can do to get what you want? If she says something like, Just leave her alone, you can ask, Would that get you what you want? You want her to be your friend. Do you think leaving her alone would stop her from trying to scare you?
The beauty of role play is that it alone empowers the child through the experience of expressing herself in a 100% safe place. She learns that she has it in her whether she ever says anything at all to the bully. In the safety of your company, she can be herself and let off some steam. Keep encouraging her to dig in and say things she would never say in reality.
Ines doesn’t sound like the type to really blow it out and scream and yell at you—although that is what you want to encourage. But whatever she comes up with is right for her at this time. Acknowledge what you see. Wow, I can really tell how mad you are at her, or It seems to me that you are feeling scared to let your feelings out. Or I wonder if you’re not sure how you do feel. But all of it is about her, not what you think she should do.
Then work with her to find something she might actually say to this girl – a word or a phrase – that she can have at the ready IF she chooses to use it. Point out to her that she always has the choice to use her word or phrase or stay quiet. Then she chooses to either do what this girl orders her to do or not. I think it will help her to know that it is always a choice, so she gets it that she is never anyone’s victim.
You unintentionally create a victim mentality in Ines when you try to protect her from the harassment of this child by trying to stop it from happening. And by telling her she has to say “Stop” when she doesn’t feel right about that actually sends her the message that her instincts are not good. The more you put work into helping Ines find her own voice and how she wants to handle the situation, the stronger and stronger she will get overtime as she comes to trust herself.
The goal of problem solving is to encourage children to think for themselves. We are so focused on teaching our children what to do that we seldom call on their own capabilities. The more we tell children what we think they should do, the more dependent they become on someone else making decisions for them and the more atrophied their neural pathways and thus their decision-making skills.