How to Break the Cycle of Bullying:
Power Dynamics and Resilience in Children
Parenting and working with children in any capacity has its triggers. In addition to being incredibly rewarding, it is emotional, often exhausting, and inevitably frustrating. During these moments, we lose the ability to problem solve. We forget that this little person (as button-pushy as they may be acting), needs something. Because it’s widely acceptable and can be easy in the moment, this is when we tend to exert power, lord over a child and declare emphatically,
“…because I said so.”
This makes us bullies. Often our education system centers around intimidation and a power dynamic that creates subtle ways of bullying. Children who are stressed in school, who have unseen learning needs and/or social/ emotional challenges might lash out and recapitulate the very dynamic that is set up for us. Even the structure of school can create a feeling of powerlessness. Studies repeatedly link a feeling of powerlessness with bullying behavior in children.
In his article, “On Punishment for Bullying — and Punishment as Bullying”, Alfie Kohn speaks directly to the power differential in schools that we often rely on to create consequences for children. The same can be applied to the home.
“ …it quickly becomes clear that the problem with school policy isn’t just that punishing bullies inevitably backfires. Rather, punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.” (Kohn)
So what do we do?
We can optimize experiences that develop resiliency in our children.
Building resilience means strengthening one's ability to effectively cope, adjust, or recover from stress or adversity (https://www.melissainstitute.org/documents/facts_resilience.pdf).
Building resiliency is not only for the kids being bullied, but for those children who feel the need to exert power over another. This often happens because it has been modeled for them or they have been a victim of the same. Equally important is the recognition that building resiliency in ourselves will help make us better at modeling an alternative to unhealthy power play, coercion and intimidation.
How do we do that?
Speak Difficult Emotions
Being authentic is important. Rather than snuff out intensity, try saying how you feel. “I feel very frustrated right now.” Saying it offers pause and can help prevent reacting to the feeling. When a child is exhibiting behavior that suggests a difficult emotion, saying, “I see you’re angry right now,” lets them know you are with them, that it’s ok to feel these things. It helps them build vocabulary around their intense emotions.
Be Vulnerable with Kids
Brave delving into the painful experiences - your own and your children’s. Don’t avoid the issues that are difficult to address. This builds a support structure for children in which they can play an active role in working through adversity. It also helps prevent learned helplessness and negative feedback loops. If a child is throwing a tantrum, you can recognize it and tell them honestly, “I can’t talk with you while this is happening.” No judgement.
Create an Environment of Acceptance
No matter what happens, make sure kids know there is love and support. If this is possible to do for ourselves, all the better. Sometimes it's difficult to let go of the critical voices instilled in us at a young age. The voice-over that says love is conditional and that it isn't deserved if certain expectations aren't being met.
Follow the Wonder
It can be hard (and so important) to temporarily put aside what we think kids need to know. Listen, pay attention to what lights them up. Find areas of passion for yourself so that they have incentive to do the same. Encourage the excitement, even if it is related to something that doesn’t excite you. Let their interest be what matters. Be open to new ways of discussing activities you may not endorse (i.e. video games, music you don’t particularly like, toys you won’t buy for them) - ask why they like it. Find common ground.
Mindfulness and Body Sensing
This increases executive functioning, is the presence and slowness to organize our thoughts, to move forward with a plan. Body sensing promotes awareness of the physical sensations (often associated with emotions) that arise. This is especially important in today’s age of digital device and hyper-stimulation. Create time in the morning and evening to sense the body. It will also lead to improvement in being able to articulate emotions.
In addition to “Following the Wonder”, find activities where kids are building physical strength, where you and your children can watch yourselves improve and team up in mutual encouragement.
This is a primary way in which children learn. Watching parents, role models and teachers move through challenging scenarios, problem solve, work through an unknown with calm perseverance, makes it possible for children to do the same.
All of this is, of course, a simplification of the often complex set of circumstances that lead to bullying. Incorporating some of these practices into our daily life however, can play a part in working toward a solution. In becoming more empathetic and building resiliency in ourselves, we can encourage the same in our children. Sometimes our kids are bullied, sometimes they are bullies - when we love them and show them alternatives to processing difficult emotions, they, in turn, are better resourced to cope. This is paramount when we are working in systems that often rely on the same power differentials that model bullying behavior.
“On Punishment for Bullying, and Punishment as Bullying” Alfie Kohn
“Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive Functions” Rachel Ehmke
“Executive functioning and bullying participant roles: Differences for boys and girls” Lindsay N. Jenkins, Jaclyn E. Tennant, Michelle K. Demaray
“How to Bully-Proof Your Children by Building Their Resilience” Lisa Firestone
The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, Barbara Coloroso