WHEN MEETING THE SCHOOL BULLY….

A 12 y.o. adoptee was brought in for bully behavior at school and at home.  He was intimidating his new parents and classmates, and was recently charged with bringing a weapon to school — a sharpened stick which he could both use to threaten and technically argue that ‘it isn’t a weapon’.  He loved to debate like a lawyer with anyone who would listen – but his strategy was to never give up because his goal was to always win.

The school psychologist had tried a shaming tough-guy approach.  He called the boy “a creep!”  This attempt to isolate by shame was gasoline on the flames of the child’s negative internal working model.  (Since I’m so bad that even the helpers reject me, I’ll go for the gold – ‘success’ is now to be the worst kid ever.)

Because of a long early history of abject maltreatment, he had learned to recreate the “bad kid” response in the eyes of caretakers and other adults in charge.  Using kids’ normal, unsound logic – which never gives up a point because they are really craving our attention and closeness – he would engage adults in endless arguments where he would always ‘prove’ the adult to be wrong, unfair, hypocritical, or otherwise unfit.

I think this re-creation in others of the intense feelings of rejection and inadequacy from his own early years displayed the bully’s signature brilliance of forcing others to feel his unresolved feelings for him.

When we were introduced, this boy saw me as simply the latest challenge for his undefeated debating skills.  He looked me grimly in the eye.

“So.  Do you believe in Creationism?”

Five possible responses were immediately on my plate.  But he would have been familiar with only four of them.

A. “Uh…well, I….uh….haven’t really studied it…”

B. “What — now you want to argue religion?! What next!!”

C. “I’m asking the questions here, Buster!”

D. “Yes.” [or “No.”]

My fifth option was to go relational.  I could reflect with complete acceptance, AND include my feelings of being at risk of losing a potential friend – a place he had been so many times:

E.  [with feeling] “Wow, you want to know my personal beliefs! (Acceptance)  Now I’m afraid of giving the wrong answer, because then you might not like me; I like you a lot, but I’m afraid you won’t like ME if I don’t answer right……What am I going to do?! [etc.]”

This was empathic mirroring of the child’s own unspoken fears from similar situations in the past.  As we talked, I repeated this in various combinations and permutations, until to argue with me was to reject his own long-sought yearning to be accepted.

As Dan Hughes once pointed out with a smile, “It’s hard for any of us to reject for very long being totally accepted for who we are in this moment.”

Lawyer: “I don’t understand kids!”

A very good lawyer, who was a kind, single parent of two young children, once shared his anxiety that, “I don’t understand kids — I don’t know what they need.  I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”

Thoughtful, gentle……and serious.
I offered the following short version of children, recalled here as best I can:

Barring very unusual situations — like at the extreme ends of the relational spectrum — what most kids need, bottom line, are two things from at least one safe adult (preferably a caretaker, but not necessarily):

1) pay attention 

(“She thinks about me.”  “She remembers me.”  “She asks about me.”  “She keeps me in her thoughts!”)

2) care enough to be in charge 

(“She has boundaries she won’t let me cross.”  “She sets limits for me.”  “She corrects me.”  “She has rules I am expected to follow!”)

If the adult is safe and reasonably consistent, the affected child will likely be okay –- able to learn appropriate dependence as they grow.  (I.e., they feel safely contained by and connected to a safe, caring adult.)

Later, as adults themselves, they can transform that safe childhood experience of appropriate, vertical dependence on caretakers -– think caterpillar metamorphosis -– into a safe, mutual, horizontal, adult interdependence with a partner.

I.e., achieving dependence as a dependent child supports appropriate interdependence as an independent adult.  Conversely, it can be hard to manage adult interdependence if we failed to experience safe dependence in childhood.

Sexual boundaries make sense in this context.  Whereas the childhood dependent relationship with an adult makes overt sexual relations developmentally premature for the child and pathologically exploitative for the adult, the later, interdependent relationships of adults can accommodate overt and mutually enthusiastic sexual relations.

Sometimes adults show up for counseling with their own early, unresolved issues getting in the way of parenting the way they would like.  We may end up working with the parent or caretaker to resolve this, and it can take time.  It may require an extended, boundaried counseling relationship with a safe therapist who can stay empathic to the testing and stumbles which were never allowed or possible during childhood.

Because children slowly but progressively develop their independence and identities as people, infants will need more physical care, while older children will need more social and emotional care and attention to their increasingly complex inner thoughts, feelings and concerns. 

Finally, as adolescents, they re-introduce us adults to the exciting-frustrating integration of living in the home while working on peer and other outside relationships.  (Who am I really?  How do I fit in?  How do I get physically close outside my family in ways that feel safe and good?)

Sorry, is that more than you asked? I asked.

“Wow, no, that’s really helpful!” said the lawyer.  “Thanks!”

Welcome.