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.”