Dear Dr. Debbie,
How can I help my child understand that his peers keep doing things that annoy him possibly because of his reaction or the great “rise” they can get out of him?
Don’t miss last week’s column Eliminating parental nagging — Good Parenting
It’s no fun being the target of annoying behaviors. This is a form of bullying. Your son’s extreme reaction may be due to his personality, his accumulating frustration with these antagonisms and/or because his reaction ultimately gets adults to intervene and help him. He can’t process and learn from the social exchanges that contribute to his repeat victimization. With your help he can increase his emotional intelligence and be more aware of his emotional state, identify its cause and choose to react in a more productive way.
Bullies look for weakness in a target. The bully’s goal is to dominate. He sees vulnerability in a friendless and or unconfident child. A child who is “different” is often both. Differences can include wearing glasses, not being physically fit or having a speech impediment. Especially attractive to a bully is the potential victim who shows emotional weakness as well. Cringing, whining, crying and screaming are just what the bully wants.
The level of self-confidence a child possesses can be seen in how he walks, his degree of participation in group activities and in his conversational references to himself. The unconfident child soon stands out among others for whom success comes more easily and who can laugh off his or her own mistakes. Teachers may unwittingly set children up for bullying by drawing too much attention to academic proficiency and stellar behavior. Unfortunately, the teacher’s pet — who typically has little experience with failure — risks bullying almost as much as the struggling student when he exposes his inability to handle coming up short of his teacher’s high expectations.
Personality Factors and Social Skills
Traits of shyness and or emotional sensitivity could be the cause of your son’s heightened reactions to the aggravations of his peers. Rehearse some better reactions with him using dolls, puppets or your own bodies playing the roles of annoyer and non-reactor. First, you act as the model for ignoring, responding coolly or walking away. Together practice body language that says, “I’m upset” versus “I’m confident.” Try out phrases such as “That’s not funny” or “I don’t like it when you do that.” Describe situations in which someone has made you feel uncomfortable and brainstorm how to get out of it — such as pretending you’re late for something and walking off quickly.
Role play socially savvy reactions to some of the specific aggravations your son has suffered. A school-age bully usually has only a small repertoire, sticking to what has worked before. You can diffuse the effect of name calling, for example, by analyzing why the bully has chosen those words and preparing a non-confrontational (and not whimpering) response to them. “You have freckles” can be countered with “Yes, they’re due to genetics and sun exposure.” Agreeing with a would-be enemy is a very disarming tactic.
Your son may need your help to become more aware of the cues to be discerned in others’ faces, body language and voice changes. Limit his play time to one child at a time until, with your coaching, he gets better and better at handling friendly putdowns and targeted irritations, then slowly increase the number of children until he is comfortable in a small group. Socially challenged children do best in their own home or yard, so similarly stretch his skills gradually in other locations with one-on-ones then small groups.
Yoga, meditation or physical exercise are all good strategies at any age for keeping one’s cool. A good night’s sleep is essential for handling emotions during the ups and downs of the day. And because our actions are the most powerful lessons, provide your son with a good example by following strategies to keep your own emotions in check. With children in the car, I’ve learned to say, “That was some fancy driving!” in reaction to being annoyed by other drivers.
An important prevention against would-be victims, as well as would-be bullies, is any activity that builds self-esteem. Find hobbies to introduce the child to. If you don’t know where to start, use the library or the internet to explore possible avenues for building a strength from scratch. From aeronautics to zoology, there is so much to choose from! Structured after school activities such as scouts, community theater or “just for fun” sports can build skills and raise confidence. Competence in one skill area compensates for being challenged in others.
It would be great to have his teacher’s cooperation in building his social and emotional skills. The friendless child at school is at a big disadvantage because during unsupervised times, when children are free to be with anyone they like, he is by himself. Cornering him is a cinch in the bathroom, a remote spot on the playground or in the midst of a noisy cafeteria where adults have so many distractions. His teacher might recommend classmates as potential buddies and can be the go-between for contact information to set up play dates. Having an ally in his classroom — built from time together outside of school — will reduce his candidacy as a victim.
Childhood is the best time to work on many life skills including self-confidence and social savvy.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com