Empowerment and resilience: the bully

I am Lin and I am not a perfect parent.

I could write a book about my shortcomings as a parent. There’d be chapters about having a short fuse and expecting too much from a 4yo and quite a few chapters on being a lousy role model on so many levels.

But I also know that there are some very important things that I am doing right. I could probably classify them as boundaries, consistency and values.

I teach my child responsibility for her actions and their consequences. Good and bad.
One of the things that she hears me say very often is: “It is not my job to be nice. It is my job to be fair and to make sure you become a good person.”
And I am confident that by now she is starting to have a good idea of what “being a good person” actually means and which behaviours go with it.

So when I found out about the behaviour of her so called best friend at daycare, I was quite upset.

The story evolved somewhat like this.

Ella started going to this daycare (TH) about 2 years ago. After a while, she seemed to have really bonded with 2 girls: Chloe and Pamela (not their real names). They were the 3 musketeers and very cute together. They both came to her 3rd birthday party. Which was the last time Ella saw Chloe as she changed daycare centres after those holidays. Up until this day Ella will still mention her when she talks about who to invite to her next birthday party. She is naturally very loyal to her friends, which I think is a good trait in principle.

But…

Ella and Pamela became best friends after Chloe left. Pamela only stopped throwing tantrums about having to go to daycare when she was reassured that Ella would be there. Again, I thought their friendship was cute and encouraged it by talking about Pamela as Ella’s best friend.

Ella started to very regularly come home with stories of Pamela physically hurting her. “She hit me, she kicked me, she snatched something from me, she pinched me.” I was there the first time Pamela bit her. They were arguing over who got to pick up a lady beetle they found. I actually closed the door on them as I went inside to gather Ella’s stuff because I really do believe in trying to let kids solve their own problems. Then I heard a shriek and Ella crying loudly. I opened the door and there was Ella with a beauty of a bite mark on her upper arm. Pamela was made to apologise. She bit her again a few weeks later.

I didn’t really think much of this. My child happens to be unable to hurt someone deliberately even if her life depended on it. That’s partially because ‘hurting others’ is one of the unacceptable behaviours that always get followed by immediate consequences at our home. But I do realise that it is partially in her genes to. She is generally a gentle natured child. However, I told myself that it was not because my child did not exhibit behaviour like that, that it could not be common behaviour for a 4yo and a stage lots of kids go through at that age. Pamela’s mother also convinced me that it had something to do with Pamela having a sibling at home, and I cannot judge how sibling rivalry affects kids at that age.

I also know that Ella is a bit of a cry-baby when it comes to physical pain. More so than other kids I’ve observed. I think maybe secretly I thought that her being subjected to Pamela physically expressing her frustrations would toughen her up a bit?

Ella is also a bit of a drama queen and loves dwelling on hurt feelings and such. She loves to exaggerate also – like probably most kids her age – and has a vivid imagination. It is often hard to know what part of her stories is reality and what part is – maybe not necessarily fiction, but “embellished reality.”

So I was rather dismissive of the stories Ella told me so regularly about Pamela hurting her. At most, I would tell her that she should just walk away when another child hurt her, but I never made a big deal out of it.

I also knew that Pamela was a very bossy child. I had observed this on several occasions and Ella had regularly made casual remarks about Pamela always wanting to be the leader and make the rules.

I did not see this as a problem as such either. There always have to be leaders and followers and I do not have a problem with my child being one of the latter. I have also observed Ella bossing other kids around and as long as the other kids seem to be ok with their role, I do not see any need to interfere.

I remember a carer once telling me that Ella was learning to “stand up to Pamela”. That she would say no to her more and walk away.

And when I expressed concern about Pamela going overseas for a few months and how Ella would cope without her best friend a carer told me that she thought it was probably a good thing for Ella. I remember she was very hesitant to explain herself and I didn’t push her for more info.

So far the lead-up to recent events. The following is my explanation of how I came to the conclusion that Pamela is a bully. A classic bully.

A few weeks ago I picked Ella up from daycare and I watched her find a christmas beetle and pick it up to let it crawl on her hand. Pamela was in hot pursuit demanding to hold the beetle too. Ella ignored her, focused on her little creepy crawly friend instead. Then I heard Pamela say: “Ella, you can’t come to my party at [indoor playground]”. I knew that Pamela’s birthday was still months away and I was pretty sure that her parents would not organise it at [indoor playground]. So I asked Pamela why she had said that and she replied: “Because Ella won’t let me hold the beetle.” I gave her a right lecture about that being no way to speak to your friends and that you should not say mean things just because you cannot have what you want.

I decided that that was classic bully behaviour. I casually mentioned it to her mother a little while later and got a vague response about it being their (the parents’) fault because they negotiated with the kids at home – in a “if you don’t do this, I’ll do that” way – and they were just transposing this method to daycare. That reply puzzles me now. All parents ‘negotiate’ with their kids in that way. Very one-sided negotiations in our household, but how on earth would you ever be able to get your kids to comply with the house rules and stamp out unacceptable behaviour without doing this? I do it all the time, yet I have never heard my child use threats to other children – or adults for that matter – if she doesn’t get her way because of this.

Similar stories trickled in. “I gave my mermaid to Pamela. I didn’t want to because I made it for you, but she said that I couldn’t come to her birthday party if I didn’t give it to her.”

And last night, the conversation that made me see the light, started with Ella’s reaction to me saying that she didn’t have to always play with Pamela if she didn’t want to. I cannot remember how we got onto that topic at all, but I remember how it progressed. Ella said: “Pamela said that if I didn’t play with her then, then I could never, ever play with her again.” By now I was not as defensive of Pamela as I had been before, having seen her coercion techniques for myself and Ella’s recent examples of similar events. I told Ella that it sounded like Pamela was trying to hurt her with words to make her do what she wanted. That it was quite clear to me that Pamela had learnt that if she physically hurt her, she would get punished by the carers. She’d have to go sit on the step – the standard punishment for such offenses. And that therefor she was trying to hurt Ella with words because she knew that she wouldn’t get punished for that.

And then came the truth that gave me a big shock and finally made all the pieces of the puzzle come together. It requires me taking you back in time to a few weeks ago when I parked the car at daycare one morning and Ella sighed: “I wish I would not get punished at daycare today.” I was taken aback. She’d never mentioned punishment before. And the way she said it, it sounded like she wasn’t sure about how to avoid it. I had a chat to her about rules and concluded that maybe Ella didn’t know the rules very well. Made more likely because she had had 2 new room leaders in the few months leading up to this. I told myself I’d go and have a chat to her room leader about spelling the rules out to Ella so she wouldn’t get punished for breaking rules she may not have been aware of or didn’t understand.

The next morning I broached the subject with Ella again, trying to gather as much information as possible in preparation of my chat to the carer. Ella ended up completely retracting the claim that she’d ever been punished! I was baffled. I had to tell myself that getting the truth out of this child was like getting blood out of a stone and that I did not have any facts to confront the teacher with and should therefor let it be.

Ever since that day Ella has expressed resentment at going to daycare quite regularly. She will even say “I hate going to daycare”. I had never even heard her use the word hate before! And she has always loved going to daycare.

Fast forward again to last night. Because we were talking so openly about Pamela and her treatment of Ella and I was making it very clear that I thought Pamela’s behaviour was unacceptable and encouraging Ella to tell me all without having to fear me being dismissive or worse, defensive about it, I finally found out the truth about that day when she got punished.

It turns out that Pamela went to “jokingly” (Ella’s words) tell a carer that Ella had hit her and Ella had to go sit on the step. Again it was because Ella had not wanted to do what Pamela wanted. I was shocked because a) a child that age could be so sneaky and display such premeditated tactics to exert power over another child and b) because the carer involved has known both children for nearly 2 years now and should damn well know that my child has never hit another child and that Pamela is prone to lying.

This morning I found out that this actually happened twice in one day with 2 different carers who have known Ella and Pamela since they were 2.

Suddenly I could see the whole picture. My child is not just a bit over-sensitive. This is not normal (and most definitely not acceptable) behaviour for 4 year olds. This goes way beyond just being bossy. My child is being bullied. She has been bullied for over a year. I have refused to see it, I have been dismissive when she voiced her concerns, I have failed my duty to protect her.

So I had a long talk to Ella about what bullying is, possible reasons why kids become bullies (in this case: Pamela is worried that she will not have any friends to play with if she doesn’t make them play with her by hurting them if they don’t) and that none of this is Ella’s fault in any way. But the hardest thing to have to tell her was that noone can solve this problem for her. That it is incredibly unfair that it has become her problem, as it is not her fault. But that the only person who can change the situation is her. By standing up to Pamela and not giving into her when she is mean to her. By telling Pamela when she tries to hurt her with words: “I do not care. I will not do what you say when you are mean to me” and walk away. By telling Pamela that you do not make friends by making them play with you; that you can only make friend by being nice and by being the kind of child that you would want to play with yourself. It is infuriating that I have to tell my child to “educate” another child in basic values in order to defend herself. But I realise that there is no other way. The bully has become more sneaky and has found ways to coerce Ella into doing what she wants whilst avoiding detection and punishment. Ella must have felt so alone in this. And then I have to tell her that she really is alone when it comes to fixing it! But at least now she is not alone in recognising the problem and how serious this is. I will support her all the way. I will listen to her, take her concerns seriously, discuss possible solutions and help her gain confidence in techniques that will help her stand up to her bully.

I am quite upset about this, as you can tell from my long and detailed rant. I blame myself for not acknowledging the problem before. I worry about my sweet natured child leaving herself open to attacks from bullies.

But I have to focus on the positives.

It has prompted me to arm her with the knowledge and skills she needs to defend herself in such a situation. It’s a harsh lesson in life for a 4yo, but one better learnt young than old.

And I felt so incredibly proud of my child when I told her yesterday that if ever something like the being falsely accused happens again, she can always tell me because even if noone else believes her, I always, always will. I felt proud because I could say that with the confidence that I can trust her to tell me the truth. Not that she never lies, all kids that age do, I’m pretty sure, but I trust her to tell me the truth about things that really matter (also about the little things if I insist long enough). And of course I feel proud that my child has never deliberately hurt another child (to my knowledge). She may be bossy, but she is not and will very unlikely ever be a bully. She shows all the proof of having some pretty strong values already and she lives by them (most of the time). I am so proud to be her mum.

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2 Responses to “Empowerment and resilience: the bully”

  1. jeanie Says:

    What a minefield the learning of human interaction is!Good luck.

  2. Neet Says:

    Lin, the thoughtful way that you deal with each new parenting challenge is wonderful. Ella is very luck to have you as her mum.I sympathise with you on this one. It must be incredibly hard to have to teach a four year old to deal with bullies. And I agree that it is completely shocking to see just how much premeditated mean-ness and manipulation kids that age can be capable of, and I can’t help wondering what leads them to that?


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