Q: My husband and I both have six-year-old daughters who are in the same class at school. They used to be best friends, but my husband’s daughter has started bullying mine, recently progressing from verbal to physical bullying. We have informed the school (she is a known bully since kindy and attends play therapy once a week). What can we do to stop the bullying?
Bullying behaviour usually starts with a hurting heart. When a child feels sad, lonely, not good enough, angry or hurt, or when difficult things happen in their life that they can’t control (such as major changes in family life), then all the pain that is too big for them to speak about can be expressed in hurting others. And the more pain they feel, the more likely they are to express it in powerful ways, to make sure their pain is heard by others. Usually the pain they express is only the tip of the iceberg of all their troubling emotions, so that gives us a clue that there is even more pain inside that we can’t see.
It sounds as if this little girl has a lot of deep hurt inside that may have come from experiences she had before she had the words to express herself. Sometimes young children make up their own story about why their family has changed and split up. If she somehow thinks it is her fault, she could feel very sad and guilty, and may even believe, deep down, that by behaving in this way she can bring her parents back together as they try to help her. Or she may be angry at your new family because she may think that the new family has “stolen” her father. Sometimes it can help if she can have regular time on her own with her dad, doing something that makes her feel very special. This can often be very effective.
One thing I ask children (and adults) who hurt others is, “If the hand that is hitting could speak instead of hit, what would it tell us?” We make a big speech bubble and wonder, together with the child, what the hitting hand would say. This helps the child to express their pain and fears in more appropriate ways and helps them to find the words they need to say instead of hitting.
We also make emotional pies, by drawing a big circle, like a pie, and wondering how much of the different emotions are in their “inside” pie filling, such as sadness, anger, happiness, fear and peace. Sometimes, we also include a piece of pie called “All the feelings I don't have words for yet”. This gives us a glimpse into the range and intensity of emotions in a child’s life. For each emotion we also add how others can tell when the child has one of these emotions, and what the child would like other people to do when they feel sad or angry. Then we help children to tell parents and teachers when they are feeling a strong emotion, and what kind of support they might need.
When one child bullies another it is very troubling for everyone concerned. In stepfamilies this can put an extra strain on relationships. Talk about your experiences and concerns together and keep the wellbeing of the child as the focus rather than any interpersonal conflicts and struggles.
Sometimes family counselling can be very helpful in these situations because one or more parents, and maybe other family members, are with the child in the counselling sessions. Then the adults in the child’s life can have a greater insight into the child’s experience and work with the child to find better solutions.
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