My friend’s child had just finished elementary school when she had the exchange with another parent. They were a nice class, my friend remarked casually to the other mother. The mother was stunned and said her child had been bullied. “What was strange is that she said my child had been bullied too and that she had witnessed it a few times. My kid still insists that’s not the case,” my friend informed me.
Her friend said they were sarcastic comments that the other child took personally. Her own child just saw it as banter and didn’t mind. But for the other mother, it was bullying. So how can we distinguish between bullying and instances of unkind behavior?
“Bullying isn’t subjective, but what happens is a commingling of children who aren’t always very friendly or agreeable with bullying,” says psychotherapist Joanna Fortune firmly; We’re talking about younger, prepubescent children.
“Bullying is never a problem. It is very serious, it should always be dealt with by adults first; Parents to other parents, parents to teachers.” She defines bullying as deliberate and purposeful repeated behavior. “One child against another, or one child inciting one group to exclude another.”
What isn’t bullying, Fortune insists, is “a little bickering on the playground.” “Parents might say, ‘If you don’t play with this kid, that’s bullying.’ Or “Your child didn’t let my child play; that’s bullying.” It is not. It’s rude, it might be mean, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not bullying.”
This is what Fortune calls microaggressions. “By definition, these are small moments of aggression between children in relation to each other. It usually happens in the context of play or when they are working on a project together in class. For example, one kid spills the paint all over the project and the other says, ‘Hey, that’s it, you ruined it, you’re leaving’.”
It’s not bullying, says Joanna. This is a child acting out of frustration. Where bullying is an ongoing act of which the bully is aware, microaggressions are temporal in nature.
“It’s more, maybe one day you’re my friend but the next day you’re not, but the day after I’ll have forgotten that I was upset with you about it and we’ll be friends again.” It’s a much more temporary feeling. It’s not bullying. Bullying stays, it repeats itself, it’s deliberate and it’s really serious.”
Very young children rarely bully, adds Fortune. “They’re still working out the parameters of relationship and friendship. It can take us by surprise, and I think that’s what’s quite stressful for a lot of parents. We don’t like to think that our young children are capable of aggression. But they are. If you’ve ever seen them steal someone else’s toy, knock someone over, or elbow themselves in; they are absolutely capable of it.”
“What’s quite stressful for a lot of parents is that we don’t like to think that our young children are capable of aggression.”
She traces the development of the friendship from the earliest years. “With preschoolers, for example, if you’re a kid and I’m a kid, we’re friends. This is as complicated as it gets. I want to play, you’re here to play, and for 20 nice minutes on this playground we’ll be best buddies. And I’ll never think of you again, but it was beautiful,” she smiles.
This kind of transient dealing with friendship will continue into the early years of elementary school. “Even with young children, many parents will notice that their children pick up and drop off friends quite often, quite casually. This is completely normal. This isn’t a sign of, “Oh, my kid gets left out all the time.” That’s how kids play at that age.”
Between the ages of seven and nine they tend to settle into friendship clusters, girls usually do this earlier than boys. At this point, more overt aggression may occur. “It’s about who’s in, who’s out. First off, it’s not like it never happens, but it’s rarely a conscious thing.”
But how can you really diagnose if what your child is experiencing is bullying or just microaggressions? “We want to be curious about our children,” advises Fortune. “Is what I’m hearing an isolated case of tired or frustrated, overwhelmed, overstimulated children fed up with each other? This is microaggression. Or is that something that feels a little more insidious, a little more purposeful? There’s more conscious effort in it, and it’s the same child or children day in and day out; I hear a pattern. That is different.”
Why do we act in microaggressions? It’s usually about frustration, confusion, overwhelm, sensory overload, explains Fortune. Or because one child is very involved in the game and the other child changes the course of events and they react out of disappointment. “So it comes more from feelings,” she says.
It is important to remember that an individual child’s temperament is relevant here. Some are what Fortune calls “teflon-coated kids,” for whom, of course, things won’t impact as much. “Some of us have more emotionally sensitive children who feel the world on a deeper level. And what is micro-aggression (a random occurrence) to one child on the playground may be unsettling to another child. It doesn’t change the intent of the behavior. What has changed is the landing.”
Fortune rejects the idea that children are all born friendly. “Children learn and develop the ability to be kind; it is nurtured in relationships. If we want to raise kind children, let them do, see, and hear kind things.”
As they develop the skills of compassion and empathy, micro-aggression will flare up. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying it doesn’t matter; I don’t dismiss these micro-aggressions, “oh sure, they’re just kids”. I would still encourage kids to make repairs. Tell them let’s hit the rewind button; what do we have to do differently.”
It’s an opportunity to teach them empathy. Talk to them about how the other child might have felt. “So we plant these seeds; It’s not that we ignore, minimize, or dismiss microaggressions, but neither do we psychopathologize them.”
The hardest part of all of this can be the reactions of other parents, which is normal for one parent and a bullying factor for another. “We need to be clear about where our understanding of bullying comes from,” Fortune explains of the fact that parents sometimes overreact. “And when it comes from our own unresolved experiences, that’s really hard because we might be carrying around a pain that we’ve never healed, that we’ve never been able to process. Perhaps we needed our adults to step in and act for us when they didn’t. We wear that now as overcompensation; “I never want my child to be remotely disappointed at school. Because I never want them to feel like me.
You are doing your child a disservice by doing this. “That’s so understandable and well motivated, but actually we short-circuit the emotional and psychosocial development of our children. They need to be able to argue with each other so they can fix and get back together. They need to figure out that relationships are more important than arguments.”
“We’re not jumping in with this fix-and-change agenda. We don’t save, but we want to sit with you in the feeling’
Unless it’s bullying, Fortune advises parents to back off as much as possible and see if the kids can figure it out among themselves. “Let it, definitely a few days, a week, let’s see how it goes. Because (if you interfere unnecessarily) now avoid stares with a group of mothers at the gate; These kids have moved on and they’re friends again.
“We don’t sabotage our children’s emotional experience with a fix or change agenda: ‘Here I come, I’ll save the day, I’ll step in and fix this for you’ if your child wanted anything, you had to listen. Sometimes our children just want us to witness the difficult feeling so they can come to terms with it. And navigating it is so important to developing self-regulation skills and emotional resilience. Being out of sync, but this process of getting back in sync.”
Ideally, you don’t want your child to sit at school thinking that they have to wait until two o’clock for their parents to come and fix things. “You have to be able to make these repairs to be able to handle these high-tension experiences on your own,” says Fortune.
As parents, it helps to try to be honest with ourselves. “We have concerns, we have fears. It’s hard to let that go. I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘Through whose lens am I evaluating the situation? The children’s lens or my own?’ Because there is no better way to discover our own childhood problems than to become parents.
“We’re not jumping in with this fix-and-change agenda. We’re not rescuing, but we want to sit with them emotionally,” Fortune explains. And if you can, try to get her to think about how it felt to be the other person.
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/is-my-child-being-bullied-or-am-i-just-being-a-paranoid-parent-42247590.html Is my child being bullied or am I just a paranoid parent?