The empty chair, the unreturned call—bullies and the parents who don’t parent them

An all too common situation that parents confront is when a child is bullied.  This can happen as young as preschool age, and I have been aware of myriad situations where it is mishandled.  On the one hand we can look at how to support a child who is bullied, yet a thornier problem is how to handle the other side of the equation:  the parents of the bully.

Nothing stabs our parenting hearts more than when someone hurts our child.  We quickly project all the dark forces of the cosmos onto the four-year-old with an impulse control problem who hits, bites or victimizes our child, or onto the fourteen-year-old who mocks and excludes them.  It’s not that the bully doesn’t need limits as part love, it’s that we also truly need to see that the bully is a part of our self.  If we consider this deeply enough, then any interaction with, or contemplation of, a bully becomes more than a teachable moment—it becomes an opportunity for Shadow work and a deepening of compassion.  This, ironically, can be a path toward deeper wholeness, and thus equanimity and happiness.

Time and again, from the special needs school to the privileged private school, a child being harassed has led me to the child who is doing the hurting, which in turn has led me to understand the pain of the mean kid and to seek contact with his or her parents… only to find that the disengaged, clueless and sometimes cruel parents are quite often the source of the pain—and yet completely unwilling to look at their part in things.

Thus one of the big problems that reasonably conscious parents face is the unfairness, and subsequent hurt, flowing from other parents who are, due to whatever wounds, limitations or impairments, either unwilling or unable to give their child the love and limits necessary to stem or manage the pain that leads to acting out fear and shame.  Much as these parents spill their pain into their child, the hurt child then turns around and finds vulnerable kids into whom they can pour the fear and humiliation.

Given that the parents I’m speaking of are virtually certain not to be reading this blog, we are left with a vacuum in which to deal with this issue—the unfair question of how the group can deal with the empty chair, the unreturned call, the never-attended school conference.  In fact, what we are left to deal with is the bully—that kid who hurts our kid, and who we are naturally inclined to dislike; their pain, and thus the pain of their parents, comes to us across the transom of our children’s pain.  The challenge is to raise our consciousness to a point where we might suspend judgment on the bully (and their parents), facilitate compassion and see if enough subtle positive energy—mere wishes really—might, over time, turn a tide or break a cycle.

Firstly, we want to help kids who get singled out by bullies learn to be assertive, as bullies sniff out the kids who are different in any way—heavier, shorter, less socially aware—because they recognize the feeling of being an outlier in some way and seize on it.  Further to yesterday’s post on orchid children, in both monkeys and humans, kids with at-risk genes for issues can be the gifted kids when given warmth and attunement, yet these very same kids can be the bullies who are overly aggressive and end up shunned by the group when they lack a good parental relationship to harness and manage their own sensitivities.

It serves us engaged parents to realize that the bully is often a victim of parental misattunement, and that since all kids need attention, the “problem child” may be the very child who both needs more than average and, by luck of the draw, gets less than average; they will in turn seek negative attention rather than wither away with no attention.  Because of this need for attention, coupled with higher thresholds of stimulation, punishments such as a stern talking-to, calls to parents, etc. do not decrease “bad” behavior but instead actually reinforce it.  Giving these kids more support, more finely attuned education and sincere attention when they are not doing anything wrong might prove expensive at a societal level, yet cost-effective in the long run.  Instead of messing kids up and then trying to rehabilitate them, we might be better off identifying at-risk kids and supporting them to succeed.  There is a program along these lines being run in Chicago now, and I’m hoping it shows statistical success (see:

Group dynamics are also important in this issue as often teachers are rather helpless in the face of bullying, clearly coming to dislike the bully kid.  Oppositional and defiant kids frequently are so hurt deep down that they deliberately get us to reject them as a way of protecting their secret innocent selves; their unconscious mind says, “of course I will be rejected if I act in a disrespectful and cruel way, and so I am in charge and in control of my rejection, unlike when I was a baby which was terribly painful because I was hurt and rejected even though I did nothing wrong.”

Many teachers, especially fairly new or burnt out ones, have little inclination to spend the energy it takes to parent, rather than teach, kids who aren’t being parented at home.  Such hurt kids are often snarky, unapologetic, frustrating and ungratifying.  It takes a very gifted and skilled teacher to reach a child like this, and we really don’t pay our teachers enough to deal with the non-problem kids, much less the high maintenance ones.  Nor do we educate them to know what a kid like this really needs.  Further, a teacher must put the well being of the group ahead of individual children, and so their hands are tied, as they would fail the rest of the kids if they gave all the time and energy to the problematic ones.

Again, it seems to come down to the group, to us parents who do think about these things and engage with children, to somehow address this issue.  Perhaps as our own kids grow and leave the nest we will find a way to take the skills we learn from parenting and circle back to catch the kids falling through the cracks in the next generation.

Although I admit this falls in the realm of pure fantasy, imagine how it would be if when a child were identified as at-risk in this way there was a meeting at school in which every parent in the class, moms and dads, gathered in a circle around the child and his or her parent or parents—not as townsfolk with torches ready to kill the Frankenstein monster, but to surround them with listening ears and open hearts.

“What does this family need?  Is this child an orchid kid calling out for help so that she or he can be supported toward her or his true brilliance?  Do these parents need support and understanding for how difficult their child may be to parent, to understand, to engage, and do they need compassion for the possibly dismal circumstances they may have grown up in?”

Picture the two kids, the bully and the victim tasked with a buddy-film assignment, perhaps being forced to work together to make “magic cookies.”  With some adult assistance, and even if the bully kid’s parents are a no-show, imagine us inviting both kids into the alchemical kitchen of our imagination where they might craft cookies that make bullies feel calm, safe, happy and proud of themselves while making victims feel confident, assertive and proud of themselves as well.

While I’m sure that if you have a kid younger than eight or nine and a bully is part of their life, an actual invitation home for cookies, a game, a meal might be a life-changing play-date for all involved; at least consider the fantasy to see if your own more gentle wishes subtly change the energy of the dynamic.  Hate grows stronger in the face of more hate, but melts in the face of love.  It is very difficult to love the one who seems to hurt our child, yet let’s keep in mind that they are all our children.

The very bully we might think of as a potential bad seed, if loved and supported, might grow up to be the very ones to carry empowered compassion with them to global warming summits, disarmament talks and meetings addressing poverty, terrorism and health issues.  Pollyanna?  Perhaps, but as I’ve quoted before, the philosopher Leo Strauss said, “the only way out seems to be…that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth”.

So, let’s dedicate today to considering when and where we might have a chance to do the unexpected, to put a loving arm around a bully or organize a bake-sale to heal a rift.  I’m all for action, but I’m a big believer in intention, imagination and good wishes as leading to, or being the foundation for, real changes.  Even if you only think of a cool idea, think of it with heart and soul and stay open to the possibility that this actually makes a “real” difference.  The painful junctures where kids are hurt, where sad things happen, where we feel rather tormented as a result of our love and compassion, are teachable moments for both the “good” and the “bad” kids (which are really one and the same, and ultimately our very own selves), but they are also learnable moments for us privileged-to-be-parenting grown-ups.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “The empty chair, the unreturned call—bullies and the parents who don’t parent them”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Fascinating, and something I hadn’t thought much about. The “empty chair” parent. I’ve taken certain kids under my wing, so to speak, over the years – because my work had me operating out of a home office for a long time and I could be more present, an ear. Something. But I hadn’t thought of all the facets (including bullying) of the literal (or metaphorical) empty chair parent – the one who may be physically present and have a substance abuse problem, or simply be indifferent, and other variations.

    Learnable moments. Yes. Eye-opening.

  2. Deirdre Says:

    This post strikes a chord with me — a week ago I started a new job, and was unusually nervous. Funnily enough, I felt as though I were back in grade school, the new kid in class. Within the first week at work, I encountered a colleague who clearly didn’t like me being there (subtly making me the odd man out), and it was tough to deal with. Later on, I found myself trying to coach myself through it — how should I handle this? One instinct I had was to approach this person and very matter-of-factly say that I could sense there was an issue, and that I wanted to. I knew that being bold would change things a bit. But later, I had another thought…I tried to see this person as my own inner-bully, and it helped. Something about that thought-process made it less personal, and more about serving something bigger — my/our personal growth. Of course, easier said than done. But being able to see it as a challenge (opportunity for transformation) makes it easier…next time, I’ll see if I can really do loving compassion. (!)

    Thanks for this, Bruce.

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