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Bully bully or not?

answered 11:57 AM EST, Sun November 13, 2011
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Should I be worried about bullying if my son is not? Some close family friends have a daughter who picks on my son. If it were most people we would just limit the amount of time they would have to be together and it would pretty much solve the problem, but in this case our families are very linked and it would be very sad if we couldn’t all get together like we have for a lot of years.
Their 9 year old daughter, however, seems to love to pick on my 6 year old son. It’s never physical but she teases him and tries to make him feel and look stupid and tries to exclude him when others are over – just out of a kind of meanness I think. Her parents, who are great people, seem to have a blind spot about their daughter’s behaviors and let her get away with, in my opinion, far too much.

In any case, we do not ever let the two of them hang out together unless we are there to kind of supervise things (although this is hard because she likes to play in the room with her door locked from adults). If we aren’t in the house kind of as a mediating presence the bullying is much worse and he has complained about it in the past when we left him in their care for an afternoon or for a few hours.

The thing is, it doesn’t really bother my son at all. He is really easy going and good natured and he doesn’t seem to notice half of what she tries to do and most of the other half doesn’t seem to bug him very much. He thinks she is a lot of fun and he just likes to play with her. It drives me crazy that he won’t stand up to her more….

So is bullying a problem if it does not cause any emotional pain for the bully victim? How do I get my son to be more assertive towards her?

Prof. Jane Ballis Says...

Hello,

 It's a touchy situation to address your concerns with family friends. And then it's more complicated because your son is giving you different signals at different times. At one point you say he is upset and then at others you say he doesn't care. It appears you recognize that he changes his feelings fast because he quickly gets over his hurt. After each interaction, you stay focused on it while he runs off to play. Most kids are more resilant than we think and we tend to overeact to their pain because we want to spare them the pains we received in our own childhood.  Kids tend to get over things faster and they often hand us their feelings, we then hold them while they move on as nature intended. It helps to put the situation into perspective and think about our childhood social hurts and if they really affected us negatively or did we learn something. Most likely we are just feeling helpless as the kids learn to navigate things socially with others but recognize that this is a part of learning process.

But also I have some concerns, and wonder about children playing behind locked doors. I personally would not be comfortable with that because of various possible hazards. For example, how would someone get into the room in an emerency? It may help you feel better and model assertiveness to your son, if you choose to address this issue or any others by saying something simple to the parents. One idea, "Due to my concerns about possible safety issues, it's hard for me to let my 6 year son play with anyone behind locked doors can we find a way around this?"

As far as teaching assertiveness, some parents have had luck with books. Others use puppets to act out a conflict and then resolve it in a drama, as a to model to their children. Additionally, I think it is wise to supervise the children and to nonchallantly question your son about what preceded the exchange and what ocurred afterwords without reacting too strongly. Be prepared. you may find that your son may be doing something that contributes to the situation or that things are worse than you thought. In either event, I would want to watch the situation closely. If you find it continues and he starts to want to avoid encounters with her about which he has complained at times, or has changes in his mood, sleeping, eating or etc, then maybe there may be more occuring. Additonally, if he begins to have similiar issues with others you can find a social skills group or a play therapist to help him learn how to socialize better and resolve conflicts.

Since it's difficult at best to fully respond to this situation in an online message, I always advise checking in with a therapist so they can properly interview you, your son and explore all concerns. It may be that he needs some help to learn how to deal with someone being mean or bullying him. Also a therapist could discuss ways to address your concerns with the other parents gingerly.

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