Emotional Marshmallows Part I

headshotbw1Each day I receive a Google Alert, listing links to current articles about bullying. Recently, the title “Bullying Message Delivered With Humor” grabbed my attention. I thought, “Hey, that’s MY gig.”

The story described an anti-bullying assembly program that was being hosted by a midwestern school district. The presenter, who is described as a youth crisis counselor, is quoted as saying that encouraging students to seek adult intervention when verbal harassment takes place is breeding a generation of “emotional marshmallows.” He further describes his message as putting “a lot of pressure on the victim… You can only build resilience by going through adversity.”

In the assembly, resilience is illustrated by a role play in which a student volunteer is prompted to verbally abuse the presenter. The performer then turns the situation in his favor, a la “You are going to call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh.” He subsequently receives the insults with self-effacing calm and humor until his attacker loses all steam. Having seen this routine before, I assure you that the presenter succeeds and the “bully” joins in with the audience’s laughter– it’s a crowd pleaser.

While I agree that humor can be a useful strategy for deflecting mean behavior, “pressuring” a victim and achieving resilience “through adversity” are concepts that deserve some critical attention.

First, I question the idea that resilience is built through experiencing adversity. Kids do not develop resilience by being bullied. In fact, children who have been abused are typically more fragile.

Children who react to bullying and harassment with resilience do so because they were resilient before the event. We all know that some kids are harder to hurt than others. On the one hand, the media provides a constant flow of stories about bullied children who fall into suicidal despair. On the other hand we hear of kids that put up with a boat-load of abuse yet continue to persevere and become successful. You could say that they refuse to become victims. Why are some children more resilient than others? Where did the resilience come from?

Anyone who spends time with kids knows that temperament is a factor. Everyone processes information differently. From birth, some children are more sensitive and become upset more easily.  With that as a given, however, it is also true that resiliency can be taught. 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities all play a part in building resilience in children– and they can be taught at home and at school.

In order to keep the blog short and manageable (I know you don’t have all day to read this. And, by the way, aren’t you supposed to be working?!), I’ll limit the discussion to  1) problem-solving.

We’ll follow with 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities in subsequent posts. And don’t let me forget to say something about “pressuring the victim” and the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

Finally, before we begin, I must acknowledge the researcher, author, and bullying guru on whom I rely for cutting edge thoughtfulness on the topic– Stan Davis. His recent web discussion with Psychotherapy Networker led to my interest, and much of what I know about resiliency.

So, here we go:

Problem-solving: When a child is suffering, our first inclination as adults is to “fix it,” especially in the case of bullying. Using our power and experience as a tool, we intervene with a solution. Unfortunately, we lack the perspective of an elementary school student, and our solutions don’t necessarily work.

School dynamics are typically more complicated than one might predict. We can underestimate the amount of fear and shame that a child can feel when excluded or harassed by classmates with power. Oftentimes, we suggest something that they’ve already tried, causing them to feel more hopeless. More importantly, we’ve snatched from our child the very tool that will protect them in the future– honing  problem-solving skills that create resilience.

The best way to develop problem-solving skills is through gentle questioning. Reflect the child’s emotions without getting caught up in them (“I can tell you are feeling very upset about being treated unfairly”). Then inquire about what they have tried and respond positively (“That was definitely worth trying. What else can you do to try and solve the problem?)

With a warm and supportive guide, kids can be very creative. And they will learn to model your calm, analytic approach. Of course if you let your emotions take over, scream and stomp around, they’ll model that too.

The process provides children with a tool that they can use for a lifetime. Each attempt hones the skill, and each success builds confidence, self esteem, and of course resilience. Developing problem-solving skills is not quick, but it is gratifying.

Two crucial things to remember are:  1) Do not get angry; 2)Do not jump in and solve the problem until your child has tried more than one solution. And let them know that you will always be there for them if things get “too tough” for them to handle.

One of my favorite “universal” problem-solving strategies that can be used school-wide is Walk-Talk-Squawk. Everyone in the school learns it within minutes, it follows the “trying two solutions before getting adult help” rule, and IT RHYMES! Plus, I’ve been told by parents that their kids have employed the strategy at home to cope with little brothers and sisters. (How cool is that?!)

Alas, I promised to keep this short. And I was just getting warmed up!  Stay tuned for choices over traits, cognitive flexibility, and stress reduction activities. Not to mention “pressuring the victim” and the efficacy of the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.  In the meantime…

what do you think? Make sense? Do you have a problem-solving story to share? Please use the “add comment” button below to join the conversation.

My Best,



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