Emotional Marshmallows Part II

Hello, welcome back– time to talk more about resilience. In my last post, I discussed working with children to develop problem-solving skills, which are crucial in enabling kids to “bounce back” from bullying behaviors.

In addition to a child’s temperament, I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids healthy: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities.We covered problem-solving in Part I, so now it’s on to numbers 2 & 3: choices over traits and cognitive flexibility– two techniques that are “joined at the hip.”

Defining ourselves and others in terms of traits is common. But for children, identifying with a trait can promote thinking that is overly rigid– especially when experiencing bullying. Traits are stereotypes and, once they are applied, they can leave little “wiggle-room.”

“He is mean.” “She is brave.” “I am loyal.”  Anyone can make a mean choice, a brave choice, or show loyalty– and one choice does not “lock you in” to being a type. When we emphasize the power of choice, we discourage stereotyping and acknowledge personal responsibility.

Negative traits stigmatize a child. Positive traits can also be problematic: For instance, encouraging a student to be brave. Being  brave can be daunting. On the other hand, helping a child to solve a conflict by making a list of choices  can be liberating.

At the same time, making it clear that being mean is always a choice places responsibility for mean behavior right where it belongs– with the perpetrator and never the victim.

Getting children to think about themselves and others in terms of choices rather than traits can be empowering. Resilience requires the sort of flexibility that choices allow. When kids learn that their choices have power and that they are not responsible for the choices of others, it is easier to  take action and move on. Negative labels like “loser” are less likely to stick. It is easier to bounce back.

Want to pay a child a compliment? Say “You are a person who makes good choices!”

Thinking of the world in terms of choices is a perfect example of our third skill:  3.) cognitive flexibility.

If a child sees the world in terms of “good kids” and “bad kids,” talking about choices forces them to shift their way of thinking. Therapists call this reframing.

Being treated mean is stressful, and, when under stress, people often “lock in” to a way of thinking that is distorted:

“I have let everyone down.”
“She hates me.”

These kinds of thoughts make us feel sad, angry, and helpless. Distorted thinking is a primary focus in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but you needn’t be a therapist to help a child “reframe” an incident– or think about it in a different way.

It’s hard for a child to be flexible while under fire. An adult can suggest different ways of looking at a situation. In my blog Mean Girls, I reframed the actions of Chrissy by suggesting that she was motivated by rivalry. To me this seemed obvious yet it was a thought that Lydia had never entertained. Lydia thought that Chrissy’s behavior was more random. Thus the logical progression being that anyone could dump on her at any time– a tough concept for a 7 year old to accept. Maybe she was not worthy of respect?

A rivalry implies that Chrissy’s actions were motivated in  part by jealousy. Suddenly, Lydia assumes a position of greater power– and, perhaps, empathy. The funny thing is, we will never know whose version is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s likely that Chrissy herself does not know what is true. When dealing with bullying behavior, searching for truth can sometimes be futile. Teaching a child to reframe a bad situation so that they feel better is the goal.

Think about the situation differently, feel better, move on. That is resilience.

One of my favorite instances of reframing happens at the beginning of our show, Everyone Belongs: Mr. Barry is caught disrupting the program by changing images on the screen behind my back. Is he being a jerk? Is he a bully? OR, “Could it be that Mr. Barry is looking for a little attention?” The audience and I agree on the latter, conflict resolved, on with the show…

Well, that wraps up Part II. Next time, I’ll explore our final skill, 4) stress reduction activities. Finally, I’ll address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired the “Marshmallow Trilogy,”  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime, let me know what you think. Is there an example of “reframing” that you found useful in a bullying situation? I look forward to hearing from you.

As Always,

My Best,

Paul

 

 

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