Posts Tagged 'assertiveness'

The Dance

In my previous post, “Emotional Marshmallows Part III,” I talked about the need to be relaxed in order to effectively deflect mean behavior. The best defense against aggression is flexibility. The metaphor I used was a dance: a lively sequence of steps; a give and take.

Far too often, adults and children view confrontations as an event to win or lose, beat or be beaten. Like most relationships, however, dealing with an aggressor at school need not be an all or nothing proposition. The goal is to move beyond the fight/flight dichotomy and into a set of choices that are more nuanced and creative: shuffle, dip, glide and spin. It is what the best communicators do naturally.

When working with both children and adults, I find that one of the simplest and most effective communications skills to teach is the disarming technique: find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it is unreasonable or unfair. When you agree with someone, it takes away the aggressive energy and puts you on the same side. Key to using this technique is understanding that being right or wrong is often secondary to getting what you want in the long run.

And what a kid wants is to be safe.

My favorite resource for dancing around mean behavior is a children’s book: Karen Gedig Burnett’s Simon’s Hook. Burnett likens a bully’s taunts to a fish hook that her protagonist must learn not to bite. In the story within a story, learning not to bite is key to survival for a desperate school of fish.  Soon they are deflecting put-downs and barbs, using the following techniques:

  • Doing Nothing: not reacting
  • Agreeing: disarming technique
  • Distracting: changing the subject
  • Laughing or making a joke: humor
  • Staying Away: avoiding the perpetrator

Sometimes  a combination of skills is best. My favorite is combining the disarming technique with humor– also known as the art of self-depreciation. Joining in by making fun of yourself is a creative way to dance with rather than do battle with someone who is being mean:

“Dude, that shirt is ugly!”
“No kidding! I think my mom bought it to punish me! Aaaaack!”

But it is not easy. A kid needs to be relaxed, confident, and practiced in order to pull it off.  When they do, the sense of accomplishment is great. Not everyone has a sense of humor, however, so for some children staying away or causing a distraction may be a better choice.

The key is to have options. And understanding a child’s capabilities of in the face of a powerful aggressor takes some time and individual attention. How reactive is the child? How frightened? Are they verbally adept? What is their level of confidence? Even children of the same age range widely in skills and maturity, so understanding individual capabilities is crucial.

Which brings me back to the event that started my discussion of resilience in Emotional Marshmallows, Part I.  I took issue with an assembly 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 a child insult you while you make them laugh is a deceptive way to demonstrate resiliency.  The power distribution is backwards (try the demonstration with an adult attacking a student and I guarantee a disaster). The very definition of bullying requires a power advantage for the aggressor– and the power deficit is exactly what makes it so hard for a target to respond.

The routine is entertaining, but it is not very helpful. The majority of the audience will not be able to perform the skill in real life– so what tools do they get?

It is important to not over-simplify bullying. It is important not to blame the victim. And it is important to help children become resilient by  gently encouraging them to problem-solve, make good choices, and reframe thoughts that are self-destructive. Teach them to be flexible. Teach them to breathe. Teach them to “dance.”

Cha cha cha.

My Best,


Simon’s hook : a story about teases and put-downs. Karen Gedig Burnett ; illustrated by Laurie Barrows: Roseville, CA : GR Pub., c1999.



Emotional Marshmallows Part III

“If you are more relaxed, I think your brain functions more effectively.”  –Dali Lama

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”   – Victor Frankl

Welcome back to our discussion about resilience. When this post started,  I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids resilient: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities. Having fleshed out 1-3, we are left with perhaps the most desired life change goal among 21st century Americans, STRESS REDUCTION.

Part of the definition of resilience is elasticity. It is the reason that  skyscrapers are engineered to sway in the wind.  The motion relieves stress and keeps the building standing. Bending, relaxing, swaying, giving and taking– are all the opposite of stress. Too much stress and things break.

Being relaxed and in control is key to resilience, especially in the face of bullying. Studies have shown that bullying has become less physical and more verbal. Name-calling and exclusion are more prevalent  than physical aggression.  As a result, being poised and ready to fight is not the deterrent that it used to be. Being relaxed and exercising self-control in the face of fire is the best defense.

So instead of teaching kids to fight, we need to teach them to dance. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Dance is a lively sequence of steps — and flexibility is key.

How do we get a “wound up” kid to relax?

There are many approaches to managing stress in children: Exercise, mindfulness techniques, cognitive reframing, humor, art and non-directive play are all commonly used in a therapy setting. And don’t forget diet. Caffeine can make a kid’s springs become more tightly coiled.

But the simplest yet most effective technique that I’ve seen is learning to breathe. I say “learning” because it seems that many of us have forgotten how, or simply don’t feel we have the time.  A deep breath from the diaphragm, pushing the belly out, rising into the chest and lifting the collar bones– not a shallow puff from the chest but a full breath like a sleeping baby–  does wonders to calm the central nervous system and allows time to think.

Here’s the exercise:
One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

Make a game of it with your child or student when they are upset or “frazzled.” Count it out loud for them AND have them do it for you! Keeping in mind the quotes at the top of the page, this simple exercise makes kids more relaxed, allows their brains to function better, and creates a space between stimulus and response– all assets in managing the dance that is required when being picked on at school.

And remember, the best way to get a child to engage in any behavior (good or bad) is to model it. So, when you are driving and the rage begins to build, or if you are in front of the class and it’s one of those day when you are at your wit’s end, say to the little ones, “Give me a count…”

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

And you do the same for them. Make it a game. Make it fun. Breathing and laughter mixed make the most therapeutic cocktail.

So, now that your are more relaxed and have provided a buffer between stimulus and response, what sort of dance might you do to deflect mean behavior?

I’m afraid we’ll have to save it for next time. We’ll call it the Emotional Marshmallow Trilogy Post Script. AND I promise to finally address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired it all,  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime,

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

My Best,



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,


Mean Girls


Recently, several counselors have asked me the following question: “Does your program include something about mean girls?” Mean Girls, a phrase that taken out of context sounds like an indictment, has now become common in the lexicon of educators.
Of course, what they are talking about is a particular brand of peer aggression, which has come to be known as the “mean girl” problem thanks to the 2004 movie of the same name. The movie brilliantly parodies the cut-throat politics and social maneuvering among The Plastics, a clique of self-absorbed high school girls who are both revered and feared. Like royalty, they determine the fates of their classmates with an arsenal of put-downs, rumors, dress codes, secrets, and back-stabbing.  Effectively using the metaphor of a jungle, there are fantasy scenes in which the students become wild animals, tearing at one another’s throats in a battle of life and death– and death, of course, is synonymous with social exclusion.
Tina Fey’s comic screenplay was taken straight from the pages of  Rosalind Wiseman’s groundbreaking book, Queen Bees & Wannabees, published in 2002: a thorough examination of adolescent girl friendships and cliques. Wiseman’s “Girl World” is explored in such detail, including maps and an exhaustive list of roles and titles (Queen Bee, Sidekick, Banker, Floater, Torn Bystander, Pleaser/Wannabe/Messinger & Target) that it lends itself well to comedy. It depicts a perilous world and offers advice to parents who aspire to understand and guide their daughters through its hazards. When the book came out, Wiseman became a staple on the talk show circuit, and her ideas resonated. Fey’s movies then launched them into pop culture history.
Both works document high school culture,  but as any elementary school teacher knows, the “mean girl” dynamic can start much earlier. From the first day of elementary school, girls seek and form groups to explore common interests and to gain a sense of belonging. Their connections tend to be more verbal and fantasy based, playing pretend and acting out roles. Social skills are honed and relationships can become intense. It is a normal part of development, but the stakes can be high, especially when someone feels excluded.
My daughter Lydia, who is in her twenties, recently reminded me of an event from second grade, when she fell victim to this dynamic. I asked her about it for this blog and she reprised the story. Here is an exerpt:
“When I was in second grade there was a group of girls who called themselves ‘The Club.’ The Club was Chrissy’s idea. Chrissy made the rules for the two other girls in The Club. On certain days, the trio would co-ordinate clothing or hairstyles. As far as I could tell, club meetings involved standing in a corner of the blacktop with arms crossed, talking. At the time, I was only interested in playing at recess.  Chrissy sometimes glared at me for reasons I never understood, but I did not care much about The Club…That is, until I was specifically excluded.”

I was becoming friends with a girl named Grace. One day she told me that she couldn’t play with me. Chrissy was inducting Grace into The Club that day. 
 The next day I asked Grace to play at recess. This time she told me, “I’m in The Club now so I can’t play with you today.” When I asked her why, Grace said, “That’s what Chrissy said…I do wanna play. Maybe tomorrow.” 
This continued for what seemed like a long time to me. Sometimes Grace would say, “Maybe Tuesday- or next Thursday.” Another girl I liked and talked to, Stephanie, was an original member of The Club. One day she also told me that Chrissy said she couldn’t play with me. Apparently, Chrissy was making rules about what days The Club members could play with other kids. Eventually the girls’ excuses evolved into, “Chrissy says I can’t play with you.”
Feeling friendless, Lydia’s attitude toward school changed. Distraught, she told my wife and me about what was happening. Needless to say, it was heart-wrenching to see our eight year old girl, who typically loved school become so discouraged.  I wrote a note to the teacher, and the club was immediately dissolved: a true testament to the power of an authoritative figure in the lives of second graders.
What is also remarkable is the similarity between “The Club” and “The Plastics” of movie fame. Our experience not only predates the works of Fey and Wiseman, but illustrates the same cruel dynamic in girls who are barely old enough to read.  Why do girls act this way and why are they so good at it?
Lyn Mikel Brown, activist and co-author of Meeting At The Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development, characterizes this dynamic as “the tyranny of nice and kind.” Because girls are required to act nice and accommodating at an early age, they learn to hide strong feelings like anger from public view. Denied open expression of anger, they become experts at more subtle forms of aggression, such as gossip, spreading rumors, and exclusion. This way, they maintain the image of being “nice,” while at the same time wielding power.
For me, Brown’s explanation holds water. Chrissie (leader of The Club) clearly saw Lydia as a rival. Knowing it inappropriate for a girl to physically, clash, hit, call-out,  or otherwise display anger or violence toward her, (like Fey’s wild animals) she employed her refined social skills. What a boy might have communicated in an athletic contest or a fight, was instead suppressed into a finely orchestrated coup de tat.  Using friendship as a commodity, she left her rival bankrupt and alone. Club members acted as loyal players to the plot, and only adult intervention brought it to an end. Chrissie’s club was dissolved, and the members regained their free will.
Is this dynamic preventable or is it inevitable? Is our only hope as counselors and educators to short circuit such behavior when we see it happening or can we replace it with a better alternative? I think we can do both.
Olweus’s 4 rules, (Do Not Bully, Help Others, Include Everyone, and Tell An Adult) are instrumental in promoting open dialogue about the way girls treat one another. Discussing “The Club” dynamic openly as a form of bullying, emphasizing the pain of exclusion, and describing and promoting empathy are all worthwhile and effective methods of reducing peer aggression. And thank goodness Lydia chose to tell an adult. In the case of “mean girls,” however, two additional areas require our attention: promoting assertiveness and evaluating friendships.
Recently, while counseling a woman in her late 20’s, I asked her if she had attempted to rectify a situation by being assertive. She responded, “I don’t want to be mean.” While girls have mined the depths of subtly aggressive communication: silent treatment, eye-rolling, sighs, stares, whispering, and pretending not to hear (to name a few), being direct or assertive  is considered mean. Correcting this distortion is crucial to empowering girls and helping to avoid the “mean girl” dynamic as both victims and perpetrators.
Using an “I” statement to tell someone what you want is easy to teach and model. Assertiveness role-play helps girls to build confidence and become more direct and powerful. It is respectful and responsible and can be taught to a kindergartner. It is far less abstract than “pillars of character” and can be used everyday. Wouldn’t it be a great addition to the curriculum?
Finally, there is the question of friendship. Though I shy away from using the word frenemy,  it is true that many children maintain friendships that are toxic. In an environment where friendship is a commodity, and “best friend” is a title to be coveted,  many kids are blinded to the fact that some friendships are bad. I recently found a Friendship Quiz online, designed to help girls decide whether or not someone is a good friend. Qualities like “stands up for me around others” are followed by check columns: Always, Sometimes, or Never. Answers are numerated for a friendship score (6-This friendship is worth keeping!, 0-3-This friendship is over! etc.) With my daughter Lydia in mind, I would surely include the quality: “Tells me whom I can and cannot play with.”
Enough said… for now. This blog is on the long side, but I had a lot to say. I love my job, bringing mental health issues to schools (I tell other therapists that my “client load” is a half dozen adults and 2000 children per week). Needless to say, girl peer aggression, assertiveness, and friendships are topics that I will continue to explore. And, as requested, they will be covered in Part III of our anti-bullying programs which is currently in production. Working title: Warm Heart, Cool Head.
My Best,

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