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