Insensitive Bullies and Sensitive Victims: Brothers and Sisters in Hurt

May 30, 2012

In striving to be useful ahead of sweepingly insightful, today’s focus is on better understanding bullies and bullying, with particular regard to helping kids who tend to get bullied.

In simple terms, kids who have relatively non-sensitive constitutions tend to plow forward into new situations and out into the world with hardy confidence.  If they are knocked down it’s not such a big deal, nor are loud noises, bad smells or overly stimulating environments anything to rock their worlds.

These kids, if treated well, are natural “winners” in our extroverted and loud society.  The teachers don’t “worry” about kids who speak up, are first out into the yard and grab what they want when they want it… unless they are mean or cruel about it.

However, when hardy hail fellows are not well-met by caregivers, these kids tend to “act out” their frustration, demanding attention in negative ways and zeroing in on sensitive kids who they can easily hurt, thus dispelling their bad feelings and being gratified in terms of power and control by having a strong and stimulating effect, albeit a traumatic one, on someone else.

Mitt Romney is a good example of an insensitive person who may have secretly felt a little neglected in being sent off to boarding school and suddenly finds himself going Lord of the Flies with a pair of scissors.

Conversely, sensitive orchid kids, if optimally supported and protected, can blossom into splendid original thinkers and innovators, creators and helpers.  But if these kids are not optimally supported and, where necessary, protected, they tend to “act in,” withdrawing even further from an overwhelming and scary world.  In being highly reactive to pain, they are natural targets for insensitive people who are also in pain.

Thus the bully-victim relationship might be understood as a traumatic bond between two complimentary versions of hurt.

In our society there is a tendency to label the bully as “bad,” and then call out for more punishment, but there is scant understanding that these kids need compassion and understanding for the way they are wired.  Often parents of bullies are either bullies in their own right (i.e. wounded) or are absent or less involved that would be ideal (see previous post on this)

Readers of this blog post, however, are more likely to be the sensitive parents of sensitive children, or the bewildered not highly-sensitive parents of sensitive children.  So what to do if your orchid is being trod upon by unhappy dandelions?

Perhaps the key point is to truly hear what your child is experiencing in their hurt, their sensitivity, their fear, their shame and their confusion about how to manage the insensitive kids and how to manage their own feelings.

Listening and feeling what our kids are feeling is a fundamental place to start, not the giving of advice (especially that “be assertive” sort of advice that only works if a kid feels empowered and clear about what that actually means and how to possibly do it—and if they did they wouldn’t need that advice, in other words, that path is bound to fail).

Vilifying the bully as a terrible person doesn’t really help much either.  Better is to validate your sensitive kid for who they are and, depending on their age and level of development, educate them on how much more reactive they are—by nature; and how much less reactive the bully is, by nature.  Neither is better or worse, but acknowledging the differences is a good start.

Supporting our kids to try different strategies, informed by deeper understanding about the way the bully is wired, might help them become a little bit Caesar Milan/Bully Whisperer.  Calm confidence is key with anxious aggressive animals and also with humans of a similar stripe.  While there are situations where things can be truly dangerous for kids, most of what we deal with, at least in the early stages of bullying, is fairly innocuous (physically) but psychologically devastating.

Role-playing, where you play the sensitive kid and your kid plays the bully, can lend insights and also offer opportunity to practice skills.  The goal is to appeal to our children’s intelligence, compassion and creativity to work through the anger, the fear and the drama to realize that the bully is just a kid who wants to feel safe, liked and good about themselves (and does not).

Once a kid who is being bullied realizes that the crappy feeling they are now carrying is probably the same feeling the bully carries around and doesn’t know what to do with, our kids might realize that the bully is no more confident or adept at social relating than is our timid and confused orchid.

Given that making the insensitive kid sensitive is a reach, we may get further supporting the sensitive kid to use that sensitivity to get inside the other kid’s shoes and head a little bit and then meet the bully where they are:  a little more direct, a little more loud, a little more… insensitive—a little less terrified.

In appealing to the intelligence of sensitivity, we can encourage our kids to try different things and note how it works out:  humor can be fantastic in signaling to the bully that we’re able to laugh at ourselves, that none of this is all that serious, and that we’re open to liking the bully if they can learn how not to hurt us.

Finally, we want to imbue our kids with the belief that humans can be kind and compassionate, and that people who hurt others are themselves hurt—but could feel better and act better too.

The truth is a powerful thing, and armed with it, our kids grow more powerful.  It is cool and powerful to be kind.  People who hurt others in a bullying sort of way are not merely less sensitive; they are unhappy and hurt plus not terribly sensitive.

As the playground shifts from a land of friends and foes to a land of friends (who are kind and feel good about themselves) and kids in pain (who are less kind and engaged because of that hurt), perhaps the sensitive kids will gain the skills and insights they need to better join the group (and thus be less of a target due to isolation).

To feel loved (or at least liked) we must feel understood.  Our task is to understand our children so that they truly feel our love, which helps them to feel confident and empowered.  This means paying attention and tolerating the sorrow and frustration of hearing about our kids being hurt.

If our kids take this modeling with them into their world, perhaps they will be able to better understand themselves and the children who are struggling in their world—and if those struggling kids feel better understood they may feel liked and accepted and in turn have less reason to make others feel badly about themselves.

Here’s to caring, connecting and practicing loving kindness—with our kids, and with each other’s kids too.