This article was originally published in The Ascent
He was the textbook definition of a bully. One by one little kids were coming up to me with the same story.
“Adam is scaring me!”, “He keeps grabbing and pinching me!”, “I told him to stop and he just keeps hurting me!”
I was visiting this Kindergarten class just for the day, so I did not know much about Adam other than what his teacher had told me in the morning. He was always picking on the other kids and would almost always do the opposite of what he was told. The school staff had tried numerous strategies with little effect. The more they intervened, the more his behavior would escalate. He had been suspended several times and they were at a loss as to what to do.
I looked over to see Adam doing just what they were saying. He was targeting kids that were minding their own business and tormenting them for no apparent reason.
Now it’s not surprising for things to get a bit physical in Kindergarten. Playing rough, grabbing toys, hitting in the heat of the moment, are not unusual behaviors at this age. But this was different. What Adam was doing was unprovoked and calculated. He was much bigger than the other kids and appeared to enjoy intimidating them.
From a distance, I watched Adam grab another kid’s leg who was precariously holding himself up on the climber and I yelled for him to let go. He responded by digging his nails in even harder. Fearing for the other child’s safety, I ran over. I can’t remember the exact words I used, but I screamed them with such a furious roar, it shocked Adam enough to loosen his grip and I was able to pull the child to safety.
Now as a teacher I generally don’t make it a practice to yell and I am not supposed to physically intervene. But it gets tricky when a child is attacking another and not responding to your verbal attempts to stop. I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. I wish I could say these types of situations were uncommon, but this is something many teachers contend with on a regular basis.
Adam looked at me with defiance and proceeded to chase after another child. I sensed things were about to get much worse. When I caught up with him, I pointed out that the other kids weren’t doing anything to him. This is when things got interesting!
“They’re being mean to me!”, he exclaimed. “They’re always hurting me and threatening me!”
This seemed the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, I could tell the other kids were frightened of him and had learned to be extra accommodating around him.
Now this is when most of us would shut things down and refuse to listen to excuses that were clearly untrue. I did not have sympathy for Adam in that moment. In fact, I was angry about the way these innocent kids were being treated. I worried that if I entertained his unreasonable point of view it would give him the idea that his actions were justified. I felt an urgency to impose an immediate consequence; I didn’t want him to think he could get away with what he was doing.
Despite the logic in my thinking, I could sense that any form of confrontation would only provoke him further and risk the safety of the other kids. So I decided to do the opposite of what most rational parents or teachers would do, and what happened next was unexpected…
“They’re hurting you? That’s horrible! You don’t deserve that. No wonder you’re upset! Why don’t you come an tell me about how those kids are being mean to you so I can make them stop?”
I said these words hoping that if I pretended to believe him, he would calm down and stop what he was doing.
He seemed a little taken aback by my response, but this interrupted his pattern enough for him to agree to sit down and talk to me. I resisted my urge to scold him for what he had done, and I listened to what seemed completely unreasonable at first. I put everything I knew to be true aside and delved right into his way of seeing things.
He was being bullied. The other kids were out to get him. He was only defending himself…
It still didn’t sound true, but I kept listening, validating his perspective and digging deeper.
“That sounds awful! Does this happen just at school or does it happen in other places too?”, I asked.
“Other places”, he responded.
“At home”, he replied.
“Who treats you like this at home?”
“My brother and his friends”, he said reluctantly.
It turned out he had a 16-year-old brother and based on what he told me, Adam was being bullied by him and his friends. In fact, it sounded like the very things he was doing to the kids at school was what his brother and friends were doing to him.
Adam admitted that he was scared of his brother. He confessed that he thinks his brother hates him.
I resisted my impulse to downplay what he was telling me by saying something dismissive like, “Oh, I’m sure he loves you and he’s just doing what most brothers do…” Instead I replied, “I can understand why you feel that way. How can I help you?” He was unsure, but I sensed his relief that I’d understood his problem and was willing to help.
I asked Adam if he’d ever told his mom what was happening or expressed how he felt around his brother. He replied “no”. I suggested that I could help by sharing his concerns about his brother with his mom when she picked him up at the end of the day. At this point his face lit up and he agreed. Suddenly, I saw a humanity in him that I had not seen all day.
When I spoke with his mom at the end of the day, she confirmed what Adam had told me. She explained, “When I go to work, my only option is to leave him with his brother. I try to tell him to stop picking on Adam, but he’s a teenager and hard to control. ” She was a single mom of two boys and clearly overwhelmed and without resources.
I reported the incident to the school and followed all the proper protocols. I have no way of knowing what happened to Adam after that day, but I sincerely hope that him and his family received the support that they needed. I wish that was a guarantee, but their are many cracks in the system that kids like Adam often fall through. At the very least, I’m hopeful that my taking the time to listen and understand him better made at least a small difference in his world.
What did I learn from my experience with Adam that day?
How often do we ask kids why they did something, expecting that they actually know? Most behaviors are unconscious, especially for children. Young kids can’t easily make the connection between their behavior and whatever is driving it (and most adults have trouble with this too).
Adam was just 5 years old. It would be completely insane for me to expect him to say, “I think I must be taking out my unresolved frustrations related to how my brother treats me on the kids at school, because it gives me the feeling of power and control that I don’t have at home.”
Adam wasn’t lying when he said the other kids were picking on him, he was overgeneralizing. He blamed the kids at school because it was too much of a stretch for him to connect his actions to his brother.
All too often we accuse kids of lying when they are simply misinterpreting or generalizing their experiences. Eventually most kids learn how to tell us what they think we want to hear rather than admitting what they are really thinking and feeling, for fear of getting “in trouble”. But, if we can just remain curious, rather than debating the details, we can use what they say as clues to uncover the deeper reasons for their feelings and actions.
It was my willingness to listen to Adam’s seemingly inaccurate perspective that allowed me to quickly get to the heart of what was going on. He would not have opened up to me if I had not started by validating his point of view. This is human nature. It is really hard to listen when we don’t feel heard first.
Sometimes kids are dealing with very real situations that are out of their control and their behavior is an unconscious way of getting our attention and trying to take back their power. Kids also may develop unhealthy beliefs that have them responding based on false perceptions rather than to what’s real.
Underneath everything that doesn’t make sense about a child’s behavior or perception is a completely reasonable explanation. We just have to sift through all the “unreasonableness” to find it.
Most of what we do with kids to encourage positive behaviors involves logic and reason. But the reality is, behavior is driven more by what is going on subconsciously then it is by our conscious understanding of “right vs wrong” and “cause and effect”.
Most kids can explain why they “should” or “shouldn’t” behave a certain way and they usually know if their actions will lead to a positive or negative result. Yet, for many kids this conscious understanding is not enough to impact their choices in the moment. Why? Because there is something much deeper going on that’s driving their behavior unconsciously.
If we can put aside our urge to teach, correct, and penalize long enough, we might notice that most of our well accepted ways of responding to negative behaviors aren’t actually working for most kids.
The truth is, very often what we’re doing when we respond to negative behaviors is nothing more than a short-term fix to manage the moment and make us feel like we’ve fixed the problem. Consequences like a time out, saying sorry, losing a privileged, etc., while sometimes necessary, don’t actually address the deeper issues that led to the behavior to begin with.
What can we do differently?
- Listen. Observe. Ask questions. Be curious. Resist the urge to make judgments and jump to conclusions. Don’t expect kids to be able to accurately explain their behavior and use what they say as clues to uncover the truth below the surface.
- Validate their point of view, even if it sounds completely untrue. This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with the facts, it just means you are connecting to their perspective. Making them wrong or convincing them to see things your way will only compel them to defend their point of view which further reinforces it. Simply asking the right questions and listening will often lead to the child making the realization we’re hoping for on their own. This is much more effective than telling them what they should think and feel.
- Connect to the emotion behind what they are saying. What they are feeling is very real to them even if it seems small or unwarranted to you.
- Don’t rush to resolve the problem. We are often so quick to solve problems that we overlook what’s important. Our fear of “letting them get away with it” prevents us from understanding the situation more deeply. If we actually take the time to get to the root of the issue, we are more likely to fully resolve it rather than just temporarily manage the symptoms.
- Refrain from demanding an apology until the child actually feels genuinely remorseful. If the situation involves another child then apologize on their behalf in the meantime. Tell them you are so sorry for the way that child treated them. Tell them they didn’t deserve that. Explain that just because the other child can’t see their point of view right now doesn’t mean it was their fault. A forced apology is unhealthy for both parties and sets the stage for unhealthy relationship dynamics in the future.
- Stop taking things personally. If you are triggered by a child’s words or actions, address your own discomfort. Kids are really good at mirroring back our unresolved wounds. They don’t do this intentionally, they are just naturally tuned-in. We need to have the self-awareness to take responsibility for what’s ours, because as long as we are blaming the child, it is almost impossible for us to provide them the space to be heard.
- Uncover and address their “theory of the world”. By understanding how they are perceiving their experiences we can address any unhealthy beliefs leading to surface challenges. This isn’t hard to uncover, you just need to know what clues to look for. You can learn more about what this means and how to do this here.
Too often our rational mind interferes with our ability to be wise. What Adam needed wasn’t to be reasoned with; he needed someone to be wise enough to recognize that his unreasonable point of view was worth listening to. So next time you come across a child (or adult) being unreasonable, just keep listening until it all makes sense!
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