Helping a kid that IS a bully

 In Behavior

IMG_2686Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of connecting with a number of directors and mentors to collaborate concerning how best to serve some of the students in the Kids Hope program. These directors and mentors are an amazing group of people who are passionately caring for kids – some of whom are facing incredibly difficult circumstances. As we sorted through a variety of these circumstances, a few themes began to emerge. Consequently, I am hoping to include some of these themes in this blog space in order for other mentors and directors to access these resources.

It is difficult to spend much time on a school campus these days without encountering the concept of bullying. In fact, my very first consultation with a Kids Hope mentor related to bullying. In that case, the mentor was struggling because she had been matched with a student who behaved rather bossy. Recent reports from the teacher and other students indicated that the student had a reputation for bullying. It was common for the student to call other students names, demand his way, and tease other classmates. To be quite honest, part of the struggle that this mentor faced was that this child seemed to be somewhat difficult for her to like, and she was feeling terribly guilty about that. Since that time I have had several other mentors and directors contact me with concerns about their student either bullying or being bullied. It is clearly an important topic. As a result, I would like to share a few thoughts concerning bullying.

In spite of the fact that bullying has become a “hot topic” in recent times, it is not a new phenomenon. Consider some of the familiar Bible stories that plot a bully against a victim: David and Goliath, David and Saul, Moses and Pharaoh, or even Paul and Stephen. As we read about how these stories unfolded, there are times when bullies abused victims to the point of death! No, the concept of bullying is not new. Even so, it is helpful to explain the contemporary understanding of bullying because it seems that the definition has evolved over time. In most school settings, bullying refers to intentional aggressive behavior that involves either physical or verbal harassment that includes a real or perceived imbalance of power. Experts have concluded that bullying includes three key elements: an intention to harm, an imbalance of power, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Bullying behaviors can include teasing, insulting someone, hitting, kicking, shoving, or even gossiping. When understood in this way, it would be fair to say that most elementary and middle school campuses are spilling over with bullying behaviors.

In this entry, I would like to focus on the bully while saving my comments about helping the victims for the next entry. If you are mentoring a child who bullies there are two important things to keep in mind. First, it is common (even somewhat expected) for you to strain to like or struggle with your feelings about this child. Just imagine, if you, with your adult ability to think, feel, and understand, grapple with those feelings, the child’s classmates are probably struggling with these feelings, too. This child likely faces lots of negative feedback not only about “bossy” behaviors, but probably about himself or herself as a person as well. Children who bully often develop a belief that no one likes them or they perceive themselves as “unworthy” of love. In essence, this belief simply translates into the self-perception that “I am a bad kid.” These are the kids who NEED mentors like you! By demonstrating that you care for them unconditionally, you can help them consider an alternative perception that helps them believe that they ARE loveable.

Second, children who bully often have difficulty empathizing with others. As a mentor, it might be helpful for you to integrate activities during your mentoring hour that help build empathy. There are a number of ways to do this, but one simple way involves an activity that you probably already do. When you read a story with your student, it might be helpful to ask about the characters in the story. For instance, if you are reading the story of Charlotte’s Web, it would make sense to say, “I wonder how Wilbur is feeling here?” or “What do you think Templeton might be thinking in this part?” Ultimately, you are leading your student to consider the thoughts and feelings of someone outside of himself. As you do, you might be surprised by the results. Not only will your student gain an opportunity to think about things differently, but you may find yourself growing quite fond of your student as well.


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  • Christen

    Dr. DeYoung, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this very important issue. I am hoping these ideas will lead to more teachers/mentors/caregivers/community members addressing the needs of students who have bullying behavior. My hunch is that sometimes these same students aren’t always the same ones referred for KHUSA although it would be a good thing to suggest to teachers and staff to consider when evaluating who needs a KHUSA mentor.

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