Amy’s daughter’s teacher sounded embarrassed, “Tess is bullying another little girl,” she said.
“I couldn’t believe it!” said Amy, “Tess wasn’t the bullying type!”
Her teacher explained that the girl had complained of being ostracised. This was upsetting but fairly normal behaviour among eight-year-old girls. Then her property started to go missing and was found stuffed in toilets or left outside in the rain. Finally, the teacher caught Tess red-handed cutting holes in the other girl’s coat with scissors she’d smuggled in from home!
Amy felt terrible.
“I was horrified. This is not the way she was brought up. Worse, I hadn’t got a clue how to deal with it.” Amy told her husband, who was naturally furious with Tess, but they decided that simply going off at the deep-end might prove counter-productive. Fortunately, Amy’s sister Sarah is a child-psychologist, so she rang her for advice.
Sarah was great. She told them that while it’s never pleasant to realise your child might be bullying others, it’s behaviour which needs to be confronted or it can escalate.
What shocked Amy and her husband most was that Tess would not initially admit she’d done wrong. She was what Sarah called ‘a controlling bully’. She was bright, pretty, good at reading social situations, charming to adults and popular with her peers. ‘Victim bullies’, the other type tend to lack self-control and fly off the handle using aggressive behaviour. ‘Controlling bullies’ like Tess often see little downside to their behaviour because adults don’t see the evidence or find it hard to believe.
“We realised this probably started around the time her brother was born. Tess suddenly lost most of our attention and was expected to be the perfect older sister, help out and put her needs on hold much of the time. We’d kind of forgotten she was still a little girl who needed us.”
Sarah’s solution was simple. “Admit, atone, apologise.” Tess needed to acknowledge what had happened, to understand that her actions were hurtful and harmful, and that she needed to say sorry.
“In the end we sat her down and apologised for our behaviour, demonstrating that we accepted we had not behaved as well as we could. Then we asked her gently what the other girl had done to offend her so much that destroying her belongings seemed appropriate.” At that point Tess broke down. She quite liked the other girl she said, but she was angry with her and sad because every Friday the other girl’s mum collected her, and they went for tea and cake at the local cafe and talked about their day. There were other things too; this girl had great outfits for school dress-up days and brought in cakes that she and her mum had baked and iced together. “On the surface these were superficial silly things,” says Amy, “But it became clear Tess wanted more time with me. She didn’t feel she could ask so all her feelings of anger towards me were being directed towards this other poor child.”
In the end Tess made a card for the girl and apologised to her and her mother. “We replaced her coat and invited her for tea. Incredibly she accepted,” says Amy, “And they’ve become friends. I am much more aware now of how my own behaviour can affect the behaviour of my children.”