Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Kid, The Bully

I remember several school bullies from elementary school.  One was this boy who was about five grades ahead of me and would push smaller kids off the slide or down the sledding hill without provocation, and would tease people mercilessly.  He had a deformed arm, and I remember thinking he must feel pretty bad about that and take it out on others.  I don't think he had many friends.
And then (now this is a fantastic example), my sister had her front teeth knocked out by a kid named Robert Smazz who had an anger problem and was famous for punching kids with very little warning.  He teased my brother once in front of me and I chased him off and threatened to punch him in the face if he tried that again.  I was about ten.  Robert Smazz resurfaced about five years ago as impersonating a paramedic in various communities in our province, including the town I grew up in, and several cities in the Vancouver area.  He had flunked out of paramedic school but somehow got his hands on a uniform and would go to hospitals on the pretext of skills assessment (we sometimes did that for licensing purposes) and start IVs and administer medications to patients.  For kicks.  I guess.  I have no idea why he did that but there was a provincewide search going on for awhile and I called my sister and was like
She was all, OMG ARE YOU KIDDING ME???
I included his real name because he's a real life criminal.  Kidding.  I changed it.

I kind of figured that kids who are elementary school bullies have anger issues.  Their parents are divorced or they have a weird arm deformity or they struggle in school and it makes them angry and they take it out on other kids in the playground.  I totally figured the Robert Smazz's were on the fast track to fraud, so to speak.

Then, once I had kids and hung out with other moms and their kids, I started to see that every kid is good.  That whole bad seed thing is a myth.  Kids stumble around while they learn everything, and this includes appropriate social behaviour.  Some kids are biters and others are criers and others are tattle tales but they are all good kids.  When Matthew went to preschool there was another little boy there whom Matthew adored.  Matthew always really wanted to be included in whatever this boy was doing during free play time, and this other boy was having none of it.  He was mean to my kid, who was so open and beautiful in his adoration and generosity, and it was hard to watch.  But I felt very convicted that this other boy was just a little boy, stumbling around and learning as he goes, just like my children do. 
To be honest, in this instance I chalked it up to insecure attachment in the other kid and hoped his parents would connect with him before he became Robert Smazz.

Yeah, judge not lest you be judged.  PLANK IN THINE OWN EYE PLANK IN THINE OWN EYE.

My kid is a bully.  Before Christmas one of Matthew's friend's moms contacted me.  Matthew had been physically bullying her son on the playground, and stealing parts of his lunch.  We had long, protracted discussions with Matthew about appropriate touch, the nature of friendships, and appropriate social behaviour.  Matthew was contrite and eventually apologized and agreed not to do it again.  He was quite worried about the state of their friendship and didn't want to lose this friend of his.
And then the mom contacted me the following week because Matthew stole his friend's lunch again.  Ate it in front of him.  And laughed in his face.  The teacher was contacted, and she implemented a life lesson approach that actually is quite impactful, usually, for Matthew: before school the next day she took the entire contents of his desk and hid them, and proceeded to teach class as usual.  At lunchtime she gave the contents back, and had a long discussion about how it feels to have someone take something that belongs to you.  He seemed to understand.
And then the next day he stole his friend's lunch again.  This was getting ridiculous, and we were now speaking in massively redundant terms when discussing it with Matthew at home.  Meanwhile, both little boys are crying and afraid of losing their friendship, the friend's dad is mad and wants to tell the principal, we are beside ourselves with frustration.  We implemented the consequence of no Wii for a week (Santa brought our kids a Wii for Christmas and they can play for 30 minutes per day provided they are on pretty good behaviour), and if his brothers were playing, he had to go into a different room so that he wouldn't be tempted to watch, which is nearly as fun as playing yourself.

Brent put his foot down and told Matthew that he couldn't eat lunch with this friend anymore.  He couldn't talk to him, play with him, or eat with him, since he couldn't control his behaviour with regards to the friend's lunchbox.  I told Matthew that every day, his friend will go home and tell his mom whether Matthew bullied him, and his mother and I will make contact and discuss it.

No parent wants their kid to be bullied.  And I can tell you from experience that no parent wants to be the parent of a bully.  School pickup by now is a walk of shame.  The parents of this boy are very patient and gracious people, but they are wearing thin.  They just want to protect their kid, you know?  He shouldn't have to be afraid at school.  Or hungry.  The teacher is optimistic, and has had long discussions with Matthew, Matthew and his friend, and the class as a whole.  They have reviewed class rules, with deep emphasis on respect and kindness towards others.
When asked, Matthew says that his friend's lunch just looks so yummy, and I just want it really bad.  We are frustrated enough to chew our own necks.  Matthew knows the rules, but when the teacher is not in the class (all of this behaviour is happening during lunch hour, when older kids are brought in as lunch monitors and the teachers go to the staff room for their break), he pretty much takes what he wants and taunts his friend.  Operative word: FRIEND.  Like, my goodness. 

Matthew is not an angry kid.  He is gregarious and social, charismatic and funny, and exhibits all signs of being well attached and emotionally settled within the context of our family and his school community.  He doesn't fit my stereotype of a kid who is a bully.  He's no Robert Smazz. He's not even like the kid in preschool, though maybe on second thought that kid just didn't know how to cope with not wanting to play with someone.  Someone who looks different, talks funny, and stutters like nobody's business, no less.  Matthew's speech and language issues are largely resolved so he doesn't talk funny anymore, although he still maintains a mild stutter.  Which doesn't bother him in the slightest.
We are reasonably sure that Matthew's bullying stems from a strong lack of impulse control.  Since the day we adopted him, he has had difficulty with impulse control, short term memory problems, and high distractibility.  He struggles academically, although with an excellent teacher and a classroom based on individualized learning he has really come quite far this year.  He also has an immature and irritable bladder, so he pees his pants every single day.  Usually multiple times a day.  He wears a pullup at night, and it is full every morning.  He had chronic, frequent ear infections as a small child and had major speech pathologies as a result.  Three plus years of speech therapy and surgery to put tubes in his ears have helped HUGELY with his speech, language, and reading fluency.  All of this adds up to a child who is incredibly bright, positive, friendly, helpful, and fun, who is a late bloomer, AND who merits being tested by the school district psychologist for a learning disability.  The psychologist started testing in November and will be completed soon (it is taking longer than average because, her words "He is so highly distractible.")   I will not be surprised if he has ADD or ADHD, and/or some sort of Sensory Processing Disorder.
HENCE, we, his teacher, and his learning assistance support staff agree that impulse control is likely at the root of his bullying behaviour at school.  Particularly during unsupervised school time (because, lets face it, two eleven year olds are pretty much peers and not really authority figures at lunchtime).  He wants something, and his impulse control is largely external at this point, so if no adult is around, he just takes it.  He can't really deal with the immediate emotional fallout, so he taunts and teases. 

So not my stereotype.

SO not what other parents, peers, non teacher adults (Matthew's soccer coach yells at him all the time because he doesn't know how to deal with Matthew's personality), and other people see when they look at him.  They (often) see a bad seed.  A kid they deem 'disrespectful,' 'rude,' 'not listening,' or 'mean,' instead of just a kid stumbling around making mistakes while he grows up.  Plus his brain is wired differently so he has more to cope with than your average kid.

As you can imagine, being Matthew's mom is kind of like being handed a really sweet, feral cat.  Good luck harnessing that one.  Good luck staying sane.  Just, good luck.

Today the school Vice Principal called.  When I see the kids' school name on my call display I no longer think one of them is missing or hurt.  I generally groan inwardly, knowing Matthew has done SOMETHING.  Last year, he peed on a friend sort of by accident, and then laughed at him.  The year before, he bit someone.  And this year, food thief.
The VP is really nice, and sees Matthew for who he IS, not some bad seed.  Thank GOD.  But Matthew has now started a "Pack" in his classroom.  Essentially it's a gang.  They rove, steal toys, and threaten others with social ostracization if they oppose.  Within the class.  During lunch.  Oh my GAWD.  One of the other parents phoned the VP to complain (because talking to the teacher wouldn't somehow suffice, or talking to the parent of the child?!  Pull out the big guns first, man.  Totally). 

More talk.  More protracted discussion.  Probably a meeting with us, teachers, learning support staff, and administration.  Can I just say one thing?  Okay, two.

If you come across a kid who seems like a bully, LOVE HIM ANYWAYS.  If he's angry because life shit on him, or if he is simply wired differently and is stumbling around in the dark, LOVE HIM.  Love him in your heart and in your actions, and be extra, extra patient.

Second, not all kids misbehave because their parents are bad parents.  Misbehaviour is often just a symptom.  My kid isn't angry, belligerent, or cruel.  He's just so full of want.  He has no filter for his wants and desires.  So he takes.  We're working on it.  He's being tested, we're researching diet changes, supplements, alternative treatments, and educational tricks to help him build an internal filter.  A sense of self control.  And to calm the chatter that distracts him so viciously. 

Matthew, my feral cat.  Rawr.


Caryn Ouwehand said...

Ugh, hugs to you Mel.

You and Brent are great parents.
In a few ways what you discribe to me in terms of busy-ness and impulse control issues reminds me of Silas. I worry all the time about him having some of the issues you have mentioned as possibilities for Matthew, we even had the good ol`Aspergers word thrown our way a few times...yowzers. Like really...can we pretty please leave my little guy label free for now...he is only 4. I like to call it busy. Time will tell for both of our little monkeys...

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Oh...wait...I meant to say, he is not even 4.

Yeah, he is still 3. Go team C.

Rachel @ Lautaret Bohemiet said...

Damn, friend. I mean, really, damn. I feel for you. But I also am amazed at your perspective on this.

It really gave me something to think about because, yeah, we do make assumptions about bully kids and that's not fair, and they aren't helped or supported by those assumptions anyways.

Love you. Hang in there. Rock this, girl. Just... rock it. I know you will.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I read this and think...Where are the adults?! Unsupervised lunch time? 11 year olds to watch over the class! I'm amazed. And they (the school)don't see this or don't care. Matthew is an active boy! He just needs discipline and love. Also supervision (by an adult) at lunchtime. That would be the teacher's responsibility. If she needs a break ,then, the teachers could take a break at different times or maybe some parents could volunteer for lunch duty. We always had an adult in the lunchroom and on the playground. The school is at least partially responsible! Delanita

Doulanic said...

Wow, Melissa. Thank you for sharing. What candid honesty!! I appreciate your view. My kids are usually the bullied ones, although I do have 1 kid who has bullying tendencies, and I constantly have to remind myself of this!! Good for you for talking about it...and I'm sure that you and Brent are great parents! Matthew will probably turn out to be one of these highly motivated, awesome leader type people who get things done!! Cheers!

melissa said...

Oh, geez, Melissa. My heart hurts reading this. Your points about "bullies" and the nature of children are so right on, and so easy to forget when the mama bear comes out because our kid is hurt. The way you're handling being on the other side is extraordinary. The respect for and deep understanding of Matthew that comes through in this is beautiful, but amazingly not at all blind. The realistic, informed, loving approach that you take can only lead to success for your boy in the end.

I am a little surprised at the idea of a lunch period that is not supervised by adults, though. That's worrisome for me, and I have to think that a lot of this would not be happening if there were a teacher in the room. I have never heard of a modern school that organizes lunch time in that way.