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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sibling bullies

Parenting is a tightrope to walk. I know that. It's so hard not to fall off one side or the other of that thinnest of thin lines- into over-regulation, or into permissiveness- even when you're trying your hardest.

But sometimes I see the chaos caused by well-meaning parents who misinterpret where the line is, and my heart bleeds for the kids, and I have to say something. LOUDLY. Today I'm saying something, LOUDLY, because yet again I've seen a child in pain when parents thought they were doing the right thing.

See, there's lots been said about how we shouldn't intervene too much between siblings. Let them sort it out. Don't force the relationship.  And I agree with that, within reason.

But let me show you what can happen when that approach gets taken too far. It's not pretty.

Quite a few times now, I've come across children under five who've had to be sent home from group care (sent home? Under five? Really? --yes, really!) because they were beating up other kids.

Beating them up, not just once or twice in a week.

Relentlessly. Daily.

Beating them up- not just annoyingly, so the other kids whined to us.

I'm talking blood. I'm talking stitches.

Nothing I, or any of my colleagues, has been able to do or say has made a difference to the tendency to violence in these children. We've sometimes made a difference to the frequency of the violence. But we've never actually stemmed the anger in these children's hearts.

And do you know what? When we've finally got to the bottom of it, the story nearly every time has been the same. Sometimes we hear it from the child. Sometimes we hear it from a friend of the family, or on the community grape vine. Sometimes, astonishingly, we even hear it from the parents.

But eventually we find out that this child is bullying violently because this child is violently bullied. Not just now and then, but every day of his life. No parole before and after school, no parole on weekends- not even for under-fives.

You see, a bully isn't necessarily a stranger- some other child who calls a child cruel names, plays tricks on him, threatens him with violence and demands his lunch money or mobile phone. A bully isn't even necessarily a drunken, violent parent.

In nearly all these cases I'm thinking of, there was an in-house bully teaching this child to relate to other people by hurting them- and that bully was an older, stronger sibling. These poor children spent their home lives constantly on high alert, waiting to be set upon by (usually) an older brother. Sometimes a few older siblings would team up on the smaller, weaker child; sometimes the bully was an older sister.

Invariably, the parents didn't see this as a problem, and thought it was okay to let the kids sort it out themselves. After all, isn't that what the very best advice says?

And so, having been taught how to bully through physical violence at home and bearing a heart full of rage at the injustice of it, these children have come to a different environment and have related to other children in the only way they know- by beating the bones out of them, often for no apparent reason.

I mean, they're bottom of the heap at home. They're damned if they're going to be bottom of the heap at school too.

And because there's often no apparent reason for the violence, these children get labelled- by other parents, by other kids, even by carers. Bully. Troublemaker. Difficult. Violent.

That makes me mad. I don't like labels.

Look, I'm sure 99% of you know this already, but I'm going to spell it out for the 1%.

It is NOT okay to let one child constantly beat up another child to 'sort it out'. That's bullying, whether or not the children are siblings. You have to intervene. 

Look at your fighting children, and imagine yourself in the place of the smaller child. How would you feel? Is this a fair fight? What is this child learning?

Would you like to be the one having your personal space constantly violated? Would you like to be on the receiving end of this? What would it be called if another adult did this to you?

Perhaps this is how you were treated as a child. You've normalised it inside your head. It's still not okay- sorry. It's still bullying. And perhaps you might need some help to deal with your own pain.

Perhaps your culture normalises kids sorting things out for themselves. That's fine if your culture is otherwise intact, and also role-models strong family bonds, respect and behavioural boundaries. But sadly, this isn't always the case.

For example, many of our indigenous mobs do expect children to work out their differences without intervention, which is a traditional perspective and worthy of our respect and understanding- and that parenting model works wonderfully in a situation where kinship still reigns, where the elders of that mob are present on a day-to-day basis, where these leader figures still have the children's respect. But in situations where the normal structure of the community has been damaged, violence can grow unchecked between children. A clear and honest eye is needed; parents need to consider the big picture.

Once you see the need to call a halt to bullying and to defend the child who's being targeted, you also need to look to the causes of this dynamic. Imagine yourself now in the place of the larger or more dominant child.

What is that child saying with his or her fists? Why?

Imagine the world through this child's eyes too. What's missing, that he or she needs to express themselves like this? Is it your time? Is it your attention? Have you perhaps appeared to favour one child over the other, for whatever reason? (And the reasons can be completely understandable- a child who's ill, a child with special needs, family traumas, personal depression- but often there's fallout that expresses through children's relationships.)

Is this a learned behaviour in the dominant child too? (It almost always is.) Who has taught this child to speak with violence, and how can you change that?

These are confronting questions. Perhaps this child is watching you being bullied by your partner, and mimicking that way of relating. Perhaps there's a negative dynamic at this child's school or within a social circle that needs further investigation.

Perhaps you will need professional help you to find out not just what the answers are, but what the right questions are to ask your child and yourself.

Nobody's family is perfect. I've talked about that before. You're not a failure if you admit there's a problem in the dynamics of your family. On the contrary- it's dealing with problems honestly that makes you a success.

So be a success. Please.

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