Two teen sons.
One a bully, one a target.
And they were both mine.
It started when the boys were young. The eldest I’ll call M – built like a football player and with the personality of a boxer in the ring, he was bigger and faster and tougher than most kids his age. With some serious issues all around sharing his life between two households, M all too often took out his frustration on his younger brother.
The younger son i’ll call B – he was slightly built, gentle and verbal, with no way to effectively fight back except with words, and later fists, B grew up always having to defend against a bully who seemed to have everything he wanted but could never have.
As single mom to both sons who I love intensely, I often felt like the barely-standing shield between a cyclone and a hurricane. I hollered “Don’t get physical!” so many times that the mantra was simply ignored, and often I physically stepped between the two boys as the only way to stop the torment.
I tried everything I could think of to create a place of safety and serenity at home, and sometimes even succeeded. Other times, I’d fall into bed at night knowing I had failed. With two sons on absolutely opposite ends of the personality spectrum, I sometimes wondered if they would survive the grueling growing-up experience. As they became teens, each son took to the school environment those same personality styles, where M tended to bully, and B was often harassed and tormented to the point that he finally completely gave up on education.
Do you have a child who is a bully?
Do you despair of ever finding a way to help him understand the damage he is causing by tormenting others? Do you wonder what you did to deserve a child like this and if you’ll ever have any peace? Do you struggle with anger against this child and have to work ever harder to show them love? Do you sometimes wish this bully-child of yours would meet up with an even tougher bully so maybe he could understand what it feels like? Do you wonder why the parenting strategies that work with your other kids simply don’t connect?
Do you have a child who is bullied?
Do you despair of ever finding a way to completely protect him or help him learn to effectively stand up for himself? Are you afraid of what happens when you’re not around? Do you lay awake at night worried, feeling like an ineffective parent, remembering times you were tormented by bullies when you were his age and determined to help him not have to repeat your experiences? Do you struggle with anger against this child who seems to spark bullying in your other child?
There is hope.
If you’re struggling through having a child who is a bully, who is bullied, or sadly have one of each, please believe me when I say that there is hope. It can get better. Not simply or easily, and you’ll get very tired. But the hope is real. Here are a few things I have learned while helping these two amazing teens grow into adulthood from opposite ends of the personality spectrum.
1. SEE each as a person. Not the label, not the behavior, but the person.
M, my bully son, can be incredibly loving and gentle. Underneath the behaviors I don’t like is a person that I very much do like. And down there underneath are the fears, insecurities, and sadness that were the catalyst for his behavior.
B, my bullied son, can also be incredibly loving. He is also tenacious, can verbally express concepts and feelings that sometimes adults have a hard time finding words for, and is fiercely loyal.
2. SAY the positives, often. One day I listened to my voice. I sounded naggy, whiny, and no one was listening. I also realized that most of what I was saying was negative. So although it was difficult, I changed what I said, and how I said it. Rather than hassling M to stop the bullying behavior, I became very matter-of-fact about it, then immediately redirected activity to something else and complimented him on something positive. Rather than goading B to stick up for himself or stop bugging his brother, I became matter-of-fact about that too, and redirected his activity and complimented him on something positive.
This all sounds simple – and I guess it really is. But definitely not easy. That little paragraph in #2 took more than a year to put into practice. But I was determined, and it worked.
3. Be ALWAYS available. Now there will be all sorts of folks, professional and otherwise, who will disagree with this one. I’m a single mom, and I deserve to ‘have a life’, go on dates, enjoy times away from my kids, go to school, have a great job… the list goes on and on of all the things that I supposedly ‘deserve’. I don’t buy it. My primary job, until my children grew up, was to BE a mom. For several years we (four kids and I) lived on less than $1000 a month. I was home, I was mom, and thats just what it took.
4. Have ONE place thats yours. The bathroom was my refuge. When I could feel myself getting hysterical, I’d go into the bathroom and lock the door. Sometimes I’d call someone, sometimes I’d just take a few deep breathes and pull myself together for the next round. That bathroom and I were on intimate terms for a few years, and the mirror and I had long and deep conversations. The other place I had that was “mine” wasn’t a place so much as a reminder. Any time we were all in the car and it would start to get stressful, I would flip down the visor and glance in that little mirror. Then I’d tell myself the following, “You’re the adult, and its going to be okay. This is just one moment, and there will be another following this one. Breathe. You’re the adult.”
5. Don’t EVER lose your cool with either the bully or the bullied. Now hold up – I can hear already the chorus of voices saying thats impossible, and you’d be right. It is impossible to never lose your cool especially when you’re a single mom. (If anyone tells you its possible, they either live under a rock or have seriously medicated children!) But this became my “rule”. It is inevitable that you’ll feel angry. Walk away and go to your place. If that means you walk away every five minutes for an entire day, do that instead of lashing out in anger.
6. Try something different. My sons and I were stuck in a rut once. I’d state ultimatums, they’d agree then ignore them, and we’d be back where we started. So one night after they were in bed, I sat down at the computer and wrote each a letter. I expressed how much I loved them, and how frustrated I was at the current state we were in. Then I wrote out a (very short) list of what needed changing, consequences for ignoring the list, and what parts of it were negotiable. The next day each read the letter privately, and then we had a “family meeting”. Things started changing relatively quickly after that – without my voice saying the same thing over and over, somehow both boys were able to hear my real message.
Finally, reach out and get some help. I don’t think I could have gotten through those incredibly tough years without professional help. While my sons refused to go to counseling, I went faithfully. It saved my sanity, gave me ideas I hadn’t thought of, and gave me a place in which to vent my frustration and anger.
Part of the Coaching Services I offer is help for single moms in extreme teen situations. If this describes you, I invite you to send me a secure message – I always respond. I remember, I understand, I can help.
Things can be better.