The boys were all in the schoolyard during recess. A few were playing handball, some chasing each other for tag, and one or two involved in reading a book. Binny was one of the boys playing tag and he accidentally stepped on Chaim’s toe.
“Ouch!” Chaim yelled.
“Oops. I’m sorry,” Binny responded.
“No! You aren’t. Ouch,” Chaim said again, hopping on his foot.
“I was sorry, but maybe I shouldn’t be!”
“Ah. Everybody is always stepping on my feet,” Chaim whined. “And if it’s not my feet, then you break my pencils when I lend them to you.”
Zev jogged over from his game of handball, “What’s going on?” he asked, “Chaim going crazy about nothing again?”
“Everyone steps on me because I am short. You guys think you can beat me up,” Chaim yelled.
“I stepped on your foot – I didn’t step on your head! Maybe I should step on your head because of how angry you got!” Binny screamed back.
“Yep, here we go again,” Zev grumbled.
It was a typical day for the boys in fourth grade. And, while at some point Chaim’s parents had mentioned the word “bullying” to the teacher, in reality, there is something different at play here. Rather than a victim of bullying, Chaim is the victim of incidental mean or painful behavior. This can be equally damaging and frustrating, but is often handled differently than bully victims. This is a sensitive issue because you don’t want to make a big deal out of the situation, but you also don’t want to minimize the victim’s feelings.
There are several issues at play here. The first issue is Chaim’s size; it may make him feel that children will get away with picking on him. The second problem seems to be that Chaim gets annoyed easily and might not ignore inconsequential behavior.
These issues are actually integrally connected. In our culture, we often think about aggressor as huge, hulking boys and their victims as scrawny kids with glasses. In reality, child aggressors (bullies among them) often look very similar – it is their social interactions that are different. When someone bothers Chaim in the park, he has a fit of anger. If done on purpose, that is exactly the response that the child who hit him or ruined his game is looking for.
If you think about it, the child who is bothering Chaim is looking to get a rise out of him. What better reaction could he get than screaming and shouting? Now that he has gotten Chaim upset, he will simply do it again. The fact that Chaim sometimes gets annoyed when there might not be real cause also feeds the other boys’ aggression. They think, “If he gets so riled up when we do nothing at all, what will he do if we actually do something mean?”
I want to be clear that Chaim is in no way responsible for the other children’s mean behavior. He is the target and should not be blamed. However, there are a few things that he can do to help break this cycle of aggression and frustration:
Teach him to ignore. This might be an extremely challenging thing to do, but helping your child ignore frustrating behavior will ultimately make that behavior go away. Dr. Michelle New of KidsHealth explains that kids “want a big reaction to their teasing and meanness. Acting as if you don’t notice and don’t care is like giving no reaction at all, and this just might stop [the] behavior.”
Role–play. At this point, your child’s reactions have become ingrained, so you need to teach him how to ignore annoying behavior. The best way to do this is through role-playing so that he is prepared before the actual encounter takes place. First, he should pretend to be the person bothering him and you should react by pretending you do not notice. Or, calmly get up and walk away. Then, flip the roles and allow him to do the ignoring.
Mask his anger. Help your child come up with ways to hide his anger and frustration from the other boys – maybe counting backwards from 100 or reciting the names of all of the parshiyot in the Torah. Let him keep his mind occupied until he can safely display his feelings without the other boys’ knowledge.