Clarie Psychotherapy

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conversation with my 4.5 year old child on bullying incident

Commentary: Helping My Child and Myself Through A Bullying Incident

Several weeks back, we had a 1-2 minute brush with a single bullying incident by the pool.

Although it was short, the impact of the incident was not.

We did not confront the bullies, but spent a long time processing the incident both with my child and myself.

What was expected to be a fun swim day at the pool on a weekend turned into a triggering experience.

the thing about being a parent is that it is no longer just about me. My conversation with my 4.5 year old child on bullying incident

Here’s what happened…

We were at the pool and crowd was starting started to build.

As an outgoing child, my 4.5 year old daughter loves making friends – she naturally went towards the crowd.

On the other hand, as an introverted mum, my inner radar started working and I began directing her to move away from the crowd first for her safety as well as ‘protecting’ her although I wasn’t sure from what yet

My child wanted to do one last slide before we left. I watched with tense emotions building up inside of me as she climbed up the stairs joining the long queue.

As she was waiting for her turn, one older boy jumped in front of her. Then, an older girl. 

From below, I could see my daughter trying to inch closer and closer to the one in front of her.

As she turned and looked at me with a sad face, I remember myself thinking “Should I go up or let her manage this herself?”

The older girl managed to cut the queue and get on the slide before her.

Although my daughter had her turn and came down smiling, I was already cringing inside – with sadness and anger all at the same time. 

I knew I had to address this incident with her. 

In the changing room, I shared with her what I saw happened and here’s what she told me

Me: I saw that the children cut your queue. 

Her: Yah, the girl said ‘go back, go home‘ (Immediately, my heart sank) 

Me: Why didn’t you say No to her? 

Her: It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. (at this point, I felt this intense sourness in my heart) 

Me: What do you mean it doesn’t matter? Were you angry? 

Her: Yes

Me: Then why didn’t you tell her to not jump the queue?

Her: It’s not nice to make people angry. 

Me: But you were angry, weren’t you? Why do you say it’s okay for you? You matter too. (I was shocked, brewing in anger and more sadness at the same time) 

Her: All the children are like that at the pool.

Me: They’re so rude and kept cutting your queue? 

Her: Yes. The boy said “don’t cut queue” but he stepped in front of me.
(I was flabbergasted at this and tried to make sense of what happened in that 1-2 minute – the amount of things she has had to deal with and process alone up there at the slide) 

Her: I just want you to come up and tell them. 

Me: You were waiting for me to come up and protect you, is it? 

Her: (nods) 

Me: I’m so sorry… I didn’t know you were waiting for me to come up.

At this point, my heart broke. I was watching from below, expecting my 4.5 year old to stand up for herself.

We had been reading up on books on bullying and a part of me was waiting for her to stand up for herself.

There was so much guilt and regret eating me up inside because I ‘saw and did nothing’.

Later on, she told me “I forgot how to say No”. 

It made so much sense that even with practice, we can forget how to respond (and instead go into freeze, flight or fight mode)

So Here Were Some Things We Did

We did a role-play and I asked her to look me in the eye and say “No, don’t cut queue”. She took a few tries before she managed to see me in the eye and say that. 

We explored a few options next time it happens, including not going back to the pool, and what she can do next time, with or without mummy being around. 

I validated her strength and shared my observation with her that actually she was doing something for herself by inching forward and not letting the other person cut the queue.

I affirmed and thanked her for keeping herself safe up there because it can get slippery and dangerous. 

I openly shared with her that it hurts for me to know that she was bullied and think it’s okay. 

I apologized to her for not being a good enough role model for her, and that I didn’t come up when she wanted me to.

and that I would come and face bullies with her together next time. 

My Trigger as A Parent

As we processed further, it dawned on me that I was triggered myself. 

This bullying was the exact thing that I was trying to ‘protect’ my child from.

The experience, though was my daughter’s, triggered memories of me when I was bullied in school at that same age and felt helpless and froze – never had the courage to tell the adults at all, let alone stand up for myself. 

It made me felt weak and scared to stand up to the child at the pool because I was back to being that little girl.
I froze myself while witnessing my child being helpless up at the slide.

I was also asking a lot of Why questions because of my own triggers, instead of properly offering her the space that she much needed at that time.

Through processing that part of me, I see that

  • I’m no longer that child who is powerless.
  • I wasn’t in the wrong so there is nothing to be afraid of.
  • I have to do what’s right, right for myself and for my children.
  • I can start by actually demonstrating to her how as an adult, I can protect her against bullies through my actions, and so she can model.

Standing up against bullies can be scary, especially when we don’t have positive models to learn from (what to do, what to say, how to protect ourselves).

It is only over repeated practice that we learn to muster our courage to overcome our inner fears to work past our ‘default’ reactions to stand up for ourselves. 

At the end of the day, with both of us exhausted, we agreed to be there for us

  • She can trust and tell me things that are bothering her, especially with bullying.
  • I am not there to scold her or do anything she does not want me to.
  • We will face and stand up against bullies together. 
  • We have nothing to be afraid of because we’re not in the wrong. 
  • We are doing the right thing by doing what is right for us. 

Parting Notes

When we have a child, as parents, these issues are no longer about them or us alone. Our children look up to us and emulate us, good or bad.

As scary as it is to face our past, or unhealthy unhelpful childhood experiences or lessons, we are not working on them for ourselves anymore, but for our children.

If we don’t address them, they will come up in other places or situations, even if we worked on this one.

I also realised that as parents, much as we want to be there for our children all the time, we cannot. We can only equip our children with the skills and resources to surpass challenges, and difficult situations, instead of running away (not going back to the pool). 

Note: while it can be a ‘no-brainer’ to stand up and do the right thing for some, it is often a real and valid challenge to others. Some might even choose to say ‘never mind’, ‘let it go’ or ‘it’s over, forget about it’.

The truth is, bullying stays and impacts us growing up if unprocessed.

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