Busting Anger, Promoting Respect, and Communicating Effectively.
Module 1 consists of this parent manual, a personal link to 10 family and 2 parent video workshops, 2 written workbooks for parents (Workshops 8 and 10), 3 family board games (“Know My Family Game”, “Escape from the Land of Trouble Game”, and “Easy-Going Game”), handouts, and supplies. It’s important that Modules 1 and 2 be completed before proceeding to Modules 3 through 5. Please read the preamble to each workshop prior to your family watching the video. There’s further information to read after your family has watched the workshop. Text included in frames aren’t “required reading”, but provide additional information.
Workshop 1: Introduction to Life Skills 4 My Family
Please review before watching the video (18 minutes for video + 40 minutes for activities).
Managing anger effectively is a key skill for both children and adults. Everyone encounters frustrations throughout their lives, and every family experiences varying degrees of anger and conflict. All parents have to deal with disrespect, temper outbursts, and oppositional or defiant behaviour (not listening, refusing to cooperate, or ignoring requests). Sometimes they have to deal with similar behaviour from their children as well. In fact, anger management is the number one problem families seek help for.
Module 1 helps all family members “bust anger”, communicate effectively, deal with conflict, and curtail, if not eliminate, disrespectful and oppositional behaviour. Once family members manage anger effectively, parents can focus on the finer points of parenting and introduce additional programs to teach their children essential life skills.
The “Know My Family” Game
Workshop One ends with the “Know My Family Board Game” which provides an opportunity for family members to share positive perceptions of one another. Each player takes a turn drawing a card and answering the question printed on the card. Players are asked questions about other family members. None of the questions are hurtful or embarrassing.
Workshop 2: What is Anger?
Please review prior to watching the video: (25 minutes + 15 minutes for activity).
Family Workshop 2 defines anger, how it impacts the body, and how it’s expressed. The workshop stresses that anger is a feeling, and it’s natural to feel angry when things don’t go our way. Although we might try and solve a situation we’re angry about by name calling, yelling, or hitting, such behaviour is aggression, not anger. This is an important distinction; it’s okay to “be angry” but not okay to act aggressively. While this seems like common sense, anger and aggression are often confused by both children and adults. Parents justify acting aggressively and yelling because their kids “made them angry”. Parents threaten, “don’t make me angry” when they’re really threatening consequences. Someone yells or shoves and onlookers comment, “That guy sure is angry”. The lack of distinction between feeling angry and acting aggressively is confusing to kids. If it’s bad to be aggressive, it must be bad to be angry. Yet how do I stop feeling angry? It’s an impossible task.
For a child with aggressive outbursts, it can be a breakthrough when they understand anger is not the same as aggression. Although they can’t control their feelings of anger, they can control their behaviour. Rather than trying to stop feeling angry, the child embarks on a more realistic mission to replace aggressive behaviour with new, more appropriate responses. It’s a relief to know they weren’t wrong or bad for feeling angry – their only mistake was how they chose to behave. Adults with anger management issues have yet to learn this simple lesson. They feel angry so they feel justified in acting aggressively. After all, someone “made them angry”, so it’s not their fault if they react in an aggressive manner.
At the end of the session, kids and parents are asked to draw faces on balloons. Balloons and a permanent marker are included with the program.
Workshop 3: Cave-Person Versus 2000 Person
Please review prior to watching the video: (50 minutes +30 minutes for family skits)
Workshop 3 examines the physical changes taking place in a child’s body when they feel angry, and examines how these changes impact the child’s thinking and behaviour. The workshop stresses that when feeling angry, everyone has to choose between acting like a “cave-person” or a “2000 person”. The benefits of anger and how anger can help solve problems are also explored.
Listening to a lecture or reading a book is a good way to acquire information, but learning a practical skill requires hands-on practice and repetition. Consequently, at the end of the video, your family is asked to put on short skits acting out a situation where anger makes a problem worse and a situation where feeling angry can be used to solve a problem. The skits are an important component of new learning, so it’s important that you show enthusiasm for the task. The skits are brief and should be a fun activity.
First Step: What To Do When Angry
Please review before watching the video: (55 minutes + 30 minutes for Treasure Hunt)
Workshop 4 teaches specific strategies your family can implement when family members are angry at someone they care about. The workshop teaches kids to notice the early signs of anger, how to relax, and what they need to say when talking to a person they’re angry at.
To learn these skills, children need to practise saying the words out loud; they won’t learn the words just by watching the video. To master these skills, your family is requested to act out short skits or role plays and there are questions that must be answered before and after each skit.
To encourage your child’s participation, the skits are completed as part of a treasure hunt around the home. Most people love a treasure hunt. It’s like the “Great Race” on TV. Even adults enjoy running around and searching for clues.
Expressing anger non-verbally
The video workshop discussed non-aggressive ways to express anger that provides your child an opportunity to burn off adrenaline, relax, and get the blood flow back to their frontal lobes. While sports or physical activities can be helpful, they also pump up the heart rate, which can be counter-productive when trying to calm down. In fact, overly strenuous workouts when angry can even increase the risk of heart attacks in adults. If your child does engage in sports to “burn off” their adrenaline, ensure they follow-up with calming activities to relax and allow their heart rate to return to normal.
Competitive sports can also be counter-productive if the game is frustrating and your child is losing. It’s far better to practise skills they’re good at, rather than adding to their frustration. The same is true of video games. A game your child is good at and finds relaxing may serve as a distraction and be helpful. A frustrating or an excessively violent game, however, may feed their anger and negative thinking. Angry aggressive music may also justify feelings of unfairness and might fuel a child’s anger, rather than inducing relaxation and sober second thought (listening to loud rock music can helpful – just not angry aggressive music).
I don’t believe a child with a history of aggressive behaviour should be playing violent video games if the violence is directed against other humans. While the jury is out, I don’t think games that include violence to non-humans, such as aliens, monsters or make-believe creatures, are necessarily bad (at least in moderation). They’re fun and although violent (assuming they aren’t graphic and gory), the child plays the role of a super hero saving the earth from annihilation. Games that target other humans (even if they’re defined as a bad guy or an enemy) are too realistic and may make violence an acceptable solution to conflict. At least for some kids, they could contribute to aggressive feelings and a heightened tendency to respond with aggression when angry.
Some books and counsellors recommend hitting things to cool off and to “get out the anger”. This is not a good idea. Exhausting oneself by beating on a substitute object may feel good and reduce immediate feelings of anger, but it also teaches children to hit and strike out physically when upset. Hitting, yelling, or engaging in destructive activity strengthens the neural connection between feeling angry and acting aggressively and ultimately increases the odds of striking out verbally or physically. Similarly, don’t suggest drawing pictures of a person your child is angry at and ripping them up, throwing darts at the picture, or scribbling on it. Such strategies have a place when dealing with anger at inanimate objects, such as feeling frustrated about an illness or disability, but using these strategies when a child is angry at people is counter-productive. Of course you may encourage your child to kick their soccer ball assuming they’re burning off adrenaline and practising their soccer skills, whereas your child is pretending they’re kicking someone’s head. If you suspect they’ve a secret violent vendetta against the soccer ball, encourage your child to eliminate their aggressive thoughts and instead focus on improving their skills while still burning off that adrenaline. We want to weaken the neural connections between feeling angry and acting verbally or physically aggressive.
There is one exception to the above rule. If your child has a history of physical aggression, it may initially prove helpful to go to their room and punch a pillow, tear up paper, or pound their fists. This is preferable to pounding on a sibling’s face, and it’s certainly a beneficial first step. As soon as possible, phase out the aggressive behaviours and encourage non-violent physical activities and ultimately more appropriate ways to relax. Don’t use punching bags as they’re strongly associated with hitting others, and they could lead to wrist injuries when used incorrectly.
Expressing Anger Verbally
The family video suggests three key starter phrases for kids and adults to use when they’re angry. Using these three starter phrases is not just for kids. Adults should use the same approach when expressing anger or discussing a conflict.
Follow these steps when a family member is angry:
When upset, your child may not remember the three things to say, so you’ll need to cue them. Grab the handout “Communicating Effectively”, and remind your child to complete the starter sentences beginning with: “I’m angry because….”. If you’re angry at your child or your partner, use the same approach.
If your child says, “I am angry at Thomas because he’s a jerk”, remind them that’s just a form of name calling. Have them try again saying what Thomas said or did that made them feel angry. If they reply, “I am angry because Thomas acted like a jerk”, congratulate your child on their quick wit, but ask them to try again.
Similarly, when expressing anger you must avoid saying, “I’m angry because you are….. inconsiderate, thoughtless, spoiled, ungrateful, rude, stubborn, or any other trait that describes someone’s personality”. That’s just name calling. Calling someone perfectionistic, compulsive, rigid, misogynistic, or narcissistic sounds much more sophisticated but it’s just dressing up the name calling. Listing negative traits becomes a personal attack, and you’re implying you dislike the person. Not only is this hurtful but it invites your child or partner to identify your negative traits in return (not that you have any). Let your partner know you’re angry about what they did, not who they are. It’s much easier for your child or partner to change their behaviour than to change their personality (sorry, but it’s true). Some child and adult examples:
I am angry (or frustrated or upset or annoyed) because you……
promised to take the garbage out but then watched TV all evening.
laughed at me when I was losing the game we were playing.
didn’t even ask me if I needed help when I was cooking dinner.
never thanked me for all the work I did.
don’t take my suggestions seriously.
talk to me in a sarcastic or derogatory tone.
keep telling me how to do things I’m quite capable of doing myself.
didn’t think to call when you knew you were going to be late.
never thought to consult me before buying “Life Skills 4 My Family”.
When your child or partner expresses anger, they expect you to acknowledge their anger and understand their point of view. This is where communication often goes off the rails. It’s human nature to defend oneself from perceived attack or accusation of wrong-doing, so instead of listening and acknowledging how your partner or child feels, you’ll be tempted to argue that their anger is unjustified, misdirected, or exaggerated. You’ll want to explain why they’re wrong, suggest they’re over-reacting, and perhaps even blame them for your behaviour. In essence, you’re denying your partner or child’s right to be angry. Like many parents, you may have a hard time hearing that your child is angry at you. It’s easy to dismiss their upset as minor, to immediately correct their misperceptions, or quickly try to cheer them up. There’s nothing more frustrating, whether adult or child, than to tell someone you’re angry only to have them immediately argue that you’re wrong, dismiss your concerns, or deny the feelings you’re experiencing.
When a family member expresses “I’m angry because….”, it’s crucial you reflect back your understanding of their anger and upset. You must put feelings of being attacked and the desire to defend yourself on the back burner. As a listener you must do just that – listen and try to summarize what the speaker is feeling and trying to say. Only ask questions to seek clarification and a full understanding of what your partner or child is upset about; don’t ask questions to advance your own agenda, try to prove your partner wrong, or prove your own point. Remember, understanding the speaker’s anger and viewpoint does not mean you agree with what they’re saying. Right or wrong, your partner or child feels angry and you need you to understand what they’re angry about. They need to feel their anger and frustration is acknowledged and understood.
Listening and reflecting back what a speaker says is harder than it sounds. It requires good “listening skills”, which have to be learned and consciously practised. Workshop 10 consists of a parent workbook outlining how you and your partner can enhance your listening skills. In the meantime, focus on helping your family express the three things to say, and ensure you acknowledge their comments by reflecting back or briefly summarizing what they’re trying to express.
Once your partner or child feels you understand what they’re angry about, they need to complete the second starter sentence and clarify what they want done to fix the problem. It’s often difficult for a family member to specify what they actually want. It forces them to stop saying they’re angry or upset and start looking for realistic solutions.
Examples: “I want you to….”
follow through on our plans, so I don’t have to keep reminding you.
stop making fun of me and rubbing it in when I’m losing.
think about offering to help, rather than waiting for me to always ask.
be more appreciative of what I do around the home.
take time to consider my point of view and not just ignore my input.
tell me directly what your mad about without put-downs or sarcasm.
let me do things my way. I’ll ask for help if I need it.
give me a call if you’re going to be late.
talk to me and discuss our plans before you make decisions.
Once your partner or child feels that both their anger and needs have been understood, it’s time to switch roles. It’s your turn to express your feelings and needs. Your partner or child who was initially angry must also switch to their listening skills, so they can understand and acknowledge your viewpoint. This can be difficult for the angry party to accomplish, but they’ll be more likely to listen if you’ve already done a good job acknowledging and understanding their feelings and needs.
If you’ve wronged your partner and their anger is justified, this is the time to take responsibility, admit your wrongdoing, apologize, and take steps to rectify your mistakes. You’ll likely need to explain why you appeared to be so thoughtless or uncaring of your partner’s needs. Obviously, the more neglectful or thoughtless you’ve been, the tougher this process will be. Good luck!
If you feel your partner’s anger is unjustified, this is your opportunity to explain why they’ve misunderstood your behaviour and clarify any misunderstandings. Be careful not to slip into an endless argument about who’s at fault or why someone did something. Your goal is to understand each others feelings, needs, and viewpoints. Eventually, you may have to agree to disagree on why something happened and disregard who is really to blame.
You may of course also be angry or frustrated with your partner, and now it’s your turn to express what you’re angry about and what you need.
It takes two to have productive communication. Both parties must slow down their verbal exchanges, and take turns being the speaker as well as the listener.
Don’t get sidetracked from the 3 things you’re trying to communicate.
It’s easy to get sidetracked when discussing a conflict and end up in pointless arguments or debates. Ways to sidetrack a conversation include (you’re supposed to avoid these pitfalls, not put them to use):
Asking why someone did something instead of expressing what you’re angry about.
When angry, it’s common to start out with: “Why did you do …..?”. You’re trying to determine if the hurtful or inappropriate behaviour was intentional, or if there might be some other explanation for your partner or child’s behaviour. While natural to want to know why someone did something hurtful or inappropriate, this question almost always starts an argument. Your child or partner is left guessing why you’re asking the question and they’ll be on the defensive trying to explain their behaviour. Their mind is racing trying to figure out the intent of your question and if they might have done something to upset you. It’s more direct and honest communication to start out with, “I’m angry (or annoyed, frustrated, disappointed or concerned) because….”. The other party knows what you’re concerned about and can focus on listening to your concerns, rather than trying to guess your feelings and explain their own behaviour.
Arguing who is to blame.
Your partner or child tells you what they’re angry about, but before you know it you’re arguing who is to blame for the problem and who did what wrong. This is particularly likely if you forgot to listen and reflect back your partner or child’s feelings, and instead you started immediately defending yourself from a perceived attack. Families often labour under the misguided belief that they’re mini-courts of law. A guilty party must be identified, they must apologize, and they must take steps to correct the problem. While appropriate when a situation is all one person’s fault, in most cases conflicts have multiple causes and all parties made mistakes or contributed to the problem. Trying to identify who’s to blame is like trying to discover which child is to blame for sibling rivalry. You’d have to go back years to discover you’re 2-year-old daughter started it when she absconded with her baby sister’s pacifier.
The speaker needs to stick to what they’re angry about and what they need. The listener needs to listen and reflect back their understanding and not try to defend themselves. This avoids sliding into an argument about who is to blame, and steers the conversation into a productive discussion of what each person needs and what each can do to resolve the conflict. These are some of the principles underlying what therapists call “solution-focused” therapy. You identify what is upsetting each party, focus on what each party needs or wants, downplay who’s to blame or why the problem occurred, and move on to identify what each party can do to solve the problem. Then everyone works together to implement the solution. Remember the Blame Game? When a family drops the blame, they can win the game.
Making provocative statements.
It’s easy for a listener to forget their listening skills and try to deflect off an uncomfortable issue by making a provocative comment or resurrecting an old conflict. If you tell your partner or child something you’re angry about but your partner tries to distract you from what you were initially upset about, just return to your original concerns. Ignore provocative comments and stick to what you’re angry about and what you currently need.
Listeners must focus on listening and understanding their partner. Avoid distracting them with inflammatory comments or by dredging up old issues.
Listening for disagreement.
Listeners may forget their good listening skills and try to deflect off an issue by debating a minor detail or incorrect fact. They hope to invalidate the angry partner’s concerns by identifying at least one flaw in their argument. If they’re losing the big argument, at least they can win a small one. Families who constantly argue tend to listen not to understand each other but to find something they can disagree with. This is a great tactic in the courtroom but not so great at home.
Speakers must stick to the three things they need to communicate and not allow themselves to get sidetracked debating irrelevant issues.
Listeners must ignore minor incorrect points or details, and avoid pointing out minor flaws in the speaker’s reasoning. Listen for the intent of what your partner or child is trying to communicate. Listen for agreement, and take every opportunity to highlight or comment upon commonly held viewpoints or ideas. Focus on reflecting what the speaker means to say, rather than trying to “catch them out”. Building a solution on common ground is far easier than tearing down each other’s foundations.
1. Speaker: We never have fun just as a family.
Disagreeable Listener: Well last summer we went camping for the week.
Agreeable listener: I’d love to have more fun too. What could we do? (reflecting they understand the speaker’s message and moving to a solution, rather than starting an argument over irrelevant details).
2. Speaker: I am so angry and frustrated when you’re rude to me. Yesterday you called me dumb in front of my friends.
Disagreeable Listener No that was three days ago. And I said your ideas were stupid, not that you were dumb.
Agreeable Listener You’re right I was rude to you. I called your ideas stupid, and that was thoughtless of me (hearing the intent of the speaker’s message, taking responsibility, and reflecting back an understanding of the intent of the speaker’s message).
Interpreting comments in the worst possible way.
Sometimes a family member takes every comment as blame or interprets innocuous comments as criticism. Rather than listening and reflecting what their partner is angry about, the listener takes every comment in the worst possible light and exaggerates any criticisms. The speaker ends up on the defensive trying to retract something they never said or never intended to imply.
Listeners must listen to what is actually being said, and not what they fear is being said or implied. The listener needs to remind themselves they aren’t under attack, and resist the temptation to exaggerate the speaker’s comments. If the speaker denies the listener’s interpretation of their comments, the listener must accept the correction and acknowledge they’ve misinterpreted the speaker. Try to avoid saying, “Ha, too late, I heard you say it”!
Speakers should avoid being distracted from the point they’re making and resist debating or defending themselves from comments they never actually made. Point out that the listener is jumping to conclusions unwarranted by what was actually said. Encourage them to use their listening skills.
- Child: You expect me to be perfect. I can’t get straight A’s
Parent Taking Worst Interpretation: So you’re saying I’m just a demanding, uncaring parent who expects perfection. Did I ever say you should get straight A’s?
Parent Listening for Intent: You feel we expect too much and you can’t live up to our expectations.
2. Parent: I need you to call me as soon as you get home from school and ask permission before going to your friend’s house.
Child Taking Worst Interpretation: So you don’t even trust me. You think I’m sneaking off trying to be some gangster.
Child Listening for Intent: OK, I guess you just worry too much, but I’ll call you if that makes you feel better.
Changing habitual ways of communicating isn’t easy. Many times we’re not consciously aware of how often we disagree with our partner, cut them off, or raise irrelevant points and old issues. It takes conscious effort and vigilance to change the way we communicate.
The above points are a lot to remember, so review the handout “Educate Don’t Perpetuate” to cue yourself how you wish to communicate while engaged in a difficult conversation or phone call. Having reminders on paper keeps the conversation on track. Add your own self-control thoughts to the handout.
Workshop 6 (parent video):
Rules and Consequences For Disrespectful Behaviour
( 65 minutes)
Watch the video presentation before proceeding any further in this section and before reading the rules and consequences handouts. The following commentary makes little sense without watching the video first, and reading ahead will make the video presentation far less interesting.
Please read after watching the parent workshop video.
Don’t Consequence a Child for Simply Being Angry or Upset – Only for Outright Disrespect and Non-Compliance.
Remember that consequences should be applied for inappropriate displays of anger such as outright disrespect, name calling, or aggressive behaviour. Ensure you don’t apply consequences simply because a child is angry, grumpy, or in a bad mood. Everyone has a right to be angry and have a bad day, especially if something is bothering them. If your child is angry, grumpy, or seems to have a poor attitude, try to determine first if something is upsetting them and what can be done to resolve their frustration. Acknowledge that your child seems angry or upset, show interest and concern, and inquire if something is wrong or something is frustrating them. Use your listening skills (which will be covered in Workshop 10) to reflect your child’s feelings, and work with your child to resolve their concerns.
If your child rejects your attempts to help and they seem to be imposing their bad mood on others, consider using Rule 4 to stop their constant whining, complaining, non-compliance, or other disruptive behaviour. If your child is outright disrespectful, it’s time for action, not empathy, and make sure you apply an immediate consequence (rules 1 to 3).
Do Children Diagnosed with AD/HD Learn From Consequences?
Kids who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD) are more impulsive and have difficulty focusing, concentrating, and staying on task. They may struggle to sit still and have difficulty self-regulating or self-monitoring their own behaviour. Anger provoking situations are particularly difficult because anger compounds everyone’s tendency to be impulsive and reactive. These learning issues result in AD/HD kids often having a history of misbehaviour, more frequent punishment, and greater family conflict. If parents, out of frustration, slip into using punitive techniques such as spanking, yelling, or taking things away, the child can become increasingly discouraged and resentful resulting in a downward spiral of punishment followed by revenge behaviour (the child’s revenge behaviour being quite intentional, not impulsive!). Even when parents try to use non-punitive techniques such as time-out, the programs often fail because the impulsive child refuses to stay in time-out.
To discourage parents from “punishing” children diagnosed with AD/HD, some experts suggested that these children are not responsible for their misbehaviour and that punishment is ineffective. Unfortunately, this has contributed to a misperception that all consequences are ineffective for children diagnosed as AD/HD. Even books and courses may shy away from recommending consequences and over-rely on recommending alternative strategies such as cuing, reasoning, problem-solving, points and reward programs, diversion, or distraction. Most of these techniques are great interventions and important to implement, but discouraging the use of consequences (because the distinction between consequences and punishments is often misunderstood – see Module 3) means impulsive kids are inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to experience non-punitive, natural consequences for their impulsive behaviour. Non-punitive consequences are necessary for a child’s brain to start inhibiting its impulsive tendencies and to self-regulate (a fancy way to say control) the child’s behaviour.
All kids need to train their brains to inhibit impulses, to stop and think, and to reflect before acting. This is particularly true for kids diagnosed with AD/HD who are accustomed to adults constantly warning them or cuing them about their impulsive behaviour. Rather than learning self-control, they learn to rely on adults to think for them. They “borrow” their parent’s frontal lobes to inhibit their own behaviour. Adults keep reminding and cuing and AD/HD kids momentarily slow down but quickly rev back up. This can lead to exasperated and tired parents who end up yelling or punishing and everything goes downhill.
To develop self-control and take responsibility for their own behaviour, AD/HD kids need clear rules regarding disrespect that are specified in advance, and, if they break the rules, they need to experience brief, consistently applied, non-punitive consequences. If they wish to avoid the consequence, the child must train their brain to monitor their own behaviour, inhibit their own impulses, and self-regulate their own behaviour. They can’t wait for an adult to remind them to behave. This ensures responsibility for a child’s behaviour rests with the child, not with the adult.
Bear in mind that AD/HD kids need much more than just a set of rules and non-punitive consequences. They also need to learn to control their own behaviour so they can avoid being consequenced. That’s why Life Skills 4 My Family teaches essential life skills such as self-regulating and controlling impulsive behaviour, managing feelings of anger, communicating effectively, not letting others provoke them, being easy-going, and recognizing and modifying maladaptive thoughts.
Equally important to experiencing consequences, AD/HD kids also require positive rewards and celebrations to motivate them to learn new life skills and put them into practice. Positive motivational programs are outlined in detail in Workshop 8 and Module 2.
Workshop 9: Being Bug-Proof
(35 minutes + 15 minutes for a family activity)
Please read prior to watching the Family Video
Workshop 5 taught children to “speak up” and express what they’re angry about. But this works only if the person they’re speaking to cares about their feelings. Workshop 9 examines how kids can speak up and tell bullies to stop harassing them, indirectly bring the problem to the attention of supervisors, and be “bug-proof” so others can’t provoke them. These skills are important for all children to master, but they’re particularly helpful for kids who are “easily provoked”.
Please read after watching the Family Video
The video workshop demonstrated bug-proof skills to deal effectively with harassment. After the video, you may wish to re-enact the video skit with your children to help them practice their new skills. To re-enact the skit, however, you’ll have to call your child some mild names and gently tease them so they can practice speaking up and using their cognitive skills to be “bug-proof. Ask them in advance to tell you the names you should call them or how they wish to be teased. Let them know you don’t believe what you’re saying is true! You don’t want your child to think your teasing or name calling is what you really think of them! It may be best to start with your child teasing you and you demonstrating the Bug-Proof skills.
Time to Retire the Term Bullying?
The term bullying describes a wide range of social concerns and includes laughing at someone’s misfortune, teasing, put-downs, name calling, social rejection, online harassment, smearing reputations, social exclusion, and, at the extreme, theft, extortion, physical threats, or assault. Bullies can be anyone from a misguided friend to a neighbourhood hoodlum.
While boys tend to be verbally or physically aggressive in their bullying, girls are more likely to be “social bullies”. Self-declared cool groups find great enjoyment in excluding other children, especially those anxious to join their group. They may spread false rumours or gossip about the excluded child or orchestrate on-line campaigns encouraging others others to reject the victim.
Some groups of children find enjoyment in constantly inviting a child to be part of their “cool group”, only to then exclude them with much associated drama. Phone calls, texts, and emails fly back and forth as the excluded child has to challenge gossip, identify who is mad at them, who said what, and vie to get back into the group’s good books. The more anxious the child is to join the group, the more the cool group will exclude them. Unfortunately, some groups find it fun to play the excluded child like a living yo-yo and watch the drama unfold. Today your in; tomorrow you’re out.
Clearly the term “bullying” encompasses many forms of harassment, so it’s only logical that different types of harassment require different types of intervention. When teased, the “victim” may need to learn to “take a joke” or accept some good-natured ribbing. When called names, a child may need to be bug-proof and ignore rude comments, whereas other times they may need to be assertive, speak up, and verbally defend themselves. Sometimes a child may need to go to the authorities for help, especially if the harassment is of a criminal nature such as on-line defamation of character, physical threats, assaults, or extortion. Sometimes a victim needs to look at their own behaviour and how a need to belong, a lack of social skills, or their own inappropriate behaviour might contribute to their exclusion or harassment. Obviously there’s no one single strategy to deal with the many types of harassment children (and adults) experience in their daily lives.
I try to avoid using the term “bullying” to describe every form of childhood harassment. In the adult world, we don’t define our sarcastic next door neighbour as well as the local hoodlum as both being “bullies”, so we should be similarly careful not to lump all forms of childhood harassment under a single term. Being specific about how a child is being harassed leads to specific interventions tailored to the type of harassment the child is facing. This is more effective than seeking a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem of “bullying”.
Advice for Dealing With Bullies: What Works; What Doesn’t.
Kids are given a plethora of advice and solutions to deal with “bullies”. Some is helpful, some is not. The following section explores the pros and cons of various solutions.
What Actually Works
The Life Skills 4 Your Family workshops cover the most important skills your child needs to deal with various forms of bullying and harassment.
For good-natured teasing:
Help your child distinguish good-natured ribbing from intentional put-downs or insults. Brainstorm what peers may have intended and whether a comment was an attack or perhaps just a test to see if they could take a joke.
Help them laugh at their own mistakes and develop some self-depreciating comments they can use when they make mistakes or others tease them.
Encourage your child to openly acknowledge any disabilities or weakness.
For occasional insults or off-the-cuff remarks:
Kids can use their bug-proof skills to be immune from provocation, and to control their own temper so they don’t over-react to minor insults.
Practise the bug-proof skills at home.
Dealing with repeated insults and intimidation:
- Encourage your child to speak up, and then be bug-proof.
Help your child practice speaking up at home by telling a sibling to stop annoying them.
Children will tell you that they tried telling the “bullies” to stop but it didn’t work. In every case, however, they’ve either spoken quietly, used a weak inappropriate voice, added threats, name called back, or didn’t speak up loudly. Bullied children are often shy and reluctant to draw attention to themselves because they fear being reprimanded for sounding rude or bossy. They’ll need your permission and support to speak up even if they sound impolite or rude.
If your child speaks up appropriately to bullies at school but complains the teacher never steps in to support them, you may need to ensure the teacher is aware of the strategy your child is employing. Encourage your child to speak to the teacher independently. Role play the conversation beforehand, and have them use the skills covered in Workshop 2 to speak to their teacher. Encourage your child to do the talking, and you can assist if required. Check with the teacher to ensure your child is not calling names back, nor complaining about minor issues or normal teasing.
Dealing with threats of physical harm, assaults, extortion, slander
If your child is victimized to the extent that other children are engaging in what would be considered criminal behaviour in the adult world, the situation can no longer be handled by the child independently. They need to speak to their teacher or principal and allow the authorities to deal with the offenders.
The child should initially speak with their teacher independently, but, if that’s not effective, the child and parents should meet jointly with the teacher or principal. As outlined above, in both cases role play with your child the three things they need to say during the meeting. Encourage your child to at least start the discussion with the teacher. This is an opportunity to build your child’s sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Dealing with social exclusion
If someone is slandering them or spreading malicious gossip, your child should enlist support from the teacher.
If the situation is less clear-cut and your child is simply excluded from the “cool group”, the teachers cannot force your child to be accepted. It’s up to the child to avoid being dragged into the never-ending whirlwind of drama associated with being either in or out of the cool group. Ensure your child recognizes how their desire to join the group is part of the problem and ensure they aren’t begging or pleading for group acceptance, nor trapped in endless talk, texting, and disputing of gossip. Even parents can get over-involved trying to intervene with other parents on behalf of their child. If a parent has a need to have their child belong to the “popular group”, that will only strengthen their child’s belief they must win over what is essentially a group of bullies and this in turn sets the child up for an endless yo-yo of acceptance and rejection. The more time a child devotes to winning approval or trying to stop gossip, the more others enjoy rejecting them, enticing them back, and then rejecting them again. The child (and maybe their parent) must give up vying for the approval of the “cool group”, and devote their energy to making more appropriate friends. The trick is convincing your child there are many children more worthy of their friendship. They don’t notice other friendly kids because they’re hidden in the shadow cast by the popular group.
Child setting themselves up for social exclusion:
Parents must ensure that social exclusion or apparent bullying is not a result of their child’s own inappropriate or unpleasant behaviour. Speak with your child’s teacher to determine whether your child’s version of events is accurate, and clarify whether they could be contributing to the problem by being overly sensitive, too reactive, or too controlling. Perhaps they might even be rude or inadvertently provoking other children. Ask your child’s teacher directly whether your child could make changes to improve their social interaction. Unless you ask a teacher directly for their advice, he or she may be reluctant to make suggestions for improving your child’s social skills.
Some children may benefit from counselling or social skills training if inappropriate behaviour or shyness contributes to their lack of social success and their exclusion from social groups.
Workshop 11: Voice of Trouble and Voice of Reason
(30 minutes for the video + 30 minutes for the game)
Please read before watching the Video Workshop.
This workshop begins by identifying maladaptive thoughts that lead us to react inappropriately when angry. These thoughts are what I call the “Voice of Trouble”. A skit is presented in which I’m feeling angry, but I allow the Voice of Trouble to control me, and I forget all my good anger management skills.
At the end of the family workshop, I also introduce the “Escape From the Land of Trouble” game. The game is based on Cognitive Behavioural principles, which is just a fancy way to say that in order to change our attitudes and behaviour we have to change our thinking.
Please read after watching the Video Workshop.
Our behaviour is determined by our thoughts, and our thoughts in turn are determined by which neurons are firing in our brain. Our brain consists of 86 billion neurons, and each of these neurons are quite sociable, having connections to approximately 10,000 other neurons. This creates a vast neural network; the complexity of which defies our imagination.
Rather than using Facebook to communicate, neurons connect to one one another with a small “wire” or axon that departs one neuron before branching profusely to form connections with small projections (dendrites) on other neurons. The actual connection is called a “synapse”, which functions like an electro-chemical switch. Whether a neuron transmits a signal (fires) depends upon the combined effect of all the other neurons connected to it. Signals from other neurons can increase or decrease (excite or inhibit) the likelihood of the neuron firing and passing the signal onward to the other neurons within the network.
When something happens around us, neurons in our sense organs fire activating a complex web or network of interconnecting neurons. In a cascading manner, one network triggers the next. Some networks inhibit others from firing, while simultaneously exciting others. Unbeknownst to our ourselves, our brain is interpreting the information and has already begun subconsciously reasoning and problem solving. Eventually, we become consciously aware that our neural circuits are firing, and we experience what we call a “thought” or an awareness of what we are thinking (why we’re aware of our thoughts is of course a question science has yet to answer). Once aware of our thought processes, we can consciously influence the reasoning and problem solving taking place in our brain (at least we like to think we have free will to influence our thoughts – some research suggests our ideas and decisions are simply a belated awareness of what our brain has already decided). While experiencing thoughts, we simultaneously experience feelings that reflect our conscious awareness of neurons firing in our limbic system, a neural network that mediates emotions and that also responds directly to sensory input. These “feeling neurons” interact with our “thinking neurons”, so our emotional responses alter our thoughts, and our thoughts alter our emotions.
Our most basic neural networks are likely hardwired at birth, and “feeling neurons” firing in our limbic system initially have a dominant influence over our “thinking neurons”. Infants are “ruled by emotion”. As we mature, the “thinking neurons” in our prefrontal cortex (often called frontal lobes because they’re located in the front part of our brain behind our forehead) expand and have a far greater influence on our behaviour. Our prefrontal cortex processes and integrates complex thoughts including past learning, expected consequences of our actions, and social norms. They act to inhibit our emotional and “instinctual responses”, which in turn facilitates socially acceptable and adaptive behaviour.
What we call the “cave-person” response is basically our built-in neural response to a perceived danger and feelings of anger. The fight or flight response is our primary behavioural option. Our “2000 Person” response reflects neurons in our frontal lobes mediating our fight or flight response and generating alternative responses based on learned societal norms and past experience. Unfortunately, when perceiving threat our limbic system not only generates feelings of anger but also inhibits the influence of our frontal lobes! Perhaps it’s telling our frontal lobes to stop confusing us with all these competing thoughts and just act! We are under attack and have to act first and think later! While helpful in a life-threatening crisis, acting solely on emotion is not usually helpful when confronted with more typical day-to-day problems.
Throughout childhood the prefrontal cortex grows in size and complexity, reaching a peak at puberty. As children mature they’re increasingly able to inhibit impulsive behaviour, analyze complex social situations, and improve their social perspective (the ability to see things from another person’s point of view). After puberty, the frontal lobes actually shrink in size as productive synapses are strengthened and unused or nonproductive synapses are “pruned” and eliminated. Shrinking frontal lobes simplify and consolidate how we process information. By the early 20’s, ten percent of the frontal lobes have disappeared as the brain “matures” and settles into adult thinking. Despite the frontal lobes shrinking, social perspective taking continues to improve right into the early 20’s, and adolescents become increasingly adept at reading others and interacting socially. Perhaps more efficiently wired frontal lobes contribute to the decline in the moody and tumultuous “over-thinking” of early adolescence.
This simplistic look at neurology reminds us that thoughts, feelings, and ultimately behaviour are determined by which neurons are firing in our brain and how they interconnect with one another. When our children experience something that makes them feel angry, how they choose to behave depends upon the neural pathways activated. If their brain concludes they’ve been treated unfairly, that some demand is inappropriate, or that someone is attacking them, their brain will generate a flood of associated thoughts telling them how to respond. If those thoughts are to attack back and seek revenge, that’s exactly what the child will do. On the other hand, if the child’s frontal lobes kick in and mediate their thoughts based on learning and past experience, they may perceive the problem in a more reasonable manner. The child’s response will be more rational and socially acceptable.
We should recognize that our children can be victimized by their own neural networks. When they react with aggressive behaviour they aren’t trying to be mean or to purposely make bad decisions. Their neural networks are simply wired to conclude they should behave in a way that others may perceive as counter-productive. If we want to help them behave in more socially appropriate manner, we need to help them alter their existing neural pathways and activate new neural networks.
If your kids’ neural nets are messed up, some housekeeping is clearly in order. To change their behaviour children need to change how they think, which in turn means they have to alter the neural connections in their brains. Their brain may need some pruning, new dendrites and synapses will have to be formed, and existing synapses altered. Changing neural connections changes thoughts, and changing thoughts leads to changes in feelings and ultimately behaviour. Impulsive behaviours can be inhibited, and alternative behaviours will be based on reason, not instinct.
Luckily, our brains are designed to reprogram themselves without the need of a brain surgeon. How do we make these changes? We rewire our neural networks by forcing ourselves to think new thoughts, and repeating those thoughts until they become strongly associated with situations that makes us angry or upset (which is called cognitive behavioural therapy). Repetition is the key. There’s a saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” It’s just like learning a new physical skill, and practice makes perfect. In sports, we repeat thoughts and behaviours consciously until they become automatic. With practice, our brain can return a flying ping-pong ball or brake a car to avoid a collision with little, if any, conscious thought. Likewise, to manage anger effectively we have to practise and repeat appropriate thoughts over and over until rewiring takes place, and our new thoughts become automatic. The next time we encounter a situation that provokes anger or upset, new associated thoughts will be triggered and old thoughts successfully inhibited. In turn, we’ll perceive the situation in a new light, and our behaviour will change accordingly. Our 2000 brain will learn to inhibit our cave-person response.
Workshop 12: Being An Easy-Going Kid
(15 minutes for the Video + 30 minutes for the game)
Please read prior to watching the family workshop.
There are many annoying or anger provoking situations that can’t be avoided and for which there are no solutions. We have to manage our feelings of frustration and not let an unpleasant situation ruin our day. Kids might complain about having to get up early for school, having to do homework, sharing a room with a sibling, or not being allowed to play video games for 6 hours straight. Serious problems without solutions include moving away from a good friend, a family member having a long-term illness or disability, a separation or divorce, or other kids having more money or having fewer rules to follow.
Frustrated by insolvable problems, it’s easy to let the “Voice of Complaining” take over. We start to dwell on all the negatives in our life, and family members may habitually grumble about problems that can’t be resolved or complain about annoyances that can’t be avoided. The “complaining neurons” are firing, and one network triggers another in a cascade of negative thinking. The more we “practise these thoughts”, the more ingrained and natural they become. Our negative thoughts trigger associated negative emotions, and endless complaining leads to chronic feelings of resentment, stress, and dissatisfaction with life. Eventually, such thinking can lead to depression.
To fight off the Voice of Complaining, family members need to be “bug-proof”, and not let everyday annoyances control their emotions. Workshop 9 taught kids they can use bug-proof words so that rude comments don’t get under their skin or provoke an aggressive response. Kids can also be bug-proof against everyday frustrations. They can strive to be “easy-going” individuals who take adversity in stride, recognize life includes unpleasant tasks or responsibilities, and understand that current problems will likely be short-lived. Easy-going kids don’t dwell on the negatives but instead are thankful for all the positives in their life. They have an optimistic outlook, and they recognize that unfair things happen but they’re confident breaks will come their way in the future. They perceive a bit of work or adversity as an acceptable price to pay for future success. In fact, the ability to “delay gratification” (to work now in anticipation of future reward) is one of the best predictors of a child’s future well-being.
Workshop 13: Consolidating Skills
(12 minutes + 30 minutes for skits)
Please read prior to watching the Family Video
This workshop requires your family to put on skits designed to consolidate the skills covered in Module 1. Each skit consists of a scenario that makes someone angry, and family members identify and perform the anger management solutions most appropriate to the situation. Details are provided in the workshop.
As usual, videotaping the skits is very helpful, and you can make some popcorn and watch the family production! It’s the repetitive review of making and watching the videos that helps consolidate the skills.
To promote cooperation and add some fun, your family should celebrate enthusiasm and good effort. When choosing a suitable reward, it’s always wise to think of an analogous situation that applies to adults. How is good acting celebrated in Hollywood? Of course! Cocaine. No, No, I mean they have the Academy Awards.