Helping children confront adult bullies

Monday, October 29th, 2012

CyberParenting Topics on TheFish103.9FM Tuesdays

What parent hasn’t experienced outrage when an adult who is trusted to care for their child, abuses their power?  Coaches, parents of other peers, teachers, principals, or our own spouses or ex-spouses — at one time or another, children will have to contend with adult bullies.

Adult bullies in our children’s lives can be confronted in constructive ways.

Jennifer Rodriguez (Photo: courtesy)

Jennifer Rodriguez of Orangevale, California and her daughters know this all too well, as they escaped a violent marriage.  Jennifer’s oldest daughter was four years old when she called 9-1-1 to report her daddy still beating her mother as she lay on the floor unconscious.  After that, Jennifer took steps to leave her husband, and eventually divorce.

Rodriguez came from a very good home – raised by both parents.  “I never knew abuse was possible,” Rodriguez said, “So I was not able to recognize the warning flags that I see now with hindsight.”

These experiences helped to her realize that all children need to understand what it means to engage and nurture healthy relationships.

Clarity of what we can control

The aftermath of this toxic relationship with her ex-spouse left Jennifer concerned about how children need to learn to deal with stress and unhealthy people in productive, secure ways. So she founded Franny’s House to help children and families dealing with emotional distress caused by the issues of our day: financial pressure, uncertain employment outlook, unemployment, domestic abuse, divorce, and peer abuse issues, etc.

Thinking about how to convey healthy boundary-setting to her own young children, Rodriguez designed a simple tool called FAB (Feelings, Attitudes and Beliefs).

Courtesy: Franny’s House

“Children can understand that they have control over their own feelings, attitudes and beliefs no matter what others are doing or the circumstances,” Rodriguez said. “And once the children realize this fact, that someone else or a circumstance cannot make them smaller, it is possible to set and maintain healthy boundaries.”

And by the same token Rodriguez also points out that kids also know they do not have control over the attitudes, feelings and beliefs of others. Understanding what you can and cannot control is a pretty important concept to grasp if we are to avoid getting trapped into co-dependent, abusive relationships that lead to bondage and suffering by all involved.

Rodriguez has used FAB to help her children establish healthy boundaries with their abusive father, who shares custody. It has also helped her daughters manage peer relations.

For more information go to: Franny’s House website.

Hero-logic for confronting adult bullies

Photo credit: Bohman (Flickr)

A couple of weeks ago, I received an inquiry from a concerned grandparent that her grandson was being bullied by his soccer coach, and she worried that her adult son, the Dad, was going to loose his temper with the coach.  It is a helpless feeling to witness your child experiencing the abuse of power by another adult, whether it is a teacher, coach or the parent of a peer.

I have had personal experience with some abusive coaches with both my sons when they were young. Each time I had to put the angry “Mama bear” into the cage lest I become the bully in response. It is also a huge opportunity to demonstrate what I call hero-logic, by not giving into the anger. Rather, demonstrate confident leadership by confronting the bully with respect for all individuals.

And the best way to demonstrate respect for all individuals in an abusive situation is to hold everyone accountable. Do not excuse anyone including the victim or target.

1. Know the rules/play by the rules

Sports – Know the league rules for coach, player and parent conduct. Secure a copy of the handbook.

School – Obtain and refer to the district handbook for teachers, students and parents.

The handbook should give you directions about the complaint process and what expectations should be enforced on everyone involved.

2. Respectful escalation

Always demonstrate respect for “the bully”.  A culture of respect for the individual, which is the antithesis of the bully culture that attacks the individual,  demands it. Start by bringing your concern to the attention of the adult involved the abuse of power. If it is a teacher, do not go straight to the principal. Start with the teacher and give him a chance to respond and perhaps give you more information to help you help your child.

3.Try to understand the bully’s point of view. When we realize there is a bully and a hero in all of us that pretty much cuts the bully down to size.

4. Don’t let others define you. Employ the FAB tool of Franny’s House making it clear what you can and cannot control, and the same for others.

5. Line up hero allies. Find a couple of other trusted adults and peers who can help your child maintain a sense of personal security when the pressure is applied. Share the FAB tool. Be sure they share your goals and objectives to avoid the victim mentality, and to not demonize the bully giving in to more negativity.

What if there is no support from the authorities of the school or league?

Be prepared to explore all of your options to empower your child, including finding a new environment that is not toxic. Opting out of an unhealthy circumstance is a choice, which can be empowerment. If the bully culture at a school or in a sports league is so entrenched that it refuses to respond to reasonable requests for individual accountability, then it may be time to pursue a different community or extra-curricular activity.

The first order of business is to make sure your child is secure.

By the same token, you do not want to become the bully in a bully culture trying to make your child feel secure. It only perpetuates more negativity and insecure, abusive behavior by everyone involved.  Once you have redirected your child to new activities, groups or a new school community, then pursue individual accountability if you feel that more can be accomplished by holding up the rules and escalating further.

Depending upon the level and intensity of the abuse, there may be others impacted by the abusive conduct and willing to align with your aim to stop the abusive conduct.

And alas, sometimes we have to pick our battles. If there is nothing to be gained by pursuing the matter after you have secured your child, then let it go and move on. Do not allow the bully culture of another group or community hold you hostage to wanting revenge or your justice.  Sooner or later everyone gets their comeuppances and we are not required to witness it in order to be free.


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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna ( and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.