By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
As a passionate and occasionally over-zealous professional helper, I sometimes lose the ability to differentiate between what I’d LIKE to be able to do versus what I actually CAN do.
This past year I had one of those learning experiences in my son Jonah’s classroom.
Jonah had a classmate; I’ll call him Bub, who was an emotionally disturbed little guy.
Bub called his teacher an idiot, and he pushed her.
I was appalled, but explained to my children that kids who behave in that way are not solely responsible for their behavior: aggression is a learned response. (Actually that’s not entirely true, aggression is instinctual but one of the requirements of living in society is to manage it
in order to get along. It is the parent’s job to role model management of anger and aggression).
The thing about pre-pubescent males with violent tendencies is that there is a small window of time when they can learn new coping skills and develop some reflective, emotional intelligence before the stakes go way up and access to drugs, weapons and a higher concentration of fellow delinquents to hang out with and learn from occurs. So my sense of urgency was triggered.
I sprang into action.
First, I created an empathy development program and started volunteering in the classroom to teach it. It was basically worthless because Bub was almost never there on Mondays when I volunteer taught.
I encouraged my children to reach out to Bub and befriend him, thinking that if Bub had more
connections in his life he would develop more appropriate social skills.
Then, I reached out to his mother, inviting her out for coffee to try to both offer support and encourage her to get Bub into some type of mental health services. As expected, Bub’s
mother was struggling with many issues: poverty, recent homelessness, and history of domestic violence and probable alcoholism.
I explained how medical coupon holders can receive free mental health services through community mental health agencies, and how the therapists who work with children will drive to the schools or homes if the parents lack reliable transportation.
I gave her the phone number to set up an intake appointment for Bub and offered to drive her to and from the agency for the initial appointment.
Next I asked my children if they would be willing to have Bub over for a play date. Bub had never had a play date in his life. They agreed and the play date went well, so I suggested we have Bub over for a sleep over.
The sleep over was when the proverbial fecal matter hit the spinning blades.
Bub protested my requirement of fruit before desert. He was rough with the pets. He wouldn’t listen when it came time for bed, demanding to know,
“Why do WE have to go to bed when YOU aren’t?” He was rude, loud, a basic nightmare of a
And tragically, he did not understand that his behavior was inappropriate. In fact, he thought the overnight was great fun.
Bub told the kids at school proudly about how he had been invited to spend the night, which did not help Jonah’s own
Bub’s mother never followed through with getting him into mental health services. Bub continued to act out for the entire school year, hijacking the class with his demanding, inappropriate behavior.
I’d like to believe that if nothing else I planted seeds in the mind of Bub’s mother; that options and support exist that she can take advantage of if/when she decides to. Her son is bright and capable and develping some really awful tendencies. One of the most painful things for me as a therapist is to see great potential being mistreated. (okay, equally painful is that I’m not in charge!)
I had a huge apology to make to my kids for trying to socially engineer a behavioral intervention and using them along the way. I promised to stop pushing them to make friends with disadvantaged children (because truth be told, I have done this before).
My new boundary is if I can help to a reasonable degree, in a reasonable way, I will. But I won’t
use my children to forward my social justice agenda. Balancing the priorities of my children’s needs alongside a concurrent sense of community responsibity is sometimes hard for me. I now know to check out my intentions with a more level-headed person before impulsively trying to intervene.
- How a Bully Is Made/ PSYCH CENTRAL (protectivemothersalliance.wordpress.com)