Friday 18 October 2019

My son worships a bully in his class. I worry he'll get hurt

Illustration: Maisie MacNeice
Illustration: Maisie MacNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from parenting expert David Coleman on how to treat a son's friendship with a bully and handling a delicate situation where a separated father appears to have little interest in his son.

Question: My 10-year-old son has developed a passion for a boy in his class and hero-worships him. I try not to interfere with my children's friendships (I have two older boys) but we are all worried that my son's new 'best friend' is a bully. He is highly manipulative and charismatic and so far has not been overtly unkind, but I fear that my son may suffer in time. I don't want to drive a wedge between us by offering advice, but I am concerned. My son is very open-hearted and eager to please. I fear he may be taken advantage of.

David replies: You are right to be cautious of trying to interfere in your son's friendships. While their choice of friends can be very worrying for us (depending on what we believe the friends to be up to) we always run the risk of bringing them closer to their friend(s) by criticising or trying to restrict the friendship.

That said, I do think it is OK for parents to attempt some influence, particularly when we have the evidence that the friend is hurting our child, or hurting other people.

In fact, I'd say it is our responsibility to try to show our child the potential for harm that another child might pose, but only if that harm is evident.

So, you might want to start by determining exactly what it is about the friend, or his behaviour, that makes him a bully. Do you have, for example, clear evidence of him mistreating other children, or mistreating your son?

Charisma and having the skill to manipulate others are not, in themselves, bullying traits. Many highly successful leaders in politics and business are charismatic and able to persuade others to do what they want.

Ultimately, it is about whether this friend uses his personality and skills to a positive or negative purpose. But, I do think it needs to be evident, with clear examples of when and how he may have hurt other people's feelings or acted meanly to other people.

If you have this kind of information, then you can choose to share it with your son. By giving him information, about aspects of his friend's behaviour that he may not have witnessed or may not have noticed, you give him the capacity to make a more fully informed choice about whether to stay friends or not.

But, if, in the knowledge of how his friend might act meanly or hurtfully, your son then decides to continue to be friends with this boy, there may be little more you can do to directly persuade him.

You can certainly use your power to try to limit the contact that they have, especially outside of school. I'm not sure where this boy lives, relative to you, but with luck it will be far enough away that you have to be the go-between if your son wants to meet him outside school.

You can also talk to the teacher about what he or she notices about their contact in school. Again, even though you are worried that this boy is a bully, the teacher may be able to give you another perspective on him and how he treats his peers.

But, even with all of your efforts to reduce their contact, you may find that their friendship persists. If this is the case, then make sure to track the mood and general demeanour of your son.

If this friend is mistreating him, in some way, it is likely to become apparent in your son's behaviour. He may become reluctant to go to school, or appear upset and angry with his siblings, or with you at home.

If this happens, with luck, your son may even be able to voice his upset or frustration with this friend. Be careful not to use any negativity to instantly decry and criticise the other boy. Rather, be understanding and warm towards your son, while staying neutral about his friend.

If any mistreatment continues, or if your son continues to complain about his friend, then you can begin to share your own views and start to suggest that he spends less time with this boy, or focuses more on his friendships with other children.

It can always be tricky to support our children as they negotiate their friendships. But sometimes they do need to learn, the hard way, that other people, despite being highly attractive to us, can be cruel at times. Our job then is just to be the shoulder they may cry on.

Should I keep encouraging my son to go to his dad, and encouraging his dad to take our son?

Question: I am a single mum to my four-year-old son. His father and I have not been together since before I got pregnant. His dad is not consistent in seeing our son. But I still feel it is good for my son to have a relationship with his dad and so I encourage his dad to take him overnight when he can. But my son tells me he doesn't like his daddy and doesn't want to go with him. I don't know if my son just plays up or maybe his dad is not being nice to him, or maybe he just doesn't see him enough to have a good relationship built up. Should I keep making my son go?

David replies: There are many separated families where both parents take a huge interest in their children and make every effort to keep their relationship with their children healthy and engaged.

But, like with your situation, there are also families where one or other parent, for whatever reason, isn't so interested in maintaining those relationships and makes little effort to keep in regular contact with their child or children.

It seems, from what you describe, that you are doing all the running, so to speak, with regard to facilitating your son and his dad to meet and spend time together.

I wonder, for example, what would happen if you didn't "encourage" your ex-partner to see his son? Would he take it upon himself to make arrangements to visit his son or have his son come over?

At the very least, it could be argued, that your ex has learned to be helpless with regard to his son. Because you seem to do all the work to try to maintain their relationship he doesn't have to and so maybe he doesn't invest.

If I were to be a bit more critical of him, I might also think that he doesn't really have an interest in his son and simply goes along with your arrangements because it is easier than arguing with you, or being honest about his lack of interest.

Indeed, the fact that your son doesn't seem to enjoy the time he spends with his dad, or at least says he doesn't like his dad, might also fit with the supposition that his dad takes him out of a sense of duty, but doesn't actually want him in his life.

So, while it is generally a good thing for sons and fathers to have a relationship, that only holds true when fathers are investing in the relationship and making an effort to know and be with their sons. Fathers have to want to be fathers for the relationship to be successful.

Boys can still benefit from positive relationships with other men who are not their fathers. Strong, positive, male role models, who are active in your son's life may be more helpful than a lacklustre father.

If your ex is really disengaged from your son, when they are together, showing little interest in playing with him, or spending time with him generally, then he may actually appear to your son to be quite rejecting.

In the long-term, such an experience of rejection is not going to be a positive experience for your son and may, in fact, cause him some emotional difficulties.

So, in your position, I'd try experimenting with the contact between your son and his dad. The first trial might be to not bother with overnight access, but rather focus on trying to arrange shorter visits.

The benefit of this is that your son and his dad are likely to have more energy and see the shorter time as valuable. If his dad doesn't feel overburdened by having to do too much caring, or for too long, he may invest more in the time that he does spend, making the access more positive for both of them.

A second experiment that you may want to try is to see what will happen if you stop taking the lead in arranging access. Will his dad make the effort to see his son? Will he, when not prompted, choose a different form, timing or duration of access?

Whatever your ex then does will give you a better indication of what he wants and how invested he is in his relationship with his son. If he steps up to the mark, then that will be great. If he doesn't, then your son loses nothing if the contact is already passive and unengaged.

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