Bullied Victims and Overprotection

Paul Coughlin

Child psychologist David Schwartz conducted a novel and amazing study of children drawn from eleven different schools, none of whom knew each other at the outset.  He sorted them into thirty playgroups, each consisting of one popular, one neglected, two average, and two socially rejected boys.  Then he silently monitored and with the use of hidden cameras videotaped them in a series of play sessions held on five consecutive days.  Even in the first two sessions, before bully/victim situations developed, the children who showed themselves to be “victim kids” behaved submissively.


Victims were dangerously nonassertive before any confrontations began.  And they didn’t initiate conversation.  “They made no demands, requests, or even suggestions about how or what they should all play.”  In common language, they let their peers walk all over them.


[Victims] didn’t ever take a leadership role with their peers, so their playmates rated them low on leadership.  They were thoroughly socially incompetent and spent their time in passive play, playing parallel to and apart from their peers rather than with them.

Even when in the first two sessions their peers approached them to engage in rough-and-tumble play or to interest them in doing something, children who became victims responded wildly inappropriately.  They shrank from the bid with submission, a show of pain, asking peers to stop, or simply yielding their position.  Their play style wasn’t just passive, it was inflexibly so; no matter how they were approached, they capitulated.  Rough-and-tumble play, while it mimics aggressive action, is usually pro-social in nature.  It is a good indicator of social competence because it requires such complex skills as emotion regulation.  Absent that, and the play can quickly turn into a battle—a smile becomes a snarl, a foot lands too hard, or someone misreads into the horsing-around a real intent to harm.


Regarding bully-victim relationships on the whole, it’s shocking that when they’re asked, bullies express more contempt and disdain for their victims than victims do their bullies!  Some victims can’t even muster the outrage necessary to condemn the behavior.  Why?  You guessed it: Often their parents have commandeered their lives for so long that it doesn’t feel normal to raise appropriate boundaries with others.  Children who possess healthy self-regard (thinking neither too little nor too much about themselves) do not suffer from this problem.  Most do not become victims.


Some shyness is good, for a kid and for an adult.  Shyness can keep us from making fools of ourselves, and it can also stop us from hurting others.  Without some level of social inhibition, we will tend to come across as overbearing.  Shyness helps us formulate what we’ll say and do beforehand, helping us to make wiser choices.


The downside, of course, is that too much shyness is excessive self-consciousness.  The overly shy fall inward and cocoon themselves from the outside world, which struggles to understand them and connect with them.  They can be lightning-quick to feel rejection, shame, and ridicule.


As a coach, I can tell you that shy kids demand more time, and often not in a good way.  If a kid needs help because he’s struggling with a concept, I’m glad to assist.  But shy kids frequently aren’t very teachable.  Many rebuff attempts to learn something new because new concepts require risk in their execution.  A coach (or a teacher) can end up repeatedly going over the same issue with limited results, occasionally spanning months or even years with no real improvement.


This tends to put them in a place of ill-standing with their peers.  Their teammates or classmates, if healthy, won’t resent them if they’re genuinely seeking to learn, but if they’re just flat-out needy or clingy, they set themselves apart from the other kids, who then get less instruction and attention.  When it comes to growth and development, outside of specialized environments designed for children with particular needs, there comes a point where kids are expected to improve or be gradually and increasingly left behind.


Every leader—whether a pastor, teacher, administrator, or coach—needs parents alongside the kids in his charge.  A coach can show a boy how to score the goal; Dad and Mom need to log the assists.  A leader is allotted a certain amount of time and a certain number of resources to share with the kids he’s leading; getting no help from a given home is likely to result in that kid lagging behind.


The key to helping your shy child is giving him reasons to be more comfortable in social settings.  This means helping him acquire social competence as he builds relationships.  This is created through: 


  • The quality of the parents’ relationship with each other
  • The conveyance of positive beliefs about the nature of children and childhood
  • Parental tolerance for and understanding of emotions, especially “negative ones”


Here are some practical ideas:


  • Have him ask for a glass of water at a friend’s house.  Don’t pave the road for him—he needs safe challenges to build off of.
  • Allow him some dominion over his life.  Allow him to make small decisions that affect his life (the décor of his room, choice of clothing).  Don’t roll your eyes at his answers.
  • Give her some control over what she does in her spare time.  Being too busy puts her out of connection with peers.
  • Let her cut her own meat or other food when she’s old enough.
  • Don’t make him your emotional pillow—it robs him of assertive energy and will.
  • Help with gradual exposure to fearful situations.  (When going to a new school or even back to the same one, walk the grounds with her during the summertime.)
  • Don’t overvalue compliance.  Total compliance to adult demands discourages children from asserting themselves.  Leave room for negotiation on some issues.
  • Most shy kids overestimate the visibility of their discomfort.  Help yours understand that most everyone feels awkward from time to time.  If he assumes other people can see his great discomfort, help him see that this is not necessarily so.


Dinnertime is special in our home, the most stimulating part of our everyday family life.  A recent Census Bureau report reminds us how important this ritual is in the life of families across the board.  It found that 79 percent of children five and younger, 73 percent of children six to eleven, and 58 percent of children twelve to seventeen had dinner with their parents every day during a typical week.  “Family meals are still the norm in the American family,” says Brett Brown, a researcher at Child Trends Inc., which recently issued a paper on the importance of eating together.  Teens who eat regularly with their families are more likely to do well in school, delay sexual activity, have better mental health, and are less likely to get into fights, think about suicide or smoke, drink, or use drugs.  “For kids who are facing other challenges, this is actually a great strength, an asset.”


My wife, Sandy, is a fantastic cook and hospitable entertainer, so much so that she has her own blog for people who want to entertain but are reluctant to do so (  Her hosting skills draw everyone to the table, but more than that, it’s when we really talk together.  As we go around the table, each person tells how the day went (including our kids’ guests).  It’s their time to share what’s on their mind and to answer a few questions if they want to.  This is how we stay connected, and it’s usually lively, a time to let down our hair.  Lots of laughs and jokes.


Some of our guests plainly aren’t used to this amount of talking with their families.  They’re taken aback by it, especially by the volume of conversation (at times), which are unscripted.  Our kids aren’t told what to think or say; they can express their will and their feelings, even when they’re off-base.


For example, when one of our children has been humiliated at school, we might hear about plots of revenge against the kids who did it.  We allow our child’s anger to come out.  And then we reason with him.  We help him act upon his anger instead of acting it out.  We talk about how hurting kids hurt other kids.  (This doesn’t excuse bad behavior but helps put it into perspective.)


The name of one nemesis comes up over and over, the name of a very troubled child.  We talk about paths of truth and plans of action: For instance, winners don’t focus on revenge; this or that is the best way to handle the problem; until the situation changes, no amount of talking is going to change [that kid’s] emotions; here’s why that kid is prone to find provocation where there is none, and so on.


In order to help them avoid the downside of shyness, our children are both seen and heard.  They’re allowed to express themselves, even when their emotions are exaggerated and negative.  We help them handle their feelings instead of saying they shouldn’t feel them.  They learn during our conversations that they can come to us for solutions.  We’re strong enough to handle their problems (even when we reel in private!). 


I’ll be straightforward:  Though this interaction is immensely enjoyable and worthwhile a million times over, it’s also tiring, especially at the end of the workday, and especially when I’m under a deadline.  Let’s be honest, parents: One reason we’re so quick to shut our children down is that strong-arming them is so much easier and so much less “time-consuming.”  Much easier than listening.  Much easier than learning.  Much easier than loving.


But we cannot afford not to listen to, learn from, and love our children.  Whatever it takes for us to have the time and energy we need for raising them righteously, that’s what we must do.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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