Ten years ago, a 14 y/o boy (I’ll call him Brian) began treatment for depression and insecurity. Brian was an attractive, soft-spoken young man who was aware of feeling depressed, but had trouble articulating exactly why, except for the fact that he felt lonely.
A few months into weekly psychotherapy, he shared that he was being tormented while playing in a touch football game with other middle-school boys. Jack, one of the boys, kept knocking him down or hitting him without any provocation. Brian’s eyes filled with tears. “What can I do? I tried talking to him, but he just ignored me. I asked him why he was doing it, and he just laughed. We play every day at recess, and I really don’t want to stop because of him.”
“Any clues as to why he’s so mean?”
“None. I didn’t do anything.”
We spent the hour exploring all possibilities and came up empty. Towards the end of the session, I leaned forward in my chair and looked Brian square in the eyes. “Brian, I’m going to make a recommendation, but if you tell anyone I’ll deny it.”
“What? What do you mean?” Brian asked, obviously intrigued.
“I want you to knock Jack down, so hard, that he has trouble getting up. You’ve tried talking to him like a decent person. It got you nowhere. He’s not reasonable and not nice… Knock him down hard, but don’t kill him or break any bones.”
Brian just stared at me.
“Brian, you’re a really good guy, and what he’s doing isn’t fair.”
Brian just kept staring.
“Any other thoughts?”
Brian shook his head.
“Okay, see you next week.”
Brian nodded, stood up, gave me a sheepish smile, and left. I sat for the longest time staring at my diplomas. Did I do the right thing? There were no classes on helping nice kids battle playground bullies in my psychiatric residency.
The next week, Brian walked in the door, and before he even sat down said, “I did it!” He had a huge smile plastered across his usually worried face.
“What? What did you do? Tell me all about it!”
“We started playing and Jack went back to pass. I aimed my head for his stomach and knocked him down as hard as I could. When we were on the ground, I got on top of him and just stared him in the face. Then I got up and walked alone back to school.”
I encouraged Brian to tell me in detail how the whole thing went down. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Jack was actually on the same team as Brian. In effect, Brian had knocked down his own quarterback! I said, “Wow, that was really making a statement.” Then we both laughed and hi-fived.
It’s not often in therapy that there is a pivotal moment when things change. But, this was such a moment.
I treated Brian all through high school and saw him during holidays until he graduated college. Brian became an all-state wrestler in high school and was a varsity wrestler at a well-known university. He remained a sweet, caring person, had good friends, and a good relationship with his family.
When Brian learned to defend himself, he also learned to value himself. A person with good self esteem doesn’t let himself be bullied.
9 thoughts on “I’M GOING TO MAKE A RECOMMENDATION, BUT IF YOU TELL ANYONE I’LL DENY IT. Art Smukler MD”
Most bullies are cowards.The first time you stand up for yourself and show a spine, they usually back down pretty quickly!! I often wonder if children who bully others are getting bullied by their parents, or watching their parents bully others. I don’t think this behavior springs from a vacuum. My own mother bullied me and my siblings. I didn’t understand what was happening for a very long time, and it made me seek to avoid conflict, and keep misgivings to myself. It’s taken much of my adult life to come to terms with this, and realize that’s not how I should have been treated. It’s so good that this young man learned how to do that, because feeling helpless can be such a part and parcel of depression!
I love that you broke the rules and trusted your instincts with giving a little advice to a very sweet and sensitive boy. It was a very touching piece. Thanks for sharing!!
Good for you. And Brian. We’re taught to turn the other cheek or try to talk things out in a civil manner but it’s always the victims who do that and continue to be tormented. I used to get bullied and it wasn’t until I started to stand up for myself that it stopped.
Loved this story. Parents are so busy trying to avoid, manage, deal with, run the children to play dates, soccer, dance and on and on, that a child trying to stop them in the middle of it all and say. 1) I’m not happy;2) I’m being bullied; 3) I don’t really want to do all of these things. Makes the parent feel that they are not being a good parent, opens them up to old wounds of themselves being bullied and unfortunately places them in the spot where the parent must stop and say, wait a minute, What is Happening? The parents must reach out and talk to their children, no matter how busy they are or think they are. My children are now 42 and 36 and we still talk things out and yes, there was dance, pop warner, little league and I worked full time, but we talked. It is worth it and you get through the bullies. Teach them through love, if you are bullied and shoved down, as I was on my 6th birthday with resulting injuries, you learn to shove back without the injury. Let the other child know, this is what it feels like. Good for you, your common sense got up there and scored a thousand points against all the psychology books.
As the individual on the Lined In site noted, bullies do it because they know they can get away with it. It has been going on for as long as I can remember. I think the difference is in the past my parents told me to stick up for myself. Today parents tell their kids not to confront bullies, and then complain about how bullies have damaged their children from a psychological perspective. Maybe parents are too over protective today.
I love the story. He’s lucky he had someone to support and encourage him.
Thank you very much for the kind words!