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.