We call them bullies. Victims. Rebels. Misfits. Ne’er-do-wells. Lost. Confused. Angry young men. AND Women. We don’t know what to do with them, about them, OR for them. Yet we know in our hearts that if we can’t figure them out, if we can’t find a way to connect with them, we might fail them. So we asked a local expert on Restorative Communication for help. In his second installment of a three-part-series, Dr. William A. Bledsoe offers three tools from his conflict resolution practice to help us better understand our troubled teenagers.

1. STOP LABELLING

We need to remove the labels bully and victim, and every tag line our society wants to throw at our kids. Labeling is part of the problem. When we label anyone we dismiss their humanity, distance ourselves from them, and miss an opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue about the reasons for their behavior.

With children and teens, labeling is especially damaging because they are learning about their own and other’s feelings, while discovering their identity. If we label them, that label can negatively influence who they think they really are. Labels are judgments that can become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. If we label others in front of our kids, we’re teaching them that it’s okay to do so. It’s not.

To keep from labeling, when I train teachers in restorative practices I explain that we have to “separate the behavior from the individual.”

Behavior is what people do, not who they are. For example, a bully is

acting in a way that harms, without respect or regard for others. A victim has experienced harm and has been treated disrespectfully by another. When our child/teen calls someone a jerk, we might respond with “it sounds like you’re upset about what they did.” Labeling and name-calling is rampant in our society. We can change this by modeling and correcting it in our homes.

2. DO AN INVENTORY

We need to recognize the interpersonal dynamics existing between family members that might be contributing to a child’s behavior. This isn’t about blame. It’s about awareness, which can help parents confront and stop patterns of interaction that enable demeaning behavior to continue.

One way to understand relational dynamics is to take an unflinching look back at how people in your family of origin treated each other when there was disagreement and conflict. As adults, we can unconsciously carry unconstructive ways of interacting we learned as children into our own families. We look back not to assign blame, but to understand where we came from and how it influences our thinking and beliefs around conflict, discipline, and treatment of others.

When I conduct workshops in restorative communication, I begin by asking participants some questions about their family history:

How did people treat each other? Was it respectful?  How was conflict handled? How did family members behave when there was a disagreement? Did it escalate into an argument? Was one person overpowering and dominant, another manipulative, or another consistently submissive and withdrawing? Who had the final say? How were emotions expressed? Were there implicit rules around what feelings were “acceptable” to express? What role did anger play when disagreements escalated into arguments? Was it expressed constructively, or was there screaming, yelling and name calling? Was there blaming, defensiveness or denial of responsibility for what happened? Was there a process in place where family members could come together after the fact and talk about what happened and how it impacted everyone? Was your family relational climate physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe to talk about what happened? Did repair and amends happen? Was there an agreement put in place to “do conflict” differently? What did accountability look like?

These are daunting questions and take time to reflect. This can help us form a picture of how patterns of interaction can be generationally transferred.

3.  LOOK HONESTLY AT UNMET EMOTIONAL NEEDS

We need to look underneath the behavior and try to understand why it’s happening. It helps to approach behavior as an expression of underlying thinking, believing, and feeling. The behaviors we describe as bullying such as harmful teasing, intimidation or manipulation, etc., are an outward expression of an inward state. If we know this, we can approach the behavior with purposeful curiosity and some objectivity instead of reactive condemnation.

Because I’m someone who studies interaction, I look for how patterns of communication influence individual and relational health and well-being. With children, interaction patterns in the family are especially profound. Teenage brains are still developing. So unconstructive, negative or harmful patterns of family interaction can program young minds to unconsciously assume that this type of interaction is the norm. If children experience or witness repeated mistreatment or destructive behavior during conflict, they can come to expect it, and carry it forward with their peers.

One particular way I’ve found to look deeper is to understand childhood attachment styles which were originally identified by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in 1969. When we’re born, we psychologically attach ourselves to our caregivers. We have no choice because we are 100% dependent on them for survival. It’s coded in our DNA. Psychologists tell us that attachment happens on a physical/visceral, emotional and psychological level. We depend on our caregivers to feed us, soothe us, and make us feel safe and secure in the world. We discover who we are and how much we matter in the faces, touch, and voices of our primary caregivers and family members. If we understand these ways of attaching, we can identify and meet the unique emotional needs of a child who is exhibiting a particular style. We can also identify what “style is in play” with our spouse, and when interaction between children becomes aggressive and/or manipulative.  

WHAT IS YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE?

When I train teachers in restorative accountability practices in response to misbehavior, I encourage them to look beneath the behavior to try and understand what attachment style might be in play. This helps them to engage and connect in a way that supports the student to see the impact of their behavior on others … and themselves.

Secure

A Secure Attachment style develops when the caregiver consistently responds to the child in an attentive and loving way. Caregivers are physically and verbally affectionate with the child, soothe the child when distressed, and thereby create a visceral sense of safety. Secure attachment fosters positive self-esteem and helps children to be more forgiving, compassionate, empathic, and understanding of their own and other’s shortcomings. These core competencies create emotional and psychological resilience when a child is faced with aggressive behavior from others. 

Fearful

A Fearful Attachment style is quite the opposite and develops when caregivers/parents communicate in harsh, punitive, negative, rejecting, or even abusive ways. Children who are treated this way develop a core belief that they are unworthy of love and see others as unloving. They grow up expecting rejection. Children with this core belief become the targets of bullying in school. To ease their unconscious pain, develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as cutting and substance abuse. Though they yearn for close relationships, their fear and core belief that they will be rejected keeps them from being authentically vulnerable, emotionally available, and from experiencing true connection.

Dismissive

A Dismissive Attachment style develops when caregivers are not consistently affectionate, loving, or soothing. Caregivers are not necessarily abusive or negative; they are simply preoccupied, not  present or emotionally available, even rejecting. The child’s basic physical needs might be met, but they feel neglected and disconnected because of a lack of emotional attunement. When they are dismissed emotionally, they often become dismissive themselves. They may develop a positive (though often inflated) view of themselves, but have low-regard for others. This manifests as a type of narcissism. They transfer the judgment and disregard they felt from parents onto others, and can dismiss relationships altogether as unnecessary and unimportant. This can often predispose a child to resentment, anger, vindictiveness and retaliation when offended. The dismissive style is characterized by bullying behavior and an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions.

Anxious / Ambivalent

The Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment style is the most complex of the four styles. Whereas the other three styles develop in response to a consistent message from caregivers (loving, condemning, emotionally neglecting), the anxious/ambivalent style is the result of inconsistent treatment. The caregiver may be loving and attentive one day, and indifferent, rejecting and dismissive the next. The child doesn’t know where she/he stands in the eyes of the caregiver. Such unpredictability causes tremendous anxiety and the release of stress hormones which impact brain development and emotion and/or nervous system regulation. Cognitively, the tendency is distraction, and lack of focus and attention, both of which impact learning. However, though anxiety and distress are experienced by the child, there are typically two ways that children learn to cope with this inner anxiety and thus two recognizable symptoms. The first symptom is irritability, restlessness, hyper-alertness and perhaps an inability to self-regulate whether the caregiver is present or not. Clinginess or neediness is a classic expression. The second coping style is the exact opposite and appears as withdrawal, inability to engage, and emotional blandness. Do you know someone who always seems to be “checked-out” or numb? Because younger children unconsciously assume that adults are always right, they believe themselves to be the source of the problem. As a result, a core belief that the child is fundamentally bad (shame) becomes cemented in the child’s psyche and is expressed in the two distinct ways mentioned above. Passive aggression is a hallmark of this style.

TAKE HEART

In truth, and this is crucial, attachment styles are not hard and fast rules. There are moments when we are nurturing, and moments when we are distracted and perhaps dismissive. Attachment styles exist on a continuum and are best understood as a spectrum. For example, if we’re stressed about an issue we’re facing, it’s only human that we’ll have less patience. This isn’t about putting ourselves into a parenting box, or blaming parents when a child is troubled. It’s a lens for understanding how we ourselves respond in various situations, so that we might begin to recognize the unmet needs showing up in a child’s behavior. We can use our understanding of attachment styles to see the underlying patterns in our own relationships, and thus, we can be more effective in how we reach for connection with our child.

Remember – this is not about blame. It’s simply a way of looking under the behavior to how early interaction in our families instils core beliefs about ourselves, others, and our general perspective about relationships and life. Each of these styles can predispose us to carry certain core beliefs about our self-worth, our ability to trust other people, and our comfort level with social relationships. As parents, these three “deeper work” steps can help us gain insight and clarity, resist overreacting to unconstructive behavior in unconstructive ways, and be more effective in moving through tense moments with empathic awareness. If we can meet our teens with compassion, then we have made the first step toward building a bridge to connect with them.

Read the first article in this three-part-series by Dr. Bledsoe: “Building a Bridge By Forming A Circle: A Restorative Way Through Bullying.” After his daughter was bullied, this expert on conflict resolution found a Restorative Path to healing, which he brings to schools in the Roaring Fork Valley around around the country.