It was a warm day. But not too warm of a day, the kind where you could be outside and not break a sweat. It brought a smile to my face. We had been spared from the vicious heat for now. The past few days I had been truly enjoying the advantages of being an expat; networking, family and a close circle of friends. As any expat knows, despite all the advantages, we all have our days. It seemed as if in the preceding months it was a struggle to stay focused on these advantages.
I was on my way to school to pick up my son. I promised I would pick him up and spare him the bus ride home. It was the start of the weekend after all with movie night, a favorite in our home, ahead of us. I was reflecting on how good our son had been lately how proud he had made us. All these thoughts, I kept private. All children are the apples of their parent’s eyes; I tried not to brag. They were my thoughts and small victories. We shared that close mother/son relationship I had been told about by other mothers before having children. The kind you hope never comes to an end. “Mama, I am never going to leave you.” he would often say.
This happy feeling led to an idea; I would take us to the mall, get a movie for the night or let him pick out a Nintendo game. I knew he would be surprised as we had made a rule: no toys except Christmas or birthdays unless he bought them himself. But this was a special occasion. The best occasion of all: just because.
For a few weeks, we had been planning “L’s” 7th birthday. He was very specific in only wanting to invite 3 friends: 2 from class and 1 from a prior class. Emails had been exchanged with the parents to determine the best weekend. With such a small number perhaps we could make it a sleep over. All these thoughts running through my mind as I drove.
I arrived to pick “L” up. The words tumbled out of his mouth immediately. But before they were out, I sensed something was wrong as he too had sensed something would go wrong feigning an illness the day before. I should have seen it coming. Perhaps it was the casual comment made the week before: “I couldn’t find them at recess.” As a parent knowing that “they did not want to be found”, I suggested maybe they wanted time alone . Or perhaps it was the rude comment made to me in the morning by them at recess: “We don’t know where he is!” when I bumped into them after a parent meeting at school.
For the words to tumble so quickly, that was something. In the past the bothersome issues lay at bay for at least the first 15-20 minutes. Only after this period of time would they come. “They were mean to me. They surrounded me and pelted me with balls, he said. “Who? “, I said. “My two best friends”, he replied. “They hurt me.”
The rest of the story unfolded. He told his friends to stop (repeatedly) and when they wouldn’t he went to get help. He was able to verbalize to his teacher what happened. Being who she is, the teacher called an immediate conference with the boys. Guilt was admitted, apologies were made. It was now all ok, wasn’t it?
As we drove and the conversation shifted, I announced my surprise. As we arrived to the mall, “Mama, I’m nervous, nervous that they will do it again”, he said. I listened. The conversation shifted again. We headed to the store. With no interesting movies to be found, we settled on a Nintendo game. But, the words were repeated again and again. All I could do was listen, reassure and support. “They said they didn’t hear me say stop”, he said, trying to protect them. His confusion about how to process the event was evident.
As we got home, and he started playing his new game, the frustrations started. ‘This game is too hard, I want to return it.” I suggested that he put it aside for awhile. Then the real melt down began as he shouted“This is the worst day ever, I am going to kill myself.” such shocking words from such a sweet happy boy. And that is when he retreated to his fort of Lego boxes… closing himself away. Away so that he could be protected.
The falling apart was difficult to watch. I fell apart quietly but didn’t let him see my silent tears. So many questions: how could this happen to my little boy? He was normally the gregarious one, well liked, the observer who only after taking it all in stood forward to lead as one teacher put it. And how dare they especially when one was a guest in our home just two days before?
As the days went on, the conversations continued around the same fear. The inability to go to sleep and the feigning of illnesses began. The impact was huge. We had lots of dialogue about what makes a good friend, and how to stand up for himself. Then the issue of his party came up. I was glad to see that he was quick to say he would have to invite other friends if these two continued to not treat him well.
By definition bullying is a physical or psychological threat with a continued fear that the threat will recur. It wasn’t as if our son was immune to bullying. We had coached him from bully boy “Jake”, the child who only knew how to deal with his emotions through physical violence, all of his toddler years. It took a long time to coach a then three year old to stand up for himself. We were so proud when he did.
After the fears and sleepless nights persisted, it was suggested he see the school counselor. Our initial thought was: “What? Victimize him more?” This is until we found out how benignly the counseling occurs. The counselor enters the classroom and asks for a volunteer then picks the child who needs the counseling. She doesn’t bring up the incident unless the child brings it up himself.
Our son talked non-stop for 45 minutes. I later met with the counselor and loved hearing what my son had to say. It brought a smile to my face and made me love him more. It was typical to his style: non-violent, empathic and sensitive. I would be wrong to disclose all that was said as that would breech his confidentiality. But I feel a very comical book being jointly written about what happens to bullies who don’t learn.
The birthday is behind us now. A success even with both boys in attendance as it is what “L” wanted. We had to let him make choices and deal with the outcomes as hard as this was. But, the emotions for one mama remain; just how difficult it is to watch when your child is bullied and falls apart. Don’t even want to imagine what it will feel like when he gets his heart broken the first time.