Power Games of Children: What’s a Therapist to Do?

by Frank C. Sacco, Ph.D., CSI President, Scholar in Residence

If you are doing therapy with kids today, you will have one of your kids caught in a power struggle that is making his or her adjustment that much more difficult.  Home may be chaotic or empty of nurturance, the community might be violent, and school could become a vicious fish bowl connected by social media.  This creates an ever-present virtual mental connection to power dynamics often born and maintained in school.

Power dynamics can be understood as unconscious processes of assuming the social role of bully, victim, or bystander.  Some kids get trapped in one of those roles.  The bully is likely to be an ADHD, ODD, Conduct Disorder, or Bipolar.  The victim will be a PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, or disruptive disorders.  Bystanders are everybody else and your kid is likely to be in a victim or bully role but certainly will be a bystander.

Bystanders can be seen as bullies and victims in waiting.  They live vicariously off the actions of the bully or victim.  They will take the place of any active bully or victim if a role opens up.  Adults need to see this and not allow this dynamic to dominate a school, home, or any community group.

Bullying has a strong developmental component.  Essentially the main ingredient to bullying is shame and humiliation.  The bully dishes it out and the victim absorbs it.  The bystanders are entertained and are playing it safe.  The therapist needs to be aware of the social forces impacting on their client’s life day to day at school and in the community.  Many clients will hide away, get lost in cyberspace, create virtual identities, join action-oriented gangs.  Shame will inflame trauma and our clients are especially vulnerable to the impact of humiliation.  It will drive them inward deeper, away from social norms, and ignite explosions mostly at school.

We have some tools that you can use in working with kids about bullying.  This is a somewhat directive path that can be shared with a TM who can work with the client on building confidence in social activities in the community and transferable to school and the home.  From a psychological perspective, the goal of skills building is to improve assertiveness and to reduce the value of coerciveness.  Submissiveness will invite more bullying.  Trauma victims often react by blind submission to the point of self-destruction.

The best time to intervene in this power dynamic is very young.  It is a good application in head start combined with therapy for the parent and TM for child and parent if she is under 21 years of age.  Elementary age students grades 3 and under respond well to the singing and dancing in the Back Off Bully series.  They also work well from grades 4 and 5 on the workbooks and comic books.  They may be useful in TM with the coordinated therapy effort to strengthen positive behavior at school, less disruption, and focus on academic achievement rather than behavior management and discipline.

Look for the workbooks, use the song, and the video to work with parents.  Kids like the scenarios and the music, parents might like the talking head experts, and the skills are useful for both child and parent.

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