Why does my child antagonize others and then complain of being bullied?

Antagonizing others and then complaining of being bullied, though it is easily viewed as irrational and self-defeating, stems from very real (and justified) feelings of being poorly treated in life. Children and young people who have experienced relational trauma are prone to maintaining an exaggerated view of their vulnerability and the malintent of others towards them. Some compensate for this by adopting a persona of toughness and aggressiveness meant to warn others off ‘messing with them’. Their intent is to maintain feelings of relational safety. Unfortunately, their aggressiveness can invite a retaliatory response from others that confirms their belief in their vulnerability and the threat posed by others. Though the attribution of bullying is made towards the contemporary (reciprocating) aggressor, the feeling of being vulnerable and bullied stems from past abuse and neglect.

Children and young people who approach the world and relationships in this way are often not amenable to endeavours to explain how they provoked aggression from others towards them. Such endeavours are incongruent with how they see the world and relationships and their place in them. It is not a case of they can give it but they cant take it. These children and young people have been deeply hurt and until that hurt is healed they are destined to maintain this maladaptive approach to life and relationships.

In my experience, the way to address this issue is to focus less on their behaviour and more on the feelings of relational vulnerability and insecurity that give rise to them. We need to intentionally, and in sustained manner, facilitate experiences of their competency, worth, and of the sensitivity and responsiveness of others. This is conventionally learnt by the developing child in the home with adults who delight in spending time with them, anticipate and respond to their needs, share their highs and lows, and support their experience of mastery.

It is the relationships a child has with themselves and with the adults who care or them that is most influential in how they approach life and relationships. Where relationships have been inadequate, it is through enriched care that children and young people have the best chance to form more adaptive representations of themselves and others, and approach life and relationships in a more functional and self-promoting way.

Pearce, C (2016) A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition). London: JKP

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About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
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