Dear Enda

My youngest son is in secondary school. He is having a lot of problems with bullying. Unfortunately he is the one doing the bullying. We have had two meetings already with the school and I am both concerned and furious about his behaviour. In primary school, he was teased a lot about his reading and writing problems and I know it caused him a lot of stress. We sent him to a counsellor, but he refused to engage with her. I’m afraid he’ll be expelled soon.


Dear Ciara

Bullying is very poorly understood and usually badly dealt with. The bully is as much in need of been understood as the one being bullied.

All behaviour has purpose. The bully is seeing in people weaker than him, all his own insecurities. As a result of his own experience, your son has learned that the world is either at his feet or his throat.

In primary school, how was the teasing of him dealt with? I would suspect that not only was there a lot more than just teasing him about his reading and writing, but that he was also rejected, learning that he was a reject because of this.

Children learn what they live. Now he is doing the rejection. I would suspect that he is reacting to perceived slights in each day, so that is where we need to focus.

Everyone is challenging his behaviour without first trying to understand it.

What exactly is happening in each incident? All he sees is everyone challenging HIM, reinforcing the rejection that he received as a child.

This explains his oppositional and defiant behaviour. If he can’t lash out at authority, then he will lash out at whoever he can. It also explains why he won’t go to a counsellor. He’s afraid that he will be challenged even more.

To solve this, we need to completely change the way we are responding to him.

Lose the word bullying. It’s far too inflammatory and results in instant rejection of the bully. I have ex clients who were accused of bullying. They were all children when it happened but the reaction towards them destroyed them.

They were intensely bullied by authority for having a learning need, and boy, does society really love to put the boot in! As with your son, everybody’s reaction made the problem worse.

Replace with the word “bullying” with the word “respect”. First, he has to be respected as he is and his behaviour validated, hard as this might be to grasp. Only then can he be helped to understand why he is behaving the way he is. Everyone might be different, but no one is less than anyone else.

We then need to teach him how to respect others. We all want to be accepted. He doesn’t know how to respect others because no one is teaching him how. Everyone is telling him what not to do, but no one is teaching him what to do instead. Therefore, he has no idea how to achieve what you want from him.

Help him understand, that the way he is trying to help himself, is making the problem worse.

His world has taught him that weak/ different people are rejected and teased.

Be patient whilst he figures out what it is he is hoping to achieve by his behaviour. In reality, he just wants to be respected and accepted. How would HE like to be respected? What could he do to show respect to others? What does respect look like for him?

Get these fundamentals right and it’s all a matter of consistency and practice after that.

Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist who focuses on supporting adults to support young people. For more details go to Please email your own queries for Enda to

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