sad boyWhen my son was eleven years old, he was attacked at the park. The boy was a couple of years older than him and much bigger than him. Thankfully my son was 1st dan black belt karate at the time and also had the most powerful punch in his class. The attacker was badly hurt and ran away crying.

When my son came home and told me what had happened, I was upset for him, outraged at the child and joyful at the outcome. I laughed at the thought of this “bully” running off crying.

A couple of weeks later I was told who the boy was and a very thought-provoking piece of information – the day he attacked my son was the same day his father had returned home from prison. I was horrified – what had happened in that boy’s home to make him attack a complete stranger? I was ashamed of my initial reaction; I’ve worked with children for many years and I know how much home life and outside influences can shape a child’s behaviour. If the incident had happened to another child, not my son, perhaps I would have been more aware, but my mother instincts clouded my understanding and I had immediately judged the boy.

Unfortunately, the incident put my son off visiting the park for a long time in case the boy returned with a gang. About six months later, when my son eventually returned to the park, the boy was there – he walked over and apologised for his previous behaviour! That is not the hallmark of a child who is rotten to the core.

It made me think of a friend I had back in the 80s. He was known in his town as tough and he was from a tough family. They were all fighters. All except him. His dad would often try to arrange street fights for him but he was frightened and he would try to make up excuses to avoid the heavy shaming that would weigh upon him if he didn’t fight – the family’s honour was at stake. He was known as one of the hardest kids on the block but he would sneak away to cry in private. Shame and rage constantly coursed through him and he often lost control.

Teachers are often the unwitting victims of pent up rage in children. Some children arrive at their school with unbearable worries and pressures caused by their family life. They are not settled and ready to learn – they’re wound up and ready to attack. When their teacher has been up late the night before marking and gone to so much trouble to make the best lesson they can, they don’t always see the trouble inside the child – just a child making trouble. If you’re in a school and you have a “trouble-maker”, ask the SENCO why the child is behaving like that – you’ll be surprised and devastated. Some of the backgrounds of these children are heart breaking.

Good parents love and nurture their children. I’m not saying they get it right all the time. I don’t get it right all the time – ask my children! But good parents don’t beat each other up in front of the children. Good parents don’t beat up their children. Good parents cuddle their children when they’re physically hurt or when they’re sad because they fell out with their friend. They teach them that it’s okay to feel sad but it’s not okay to hurt someone else because they’re sad. A long time ago I watched Sir Robert Winston explain how, every time we sooth an angry toddler, their frontal lobes in their brain develop and this is how they learn to control their behaviour. Adults with anger issues have under-developed frontal lobes.

I’ve experienced life for almost half a century and I still don’t get it right all of the time – how can we expect a child, who has only experienced a slither of life, to get it right? Especially if their upbringing has been traumatic – neglect, bullying, violent, loss, substance abuse, etcetera and the adults around them have never shown them compassion or how to deal with disappointment, fear or sorrow.

Do you remember in the 80s we were told bullies were cowards? “Coward” isn’t correct – “frightened” is more accurate – they are children and they are frightened. They need help and support.

I wrote The Boy Who Couldn’t to show young readers the frightened, vulnerable child behind the bully. I hope adults will also read it. After my son read the first draft he told me “It’s really made me think. Next time someone’s being horrible, I’m going to think about why they feel like that before I get angry at them.”

I also hope that anyone in a similar situation to the antagonist can learn that your life is your choice: you don’t have to be the person others expect you to be; you can choose to be who you want to be.

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