Dear Patti,

I’m a single mother and even though it can sometimes be difficult, my only child, Mia (10), is the love of my life and well worth any sacrifice. She’s intelligent, energetic and has always been a leader with her peers no matter what problems or issues she has. It devastates me to have just learned from her teacher that Mia has been bullying another girl at school. The little girl in Mia’s class is overweight, wears glasses and is very shy. Mia’s teacher said Mia tells her classmates to get up and leave if this girl comes over to their group. The girls laugh, whisper and call this poor little girl names. The bullied girl’s mother has reported that her daughter cries every day after school. Although the teacher talked to all the girls, they continue their same behavior when they think the teacher isn’t looking. The teacher is adamant Mia is the ringleader. I’m enraged and ashamed. I never thought a daughter of mine could be so cruel and disgusting. I want to publicly shame and humiliate her so she knows what it feels like,

Mia doesn’t know this but as a child I had a protruding jaw and was horribly teased. Being called Witch and Moon Face was constant. It didn’t stop until I had surgery as a teenager. I certainly didn’t raise Mia to be like that. I’m ashamed of her and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I can’t even bear to look at her. Her teacher believes something must be really bothering her, but that doesn’t give Mia the right to inflict pain on another.

In addition to confronting Mia and expressing how ashamed I am of her behavior, I want to meet with the other girls and their parents and not only have Mia admit to her wrongdoing but promise to stop torturing her classmate immediately. I also believe a sincere apology to the bullied girl—and in the presence of Mia’s friends — is necessary. I’m usually good to Mia, but I believe as a parent I have to do whatever I can to stop her from becoming a mean and thoughtless person.

    

  — Sharon

Dear Sharon,

In order to have a better handle on how to approach Mia, I’d like you to have a better understanding of the difference between guilt and shame. Some psychotherapists theorize that these two emotions are the same and represent varying degrees of the same emotion, with shame being a more powerful, intense experience. Many professionals, however, now believe these two emotions are separate, distinct experiences. While guilt and shame are emotions of self-evaluation, one thought is “I am bad” (shame) and the other thought is “I did something bad” (guilt). Shame is about who someone is at a core level and guilt is about behavior. The danger of telling Mia she’s mean or bad is that she might start to believe it. If she believes she’s “no good,” she’s more likely to act out, fulfill the negative label and treat herself poorly.

I don’t think there’s a problem with letting her know you have absolutely no tolerance for her behavior, nor is there anything wrong with insisting she do her best to make amends and that her future actions should adhere to your ethics and values. Let her know you’re proud of her but that you’re definitely not proud of her unacceptable behavior. Support her in believing she can create change and learn to handle her angry, painful feelings differently. Assure her you’ll be there for her when she’s angry or hurting, but that she absolutely must learn how to cope with problems without taking it out on others.

What concerns me is the intensity of your feelings which have built to the extent you can’t bear to look at Mia. She’s just a little girl that has learned some bad behaviors. I’m concerned she’s deeply angry about something and projecting her feelings on her defenseless classmate. Likewise, your own childhood anger is being triggered and projected onto Mia.

I recommend individual counseling for Mia and for you as well as family counseling for both of you. In spite of your own pain concerning her actions, don’t lose sight of how wonderful Mia is or the admirable traits she possesses. Let her know you admire her strength and leadership abilities but communicate your abhorrence for her misusing those talents to inflict suffering.  


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.