“You’re ugly.” Those words pierced my heart as a gawky 13-year-old seventh grader. It was hard enough to be the new kid at a private school where my classmates had been together since elementary school. What made things even harder was the near-constant teasing from both boys and girls. Over and over and over again, they told me how ugly I was.
The trouble with going to a small private school was that there was no escape from my tormentors—not many places to hide in a grade with a mere 17 kids. All that seventh-grade year, I went to school knowing that chances were pretty high I would hear that phrase at some point during the day. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was an almost everyday occurrence. Many nights, I cried myself to sleep because of the hurt and anguish caused by those kids. I used to beg God to make me pretty, not in a vain request for good looks but because I figured that if I wasn’t ugly, then the taunting would stop.
Yes, I told my mother about it, and she tried to help with coping mechanisms (not showing that the words hurt, etc.). But with little information out there on bullying, it was something those of us who were targets had to simply live with the abuse. I think I asked my parents not to say anything to the school administrators, because instinctively I knew that wouldn’t solve anything. The kids would get a “talking to” and the abuse would continue, albeit more under cover. Back then, no one thought that kind of verbal abuse was anything to get worked up about.
Today, we would call their actions bullying, but a few decades ago, there wasn’t a fancy name for that kind of shaming. Fast-forward to 2015, where anti-bullying messages are the drumbeat of every elementary school, junior high and high school curriculum. From kindergarten to seniors, children learn about the devastating impact of bullying, and are encouraged to report any incident of bullying to teachers, parents and administrators.
This is a good thing in many ways. It empowers those who have long had no voice. It brings much needed awareness of the harm verbal and physical abuse has on the weak and the different. It has helped to produce a more accepting attitude among our children for those who are not like us.
But all this attention to bullying has also blurred the line between abusive behavior and kids being kids. We have perhaps let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, slapping a bullying label on situations or events that are nothing more than misunderstandings or misperceptions.
For example, one message each of my children has brought home after hearing an anti-bullying presentation in first or second grade has been that someone who hurts your feelings is being a bully. Yes, bullying hurts feelings. But the very definition of bullying is a pattern of abuse, not one isolated incident.
Handling a Bullying Situation
So what’s a parent to do? How can we help our children understand the very real dangers bullying is yet temper that with a kind heart willing to overlook the mistakes of friends and classmates? Here are three ways to provide guidance to our kids.
- Overlook a first offense. Children especially are all too quick to take offense at anything or anyone who rubs them the wrong way or hurts their feelings. We should help our children to see that most of the time, friends and classmates and siblings are not out to hurt us. Reminding our kids of times when they hurt someone else’s feelings accidentally will guide them in having a spirit that overlooks random offenses.
- Talk to a trusted adult. We absolutely should listen to our children when they come home with tales of woe from school or play. But we should do more than provide a listening ear—we should help them sort out what happened and what it means before throwing on the bullying label. Questions we can ask include
- Is it part of an overall pattern?
- Did our child contribute to the situation by his own actions?
- Is it something the child can handle on her own?
- Formulate a plan. When faced with a potential bullying situation, we need to assist our children in developing a plan. Whether it’s personal or happening to a friend, role playing different scenarios can help a kid figure out what to say or do. Try a variety of responses with the child until he’s comfortable. This will help the child be able to execute the plan more easily when confronted with the bullying child.
These three steps are only the foundation for handling a bullying situation. This is where we should start with our children. Some situations may call for interventions on a higher level, such as with teachers or school administrators. Some may call for discussions with the parents of the other children involved. All should be done with thoughtfulness and compassion, without rushing to judgment.
What happens after the situation has been addressed? That’s a crucial part of ending this cycle of bullying that we too often see continuing in our schools, homes and communities. We need to think beyond the bullying to helping our children grow together, both bully and victim. Here are a couple of ways to get started.
Do little acts of kindness. Being kind to someone who has treated us ill—whether accidentally or on-purpose—can diffuse a potentially damaging situation. Help our kids to see that being nice in the face of unkindness can be freeing to their own hearts—and could have a huge impact on the other person. Your small act of kindness can touch the heart of another, and that’s a good thing to remember.
Walk in their shoes. When my oldest was in kindergarten, she came home with tales of “Teddy” being mean to her. Teddy bumped into her and knocked the book out of her hand. Teddy stepped on her toes. I checked with her teacher, who said that Teddy liked my daughter, but that he was rather clumsy because of his larger size than most of his classmates. I explained that to my daughter. The teacher worked with Teddy on boundaries, while my daughter had a new understanding of what her classmate was going through.
Sometimes, if we try to understand where the other person is coming from, we can find common ground—and compassion. We might not always know the full story of why a child acts the way he or she does, but by helping our children think about the other person’s story, we can help them develop empathy for their fellow classmates—a good thing to develop.
Bullying is an issue that we should continue to dialogue about with our children and in our schools. But we must balance that with thoughtful discussions about embracing our differences, developing a kindness towards others, and helping both bullies and victims to overcome their past.