Ending the Power of Bullies

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I want to talk about bullying and how we can reduce its effects on our kids.

Ending the Power of BulliesAnother horrific case of online bullying recently hit the news. Twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick climbed a water tower and jumped to her death after being taunted and attacked by a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. The sheriff in Florida arrested the two instigators and released their pictures. While the charges have since been dropped, the bullies’ parents have done the news circuit.

As I watched a bit of the media circus, it became clear that these bullies were absolute losers. They weren’t going anywhere in life. And while the victim’s mother appears eloquent, these kids’ parents (one of whom has since been charged with child abuse herself) show that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

We think that the way to battle bullying is holding character classes in schools, monitoring our children’s Facebook, and encouraging intervention by school officials. But I think we’re missing a key ingredient about why bullying is so devastating: to these kids, their peer group–pathetic as it may be–is their whole life. When peers turn on them, they feel completely alone and useless.

Listening to the story in Florida, I found myself wishing that Rebecca could have had some perspective. I’m a relatively happily well-adjusted forty-something woman (notwithstanding those hormonal surges), and I never, ever talk to anyone I knew in middle school or high school. If I were to see them on the street, I doubt I’d remember who most of them were.

In school you’re thrown together, through no choice of your own, with kids of the same age. As an adult, you don’t have to restrict your friends to those born in the same calendar year, and you’re free to choose friends that you actually like. Most adults I know do not hang around with people they knew in school. Those kids, who wield so much power over you at fourteen, are forgotten at 34.

If teens could just understand that their current tormentors won’t matter at all in just a few short years, then perhaps we’d have fewer kids devastated by bullying.

What we need more than character classes, then, is to give our kids perspective. I survived high school by simply not bothering much with my peers. Although I had pleasant conversations with many classmates, I walked home for lunch everyday so I didn’t have to sit in the cafeteria. My life revolved around my church youth group and my two part-time jobs, where I worked with people of a variety of ages. I spent most of my social time outside the school, so school really didn’t matter.

Part-time jobs can help students feel confident while giving them exposure to other adults who take an interest in them. Getting involved in a place of worship helps kids get plugged in with others who were not all born in the same birth year, while also introducing them to other teens who perhaps don’t go to their school. Cultivating an area of excellence outside of the school, whether it’s in sports or music or a craft, can help kids have something else to concentrate on that can give them a sense of self-worth.

School is so unimportant in the broader scheme of things, but it’s hard for kids to see that when they’re in the throes of teenage angst. Anything we can do to enlarge their world now will diminish the power of bullies to aim those arrows. Yes, words will always hurt, but if teens know “there are other people who care about me”, “I know I am good at something”, or “these kids’ worlds are so pathetic compared to mine”, then much of the sting will be gone.

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  1. Hi everyone! Thought I’d start the comment thread today since I just had an email conversation with a friend about just this thing. Her high school aged son isn’t enjoying school for various reasons, and she’s wondering if maybe as a family they have to change their focus. But it’s hard for her because she LOVED high school, and she wants that for her son.

    I think this whole concept of giving them a different perspective is likely harder for those of us who enjoyed school (like my friend) than for those of us who did not (like me). We naturally want our kids to have all the great experiences we did. And that’s one of the hardest parts of being a parent, I think–to recognize when it’s necessary, for our child’s welfare, to take a different road than we ourselves did.

    My friend realizes this, but I just wanted to throw that out there for people to think about–as parents, are we holding our children back because we’re still trying to get them to fit into the mold we fit in?

  2. As someone who was bullied from about grade 2 to grade 10, I completely agree with the need for kids to relate to adult role models and not be focused on people their own age. We do not learn to behave like adults from hanging around with other children – we learn to be adults by spending time with adults.

    I think part of why I was bullied was actually because I didn’t care what people thought of me; didn’t follow trends in music, fashion, etc, didn’t care what was cool. So, ironically, the very thing that I was picked on for (not caring about peer pressure) was what gave me the strength to cope with the bullying.

    • That’s really interesting–and so true! Often the kids who just totally march to their own beat can withstand the bullying better. And I totally agree about the need for other adults in our kids’ lives. When someone OTHER THAN FAMILY can give them positive feedback and breathe into their lives it makes such a difference! Teachers can partly play that role, but I think it also needs to come from adults who have no vested interest at all.

      Which then raises the question for me, personally, am I being that kind of adult in kids’ lives right now? Am I looking out for the kids in my circle who AREN’T my family? We really all should be.

  3. Thank you very much for this article. My children are in middle school and this is a very timely article. My son and I had this exact same conversation the other day. He has a “friend” at school that likes to pick on him and I was so relieved to hear him confidently say that as long as he has family at home who loves him, it doesn’t matter what others think. I hope he holds onto this perspective as the years continue through school, and here at home we will continue to nourish that feeling of love and acceptance.

  4. OMG! I would like to have a better way to help my 3rd grade students gain this perspective. I have a group of girls who are always in cahoots with one another, and I try to impart to them to just ignore, walk away, go play with someone who is acting like a real friend, that they won’t matter in a few years, and that you don’t have to like everyone in our classroom, but we must be respectful to each other and treat each other like you would want to be treated. But they put so much value into what the others think, say and do and it drives me crazy, because I can see the positive potential and value in EACH of my young charges, but trying to get them to see it is so difficult!

  5. Christine C. says:

    I think that’s why the It Gets Better project was (and is) such a success. I know it’s targeted at GLBTQIA youth, but the message is powerful for all kids and teenagers.

    And you’re right. I was bullied as a teenager, and I know that I really needed some perspective. When I look back on those years, I hold no animosity against the girls who made my life hell, and I often wonder what became of them. I pray for them often, and hope that they’re doing as well as I am, and that’s really helped me heal.

  6. KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

    We’ve had issues with my son, who’s in 4th grade being bullied at school the last two years. I’ve told him to ignore the name calling because what other people think of you is none of your business. Ignore them. But when the boy last week, knocked his glasses off his face after my son called him the same name he called him, well, that warranted an email and then a visit to the principal’s office because earlier in the week the boy had also called my child names to which he had to write my son a letter of apology. There’s been other behavior issues with this boy and next week, he’ll be suspended 3 days. Physical violence towards my child is unacceptable and I won’t stand for it.

    Now, my son is also bigger than the majority of his peers. But he’s also shy and quiet. So, HE’s the one that you’d think would likely be the bully but he’s not. ALL of his teachers have said he’s a sweet kid and they wish they had a whole classroom of kids just like him.

    Oh and my husband, who is 50, STILL hangs with men he’s been friends with since 3rd grade. And 1 since 7th grade. So go figure.I had a decent experience in high school and still talk to people from high school.

  7. You may be on to something.

    Looking back I can’t believe I wasn’t bullied at school. I was youngest in my grade, small and skinny. I got glasses at a young age, braces, and I was pretty much the epitome of a nerd: High grades, loved classical music and scifi, female gamer, hated sports ect. To crown it all I hit puberty quite early and noticeable (I have a C cup bra in 6th grade).

    My mom says kids likely tried. I just didn’t notice. I had several areas of excellence outside school, I had one or two close friends in school and the other kids really just didn’t matter to me. I either laughed with them or just looked at them quizzically if they tried to make jokes at my expense. Some boys in middle school would ask me if I was gay. I was like wouldn’t you like to know.

    I knew who I was, I knew there was a several other things I was good at and I knew my parents loved me. My personality is also such that my peer group just doesn’t have much pull with me. I could pick people whose opinions mattered and just brush off the rest.

    • KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

      I kind of agree to a point but there ARE kids who DO think a lot of what their peers think of them and nowadays, there’s Facebook, Twitter, and texting in which kids can bully one another. We didn’t have to deal with that stuff when we were growing up.
      Teens are kiiling themselves over bullying. Boys and girls both. KIds can’t walk home from school for lunch. My son can’t as school is too far away for him to walk and it would be dangerous as there is two sets of railroad tracks for him to cross. There’s no one home to make lunch for him. Dad’s at work and I’m sleeping having worked all night. Other kid’s parents don’t even have food to make. School is the only place where some of them eat as the number of children on free or reduced lunches is at 70% in my school district.
      Since my child is a boy and excels at sports, he’ll be participating at sports in all seasons at the scholastic level.. I am trying to gear him towards boys whose parents are role models in our community. His football coach this past year is a CPA in our town. One past coach is the principal at the elementary school and his son is one of my son’s classmates and a good friend. So I’m hoping that as long as we are in this community, my son will continue to be friends with those same boys because I know what kind of values those boys are being raised.

  8. This is an excellent article – I couldn’t have said it better, Sheila! We need to help our kids orient themselves to someone other than peers.

  9. A good parenting book that addresses this issue is (The New) Hide or Seek by James Dobson. When kids have an identity and something to be proud of, they are no longer subject to their peers.
    Harriette recently posted…Readings for a Holy Holiday, Week OneMy Profile

  10. This is a very painful subject. I was bullied in school (elementary and high school), at church (cubs, scouts and Sunday school) and even within my family (mother, brother).
    To this day, I don’t think fondly of the people who tormented me verbally and physically and I’ve never attended a school re-union.
    Perhaps having a few friends made all the difference. Likely God was sustaining me as well. When you’re desperate for approval like I was, you are vulnerable to this. Being secure in your own value can go a long way. Sorry, no solutions here.

  11. I always love hearing your thoughts. As someone who had a horrible “social” high school experience, I would have to say that perspective won’t change much for some kids. Between 9th and 10th grade, my body started changing. I made bad choices as a result by the age of 15 and by 16 because of the torture of some students I tried to end my life twice in my parents kitchen. By the 11th grade, I was overwhelmed with life. By 12th grade, a group of girls strategically sat outside of my 1st period class to call me names EVERY DAY for my entire senior year.

    It would be judgmental of someone to say that my “bad choices incited the torment” but I beg to differ. I found out when I was 28 that I had gone through 15 years with an undiagnosed depression that began when I was … get this … around the age of 15. My depression began at home and then was made worse by the crude comments of my peers. The bad choices I made were only cause for torment during my senior year of high school. From the 9th to 11th grade, people made fun of my complexion (I’m biracial) with Caucasian girls viewing me as African-American and not choosing to be friends with me and with African-American girls paraphrasing that “my hair and complex was too fair” and thus declined my friendship. I was almost utterly alone (with the exception of a few brave friends and some amazing teachers).

    You could have tried to tell my 13-16 year old self that things would look different in a decade or more but I wouldn’t believe you. You could have told my bullies the same thing and they probably wouldn’t have believed you either.

    I really wish that more people would recognize when someone is being bullied. Yes, the signs are not always apparent but sometimes they are. The teenage years are crazy and peer pressure is higher than in your 20s.

    I’m glad that some have had good experiences, but let us not discredit how communities can come around the fragile teenage generations and lift them up to stop the bullying and hopefully in time lessen the suicide accounts.

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