Basically, you become an adult and you realize that no one really knows what the heck they’re doing. That old Albert Einstein quote “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” rings truer and truer for me the older I become. But as a kid, I honestly thought I’d just grow up and become a bottomless pit of all-knowing wisdom, on like, everything.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, most parents I knew were less hands-on than we are today. They were less scheduled in general and seemingly less worried on the day-to-day about how their kids were going to turn out as a direct result of their own parenting skills. They gave less fudges. Or maybe they just didn’t have the internet to talk about it.
The truth is, while we as parents may not have the “perfect answer” or the “perfect way” for anything really, we can stick to our values and do our best to raise kind, but badass little people. As my kids get older and begin to have more independence at school and with friends outside of our family, I can’t help but think of how I can prepare them to hold true to their character, live our family’s integrity, remain kind, and never be afraid to stand up for themselves. So what’s the balance for today’s parents?
I’m sharing my own story of being bullied as a teenager, followed by an interview with my friend, Licensed Educational Psyschologist, Katie Rand, on a break down of bullying. What it looks like for today’s kids, how we can prevent it and parent through it if it happens.
When I was a sophomore in high school, the beginning of a crisp fall in Central Pennsylvania started out as my best year yet. I had just turned 15-years-old, I had a really nice boyfriend and great friends, and I spent my time at cheerleading practice and procrastinating on school work. I’d recently been voted to the Homecoming Court, which was a dream-come-true for me at the time. It was safe to say, I felt on top of the high school world.
Not long after homecoming, I somehow ended up on the radar of a group of girls who caused a lot of trouble. One was arrested a few years back for allegedly driving the getaway car for a bank robbery, just to give you a glimpse into the extent of the scary-kind-of-problems they caused.
These girls started staring me down in the hallways in between classes. It wasn’t easy for them to do, either, because there were so many kids scurrying in the halls to get from one class to the next. They made sure I saw them and Macy*, we’ll call her, was the leader.
I didn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t something I’d ever bring up to my parents or grandparents. I decided on a whim that I wasn’t going to take it. So the next time Macy stared me down I said, “Don’t look at me”.
And that sparked a firestorm.
The next day, not only did she stare me down, but she threw a punch and missed me and hit my best friend.
We didn’t tell anyone. Brushed it off.
I can’t remember how much time passed in between that and what I’m about to tell you, but I thought it was over. Turns out, there was a plan in motion.
It was around lunchtime on a perfectly normal day and I was standing in the hall with my boyfriend. It was quiet in the hall because most of the students were already at lunch or in their classes. I knelt down to pick up my brown bag lunch and the next thing I knew was shock and pain. I was getting kicked and hit and my hair was being pulled. Hard. I don’t know how long it went on for, but I know there were two of them, and I know when I finally was able to stand up, I threw a punch and that’s when a teacher finally showed up. I would have gotten suspended along with my attackers for “fighting back” had it not been for my dad marching in and giving the principal a talking to.
I remember going home that day and getting in the shower. I hadn’t cried at the time, but I did then. As I washed my hair, chunks came out. What got me through was going to cheerleading practice that night. The support of my friends. It’s so easy to compartmentalize when you’re 15-years-young.
I stayed the rest of that school year and then transferred out. I began my junior year of high school as a non-Catholic-public-school-kid at a tiny Catholic School in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. And when the senior girls started picking on me, I ignored it. My hair was platinum blonde at the time — I was never one to try to “fit in”. So I understood why when they started calling me Barbie. But when they took it a step further and broke into my locker and left a baby Barbie bottle, I felt adamant that I would stand up for myself and not get pushed around. I suppose my 16-year-old intuition told me these weren’t the same scary kind of bullies I’d experienced the year prior. They were pretty girls with pleated skirts. I marched up to their lunch table, put the bottle down with some loose change inside of it and a note taped to the front. And I said, “Here you go, Rory*”. She was the one I’d heard was behind the bottle. “I’ve taken up a collection for your nose job”. And I turned around and walked away.
Damn, that was cold. But it stopped the bullying. They left me alone after that (and hopefully Rory wasn’t too scarred by my comeback).
All these years later, I don’t know if I’d go back and handle it much differently because even today with the tiny four and six-year-old things my kids come home with I tell them:
1. Stand up for yourself.
2. Get help if it’s too much for you to handle.
3. If you’re in the wrong, take responsibility and make it right.
I’m certainly sensitive when it comes to standing up for yourself. Just like anything else in this world, there’s a fine balance. How do you know when to stick up for yourself versus getting help when something is out of your league? I want my kids to know that they can always come to me for advice. I encourage an open dialogue now in hopes that it will continue through their teenage years (fingers crossed).
*All names have been changed
Katie Rand provides comprehensive psychoeducational assessments to children from preschool to high school and specializes in evaluations in the following areas: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities (including Dyslexia), Autism and Aspergers, Gifted and Talented, Kindergarten Readiness, and Social-Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Contact Katie at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.edpsychkatierand.com
Q. What does bullying look like in 2017
I think that bullying can look very different, depending largely on age and gender. Boys tend to bully more overtly and more physically. Their behavior often fits with the more traditional definition of bullying, using their physical power over the victim in an attempt to gain status or control. This may include fights or physical aggression, threats of violence, or damage to a victim’s property. Girls, on the other hand, tend to engage more in relational aggression and often attack through rumors, exclusion, teasing, and insults. Since these forms of bullying are usually more secretive and subtle, girls are less likely to get caught. Age is also a major factor in what bullying may look like. During the pre-teen and teen years, electronic or cyber bullying increases significantly, as bullies are more likely to gossip about or disparage their victims online. Also during the teen years, bullying may turn to sexual harassment, which is also intended to hurt or intimidate another person in an attempt to gain power or dominance.
Q. How can a parent of a young child prepare themselves — and their child — to not be bullied, not be a bully and to report bullying?
It’s very important to start talking to your child at an early age about how to treat others, and more specifically about kindness, acceptance, and respect. Kids need to learn early on to respect and appreciate others’ differences, rather than to fear them. This will come from exposure (to different types of foods, cultures, people, etc.) and open dialogue. Also, remember that kindness and respect start at home, so a culture of accountability needs to be created within the family unit. This means that your child is accountable for how he talks to you and siblings, and how he treats his/her family members. Also, within the home, parents should teach their children problem solving skills. Studies show that children who lack problem solving skills are more at risk of becoming bullies, victims, or both. Have conversations with your children where you ask, “What happens when other kids don’t want to play the game you have chosen? What do you do? What do you do when other kids have things that you want, but they don’t want to share? How can you handle that?” Your child has to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage his/her emotions and impulses appropriately. This can occur through healthy conversations, role playing, and direct teaching.
Also, parents should talk to their children about how to respond when others aren’t being kind to them. Kids need to learn how to be assertive (without being aggressive) and to stand up for themselves and others in an appropriate and healthy way. Again, open conversations and role playing are so important. Children can practice standing tall, looking someone in the eye, and firmly saying “stop,” or “that isn’t nice,” or “I’m going to tell an adult if you do that again.” Finally, children look to adults in their lives for cues as to how to behave in certain situations. Parents can help prepare children by modeling prosocial behavior, which will teach them how to behave ethically, treat others kindly, demonstrate tolerance, act assertively, and take responsibility for our actions.
Q. It seems like a fine balance between knowing when to stand up for yourself versus seeking adult help. What’s your advice on that?
I always encourage and guide children to problem solve on their own as a first step. Often times adults want to jump in to solve their children’s problems for them. It’s important, however, to try to resist this temptation and to instead guide and empower children (as much as possible) to resolve conflicts on their own. I try to do this at home with my own children…when my kids are having a sibling squabble, I will guide them to come up with their own solutions to solve the problem and to stand up for themselves in a way that is respectful, but assertive. Unless a child’s physical safety is at risk, bullying should be handled similarly.
Empower your children. Teach them and practice appropriate ways to stand up for themselves and others. The more empowered children are and the more they can help themselves, the better chance they have to stop the bully. Keep in mind that bullies want to take away power and to make others feel scared. If children show them that they are not scared, bullies will often lose interest since they’re not able to take power away. However, if that is not the case, and the bullying continues, or if children ever feel that their physical safety is being threatened, then the bullying needs to be reported immediately to an adult.
Q. What’s your best advice for parents on open communication and anti-bullying?
Open communication with children about bullying at an early age is so important. Even if your child has had no experience with bullying (as a victim or a perpetrator), do not assume that will continue to be the case. Parents should teach their children about bullying at an early age – what it means, what it looks like, and what to do if it happens to them or if they see it happening to someone else. Children will likely need to have the concept of bullying explained to them numerous times. This way, when any kind of bullying is happening, they can identify and stop the behavior, both in themselves and when standing up to others.
Q. What are the primary reasons a child would bully and what does it look like today? (Internet, texting, violence, etc.).
The causes of bullying actually vary. While some bullies suffer from self-esteem issues, others may bully because they feel entitled. In fact, many bullies are popular kids who are trying to rule the school. Many are attempting to climb the social ladder or are bullying as a result of peer pressure. Bullying involves having power over someone. As a result, many kids who bully crave power or are looking to improve their status in school. On the other hand, some kids bully because they have been the victims of bullying or are exposed to violence or aggression in their homes. For them, bullying is a learned behavior, though they may also be attempting to regain a sense of power or control in their lives. Also, as mentioned, bullies typically haven’t been taught or shown problem solving skills and may bully to replace the social skills they should have developed in early childhood. As children go through the developmental stages, they should be finding ways to resolve conflict and get along with others. Bullies, however, use aggression to replace those skills. Their way of problem solving is through force or intimidation, which before long can become their natural response to situations where they feel socially awkward, insecure, jealous, scared, or embarrassed.
Something important to remember is that bullying involves an imbalance of power – kids that bully use their power to control or harm others. If two friends get in a fight and one says something unkind to another, this isn’t typically bullying. When bullying occurs the perpetrator almost always has more physical or social power than the victim. Also, bullying is intentional – it is a deliberate attempt to hurt another person and it typically occurs repeatedly over time.
Q. What should a parent do if they suspect bullying?
If a parent suspects that their child is being bullied, the first thing to do is to have an open conversation. Speak privately and find a quiet time when you won’t be disturbed to discuss with your child what is happening. It is important to be patient, calm, and understanding – don’t make assumptions and don’t interrupt. Reassure your child that the bullying is not their fault and praise them for confiding in you. Openly explore options and solutions together and agree on a course of action. Parents can practice and role play ways that their child can stand up for him/herself in an assertive and non-aggressive manner. However, if children are fearful or if they have already attempted to stand up to the bully, the child should be encouraged to report the incident(s) to a trusted adult within the school (teacher, principal, counselor, etc.). Parents may also need to contact the school directly. Discuss these options with your child and develop a plan together.
If parents suspect that their child is being a bully, it is again important to start by having an open conversation. Parents’ initial instinct may be to get angry, but it is important to remain calm and try to understand what happened and the role that their child played in the incident(s). If children try to blame another student, parents should be firm and reiterate that they aren’t interested in hearing about other kids. Empathy with the victim should be encouraged. Once children accept responsibility and acknowledge the pain they have caused, they should make amends for the situation – apologize, write a letter, etc. Parents should then help try to get to the root of the bullying. Often bullying results because a child is struggling to get something that he/she wants – acknowledgement, attention, control, etc. If this is the case, parents can help their children brainstorm appropriate and positive ways to meet their needs. Parents should also involve the school – parents should tell the teachers that they don’t support bullying and want to know if it occurs. Finally, parents should continue to work on being positive role models, treating others with kindness, and resolving conflict appropriately.
Q. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I know a lot of parents stayed out of their kids’ “troubles”. How is it different now and what can we learn from a more hands off parenting style in relation to bullying? (As a kid, if brought up that someone said something mean, I basically heard “they’re just jealous”). How do you advise parents to talk to their kids about being teased? When does teasing become bullying and require parent intervention?
There seems to have been a huge jump in parenting styles from the 80s/90s to today, from permissive parenting (i.e., letting kids figure it out on their own) to helicopter parenting (i.e., parents being overly involved in every aspect of their kids’ lives). I think that there needs to be a happy medium. Kids are typically not equipped and lack the social-emotional intelligence to regulate their emotions and handle these issues without adult guidance and support. However, jumping in and attempting to solve children’s problems for them is also not going to serve them well, as they will struggle to learn independent problem solving and coping skills. I instead encourage parents to problem solve with their children. Parents should guide their children to come up with solutions (parents will more than likely need to offer suggestions for suitable solutions, but children should always be part of this process!). If children are being teased, parents should find out exactly what is going on and start by validating their feelings (e.g., “That must be very hurtful. I am so sorry that she said that to you”). Parents can then guide children through the problem-solving process and help them find solutions (e.g., being assertive, choosing to play with other children, telling a teacher if it doesn’t stop, etc.). I think that teasing becomes bullying when it is occurring repeatedly, when it is intended to harm (some children may think they’re being playful and may not realize their words are hurtful), and when it has continued even after they have been told to stop.
Q. Any final thoughts?
When deciding how to handle bullying, both parents and children should trust their instincts. If it feels like bullying, it probably is and will need to be addressed. If children are not comfortable standing up for themselves, there may be a good reason for that and adult intervention will be needed.