Thoughts on Bullying

I was recently asked by a parent what they should do when their child feels they are being bullied. I teach middle and high school. I deal with kids who make bad choices regularly. A major aspect of my job is counselling them on ways to correct that behavior, or how to protect themselves from it in the future. I was also ruthlessly picked on and bullied during that period of my life, so I am glad a friend asked me answer this question. Since I learned how to deal with my bullies, I feel I have become a much healthier and happier person based on that life changing, and perhaps life saving, choice. I know that the experience of being bullied is anything but “character building” and has been shown in the answers to What are the long term effects of being a victim of bullying?, one of which being my own. Having said all that, I assume you love your child enough to read, because I have a lot to say on the matter.

1) Open a Dialogue.

The first thing that I think I would want as a parent is an understanding of the child’s situation. Information can open your eyes to depths of the problem as well as make it obvious what actions need to be taken. You know that your child feels that they are being bullied. What is this bullying like? Perhaps it isn’t as severe as you might have feared. Perhaps your child simply hasn’t learned the appropriate thing to say or do in a certain social situation and is getting negative reenforcement for that behavior from his peers. That isn’t bullying, but it still feels really bad. Those problems are normally easily corrected when an adult gives the child new options they haven’t yet considered or independently invented to solve that social problem. Remember that all situations a child will face have happened before; the question is, do they have the experience to handle it in a productive way?

Mentoring children is a lost artform. We, at least we in America, have the false belief that children should learn everything “out in the real world”. That may be how our parents raised us, but it may not be right. Speaking with your children in a setting about possible events that are bound to happen, before they happen lets them know what to prepare for. It lets them ask questions and allows you to impart wisdom before mistakes are made. Conveying new tactics to handle a particular situation will gift your child new routes to solve it when and if it comes.

Simply assuming this is your child’s fault, though, is obviously not always the case. I faced many situations growing up where I had absolutely no control over the actions of my aggressors. Perhaps it’s more than what is tolerable or what a normal child should be expected to be capable of addressing. You personally need to address it with faculty immediately, in that case. The point is, you don’t know if you don’t have open communication about it.

The second thing to consider about this is that this type of open communication between child and parent is going to get harder and harder as your child grows up. This distancing is natural and necessary. The early, formative years of a child’s development are meant for you to groom them and train them on all the social signals that they should be acting on. When they are very young you are teaching them how to take care of themselves and how to be social with others. As they age, be it by you or outside influences, they have learned most of the social signals and are more and more set in their ways in how they will respond to them. They are going to start trying to assert their independence from you at that point and attempt to find their own way. This is generally a good thing and necessary to being an adult, but in this case, it can be dangerous as it limits your information and therefore limiting the influence you have to help them deal their problems. My advice, if you have a child who is very young, ensure that communication between each other stays an important role in your family. If they are older, middle school aged or above, it will be very hard to build that communication.

1) a) Communicate with Educators Next, you have to ensure you have communication with the educators. As a teacher and as the husband of a teacher, I can tell you that most parents don’t have a relationship with their children’s education and the faculty. From the teachers’ perspective, many parents aren’t that invested in their child’s future. Don’t act shocked. It’s true. Seeing one who is, is refreshing. It lets teachers feel like they have support and will work hard to give you support as well… if you communicate to them. Keeping an open dialogue with your child’s school, the place where 95% of his social interactions take place, is a valuable way of knowing what the problem is and how best to handle it. It also lets your teachers know that there may be a problem, as well. Remember that to you, your child is special. To your child’s teacher, all sixty of their children are special, even the bullies. They know things you don’t, but also, could never know everything you think is important about your child. Be fair in your judgement of them and they will be fair in how they deal with you.

2) Don’t say him/her.

Your child is a boy. Boys, i.e. less than fully matured men, don’t respect nor show respect towards political correctness amongst themselves. Social dynamics with youth, at least in the United States, is very polarized between genders, though perhaps less so than past generations. That said, younger children are still socially simplified enough that they will be judging themselves based on their ability to fulfill what few gender roles exists at their age. Just as importantly, others are going to be judging them on their ability to showcase that ideal, as well. At most points while still in school, that still means the top boy is athletic, handsome and authoritarian, the top girl is still pretty and social. Intelligence is a bonus, but not necessary. Welcome to the real world. Anyone who fails to fit well enough into these roles will still face ostracism as there are relatively few other roles which they can adapt to, especially before they reach high school.

Others may want to say that this is morally wrong and I am sure that on some level, it is. You may want to fight this mentality. Go ahead, but unless you want to volunteer your child for a crusade against every form of social injustice that exists, I wouldn’t advise it. If you do, you would be bringing down upon him a level of unrestrained social martyrdom he doubtfully would want. Simply enough, if you are concerned about bullying, you are going to need to help him adapt to the social roles available in his culture. You need to raise your son with that thinking in mind because this situation is very different depending on the gender. Boys pick on boys in very different ways than girls pick on girls. Solving this problem with an ambiguous solution set will only make it worse.

3) Address the Social Causes of Your Child’s Bullying

You mentioned that your boy is red haired and fair skinned and asked if this is relevant. It isn’t. Those are just the things that distinguish your child from the others. The hard thing that you need to hear is that the others, the bullies, aren’t targeting your child because they have a problem with these identifiers. They have labelled these identifiers as weak or inferior because of how they view your child. For whatever reason, they have pooled your child as weak or inferior and are attaching labels, such as creating pejorative names based on some physical attribute, to justify that.

To make my point, I’d like to cite a project done by another teacher by the name of Jane Elliott. It is actually a project meant to showcase and teach children about prejudice, but is also a fascinating study on child psychology. In the lesson, which goes on for a few days, she divides her class into two groups, Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes. One day she treats the Brown Eyes with great amounts of disdain because of their inferiorities and uses the evidence to showthe Blue Eyes how they are better. The effect it has on the third graders is remarkable. By the end of the day, both groups have shown that they fully embraced the roles, one Blue child saying he felt good, like he was the “king” of the Browns and the others adapting to the role of the lessers. One student (a Blue) even went on to berate others in the class, resulting in a violent alteration with one of the Browns. Most remarkable, test scores even predicted which group a student was in after the lesson started. Remember, this is due to labels they had been assigned only hours before. On the second day the roles were reversed and the results were fascinating.

While this documentary is on prejudice, I see also the extreme nature in which children will attach perceived failures of character or social standing to physical attributes. The fact that your boy has red hair doesn’t matter. Some bully who doesn’t like your son, or is just a jerk in general, looked around and saw the one thing (at the moment) that appeared to differentiate your child from all those the bully wasn’t targeting. In this case, it could be red hair. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this will be true in the future. He might wind up in a group where everyone has red hair, but he is the one with a green shirt. As Mrs. Elliott’s experiment shows, other kids will accept the perceived failures once the theory is presented by an authority figure, i.e. the big kids, the older kids, the popular kids, the scary kids. It is easy to prove that a person is a failure, based on any example you like, as Mrs. Elliott’s work has shown. Given enough time, an arbitrary characteristic will become a stereotype. Given enough time, your child will learn to hate his hair color because he thinks it makes him stupid.

Having said that, let’s assume that your child’s red hair doesn’t have much to do with the other children making fun of him for being red headed. What then is causing their behavior? As I said before, what I would suspect, knowing nothing other than what I understand about bullies, is that bullies target those who they view as weak. These are children who don’t readily fit into the cultural ideal model, those who don’t have strong social networks among peers, those who are awkward and don’t quite know how to handle a situation correctly. Another situation I have seen is when a child succeeds greatly in one avenue, like academics or in favor by teachers, a bully will attempt to knock them down a few pegs by targeting insecurities and attempting to isolate them socially. This is actually a reaction on account of the bully’s own insecurities and their attempts to mitigate the social inequity. I think, in all honesty, if your child is being bullied, one of these scenarios is playing out. For me, it was all of them.

When I was young, I was overweight, nerdy, very bright, and socially inept. I was desperate for friendship so I tolerated far more than I should have. I was target practice for the Art of Bullying. So believe me when I say that I don’t want you to feel as if I am blaming the victim in this situation. I know more about how it feels than anyone. I also know that justice in these situations is rare. The cold, hard, bitter and unfair fact is that to solve this situation, your child is the one who is going to have to adapt, because the bully will never do so for him. They can’t be made to. They can’t be reasoned with. Your child is going to have to change some of his behaviors to avoid their attention. The reason I say that the victim must try to adapt isn’t because they are failures. It is because you can control the way you react to situations; you can’t control the way that others act.

3) a) Find new hobbies
One of the hardest things about fitting in when you’re young is that you just don’t know what you are in to. If your child is giving you signals that he may be feeling ostracized, maybe you should try to expand his interests. Even better, try to feed the interests in other activities he has, but that he doesn’t have an outlet for. These need to be activities that will force him to socialize face-to-face with other people. (Online video games don’t fit this description. It doesn’t matter what he tells you; they don’t. Once again, personal experience. Those are black holes and antisocial behavior.)

Is he interested in Anime? Take him to an anime convention. Does he like music? Get him lessons. Is your kid a giant nerd? Introduce him to Dungeons and Dragons. I wish, so badly that my town had a group of people who played Dungeons and Dragons. I would have been so into that if it was available. Sadly, my town didn’t have a strong nerd community and we were all isolated from meeting one another. Had such a thing existed, I could have associated with people who were more like me. I could have been happier doing things I wanted to do, rather than things others wanted to do that I hated, anyway. Had I had that chance, I would have been happily invested in my activities. If that had happened, I probably would have grown much more in my social abilities, rather than always feeling like the social outcast.

3) b) Find new friends
This was another one of my problems. I wanted to be friends with the wrong people. My town was very small. There weren’t a lot of options. I was pretty much stuck with the people who I shared a crib with in diapers until we graduated. What I didn’t truly accept, was that I had the ability to find a different group of people whom I would have rather spent my time being with. The truth is, my so called friends, probably would have wanted me more if I did leave them.

Oliver Emberton explores this phenomenon marvelously in his answer to Why is “neediness” such a repulsive characteristic? He correctly states, as verified by other studies, that many of our own perceptions of self worth are based on how badly others seem to need us. When they see many people wanting to spend time with them, they feel they are of high social value. When someone sees that I want to spend time with them, but then they see no one wants to spend time with me, that is a sign that I have little social value. When they see that I will accept their negative treatment because I need them still, they see me as extremely needy, which is detestable. The more you try to make others be your friend, paradoxically, the more you become a pariah. Turning the tables, when I decide to leave my social group for greener pastures, it sends the signal that I have found something better and that my old friends are less desirable, maybe even, that I feel I am of higher value. This has the effect of making them want to be around me more. It doesn’t mean they will roll out the red carpet or wash my car, but it is something to think about.

In pointing your son towards new friends who your son actually enjoys spending time with, see 3) a), you give him options to choose and prune his groups of friends. When you’re lucky, this can have the effect of isolating out the bad elements and making all those who once looked down on him for neediness feel compelled to see him more, if for no other reason, than because he asserted to them that he has value and that they are expendable too.

4) Observe a Continuum of Force.

I served in the Marines and when we deployed to places like Iraq or Afghanistan we had was known as the “continuum of force.” This was part of our rules of engagement and basically translates that when a potential aggressor is taking an action, such as driving too fast toward your guard shack, you take an increased defensive posture, such as attempting more and more vigorously to communicate to them to slow down until you are sure they are a threat. As the vehicle drew closer, you became more aggressive in how you dealt with it. When I joined the Marines I realized that this mirrored the system I was raised with.

For you as the parent, you have to try to classify many different actions which your child might face, grouping them according to severity. In this example, a kid walking up and saying, “Hi Buttface.” shouldn’t be solved the same way that being threatened with a knife would. Each one of these groupings of offenses your child might face can have one simple solution, i.e. tell the teacher, but telling the teacher every time will bring its own very negative social consequences. I can’t tell you how to categorize all these problems, but it is something you have to think about and address them according to your own family’s values. For me growing up, the continuum was rather simple. 1) Ignore the offense/ignore the offender > 2) Tell the person to stop > 3) Tell an adult > 4) Take self defensive actions as necessary.

4) a) Time is a consideration in this. Sometimes, (often) your child will be picked on when there is no adult around. Bullies are smart. They will attempt to isolate victims. You need to teach them to have the judgement to know when a step must be skipped and support him when he makes a judgement call as well as supportively correct him when he could have made a better one.

4) b) You’ll note, if you were reading carefully, that I said that defensive action should be taken when necessary. For me, that sometimes meant violence. Most people would never advocate violence, ever, especially teachers. I, however, know that there are times when it is needed if one is capable of grasping the consequences.

I had one completely unrestrained bully. He ruthlessly picked on me for the better part of a year. He was a year older and had a good fifty pounds on me. I wasn’t actually afraid of this, though. I had martial arts experience and had won several state championships for it. Because of that, however, I was told that if I were to ever get into a fight, I better never throw the first punch. The rule was designed to ensure that I, with my advanced fighting skills, did not become a bully. Ironic isn’t it? I was functioning under rules and a moral structure that was working against me, causing nothing other than unintended consequences.

I was a very quiet child who didn’t need the rule to be passive in most things, but it existed anyway. It wasn’t until after a full year that my mother saw my ongoing depression and forced me to open up (remember point 1 -Opening a Dialogue) that she realised the dilemma I was in. She told me to beat the kid up. It was remarkable to be given that advice. She told me that day, that a man can make any decision he wants, so long as he is willing to pay the consequences. For me, that would probably mean getting suspended and being grounded. Oddly enough, this was exactly what was needed. I go into that story in great detail here: Jon Davis’ answer to What is it like being bullied in school? I advise it for anyone who has had problems dealing with bullies. Please read it before casting judgement on my belief that violence is sometimes necessary. I count that day as the first of three days that defined the man I would become.

One lesson the experience taught me was the truth behind the axiom that a bullies don’t like the taste of their own medicine. They selectively target and prey on the weak. They target the weak because it makes them feel strong. It is empowering to them to see the power they hold over others. When they see that their power is threatened by their source of it, they don’t usually keeping fighting it. They target individuals because they are weak, so once a person stands up, the bully can’t resolve this. More often than not, they will seek out a new target, one which doesn’t challenge their authority. That challenge weakens their own standing, and they know it, so they always gravitate towards the kid who will provide them the greatest satisfaction, i.e. the weakest threat.

As I said, most people would never advocate defending yourself in the way I did. Most people, even experts, have never known what truly being bullied feels like. This whole bullying problem is still something that is theoretical, clinical, something to study. More often than not, they would never tell you something they might feel liable for down the road. Advocating self defence, even pre-emptive self defense in my case, is one of those things good psychologists would never say. If you don’t want to keep that option available to your family, it’s understandable, but know that choice is limiting the power they have. Someone with the knowledge of when to use violence, the morality to know when it is right, and the self control to stop when they no longer need to fight, is not a violent person. They are a force for good.

5) You Can’t Solve this Problem for Him

As I have said before, bullying is an attack on someone for their perceived weaknesses. If a person wants to overcome being bullied, not only today’s bully, but those he will face throughout life, they have to learn to do so on their own. That means without you. Independence is the greatest show of strength and a person who is confident enough to tackle problems without their parents holding their hand is someone who others will view as capable.

You should view your role in this as a mentor. Generally, by the time “bullying” starts, children are not really children anymore. They have reached that six to eight year limbo between child and adulthood where they need to learn how to think for themselves. They are old enough to place their own band aids and they know that if they don’t study they will fail the test. Your job as the nurturer is waning and if it doesn’t transition with their progression into adulthood, you will fail them.

That’s why this answer was structured so that you are the one who is giving advice, showing new options, and opening new doors. You aren’t the one who must walk through those doors. You aren’t the one who must grow. You are the adult. You are the one who has had the experiences. You are the one who is teaching them how to handle situations which they haven’t yet faced. You can’t fight their bullies and you can’t yell at their teachers until they spend their whole career circling your child, protecting them from the bad things when you aren’t around. That definitely won’t help with the ostracism. The only solution, assuming you don’t actually think your child is in literal danger, is to prepare them for the situations they may face in the future. Then you get out of the way, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and cheer them on either way.

Thanks for reading!

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