When my daughter Kendra was in the second grade, she came home daily complaining about a little boy in her class that was mean to her. I just listened and did not offer much feedback until one day she told me the boy broke a chair over her back. I was infuriated! However, I knew that my anger was not going to stop this boy. Instead, I asked Kendra to tell me why she thought this young man was so angry. She said she did not know. I began to ask her questions about his life. Soon she was able to put the pieces together. The young man's parents had recently gotten divorced. He switched homes every few days and Kendra was a happy kid with a stable home. This young man envied what she had. I noticed that the conversation between Kendra and I had helped her no longer feel powerless and frustrated.
In fact, I did not anticipate what she did next.
The next day when I picked her up from school she told me she stood up to this boy and he started crying. I was a little nervous at this point. What exactly did she do?
She told me she looked him right in the eye and said “I know why you are so angry. You're tired of going back and forth between homes and you hate it that your parents got divorced, but guess what? I am not the one who has hurt you and you can no longer take your anger out on me.”
That was it.
The boy never bothered her again.
Let me tell you about a kid named Jeff. Jeff was a middle schooler. He was thought of to be a bright young man who enjoyed reading, math, and science. He spent his days on the computer researching how to invent toys and change the world. He was considered by many to be a geek and relentlessly picked on because he did not fit the status quo. Jeff began to hate going to school. He was told to just ignore the bully. That did not work. The bullies just increased their intensity in an effort to get a reaction and Jeff became increasingly more depressed and suicidal.
Jeff would be:
- Pushed into lockers.
- His stuff would be stolen.
- He would be relentlessly poked.
- Made fun of.
- And humiliated in front of peers.
Jeff would report the bullies, but soon the school got tired of Jeff being picked on so they advised him to just suck it up and ignore. He became increasingly angry and the thoughts of ending his life became so predominant that he could no longer focus on living but only on dying.
If he died, his after life would provide no more suffering, pain or heartache. His daily suffering would be over. As a therapist, Jeff’s story breaks my heart. I wonder why, as a society, we fear conflict so much? What are we afraid? Why do schools push the idea of “Ignore the bully”?
Jeff saw a mental health professional who taught him that bullies hated confidence and that it was ok to stand up for himself. He soon, with much fear and trembling did it!
One day Jeff was playing ball with friends in the school parking lot when the bully approached him and started making fun of he and his friend. Jeff became so angry that he told the bully “I will not tolerate you treating us like this anymore, you need to go pick on kids your own size.” The boy walked away and never said another word. Jeff told his therapist that he was angry because he had no idea that's all it took. He felt frustrated that he had endured years of bullying when all it took to stop it was confronting the bully.
Be persistent. Bullying may not end overnight. Commit to making it stop and consistently support the bullied child.
Avoid these mistakes:
- Never tell the child to ignore the bullying.
- Do not blame the child for being bullied. Even if he or she provoked the bullying, no one deserves to be bullied.
- Do not tell the child to physically fight back against the kid who is bullying. It could get the child hurt, suspended, or expelled.
- Parents should resist the urge to contact the other parents involved. It may make matters worse. School or other officials can act as mediators between parents.
Follow-up. Show a commitment to making bullying stop. Because bullying is behavior that repeats or has the potential to be repeated, it takes consistent effort to ensure that it stops.
So why does ignoring a bully not work?
Bullies are in a fight for control and power. They often prey on those who they believe is inferior or powerless, but this is not always the case, sometimes they are simply threatened by a stronger, confident person, and choose to make it their life mission to tear them down.
Bullies are bullies because they have their own story of brokenness.
For a kid like Jeff, it is imperative that he learns all about his bullies in order to stop the bullying.
He should ask questions to himself like:
Why am I the target of bullying?
What about me triggers the bully?
Do I remind him of his dad? Was the bully once a target of bullying?
What is going on in the bullies’ personal life that has caused he or she to act and behave the way they do?
When Kendra confronted the bully she robbed him of power and control and sent a message loud and clear that she would not tolerate it. To this day, 8 years later, this kid does not bother her. Bullies have their own story of pain and brokenness, and understanding those stories bring insight to those who are bullied. A bully needs professional help and should be referred to a professional. In the mean time if your child is being bullied you should teach them about emotions, how to handle conflict appropriately and how to fight back with their wit and self-confidence.