Photo by Matija Barrett
I am tired of hearing about children dying. I am tired of hearing trite, easy solutions. I am tired of seeing nothing constructive being done….
The main problem with bullies is that they operate under the radar. They are not the guy who punches you in the face and beats you in a fair fight. Nor are they the girl who is mad at you one day, and best friends the next. This is normal childhood behavior, and while it sucks, it is not what drives children to suicide. Bullying is a whole lot more…
Bullying occurs when a small group of kids develop a pack behavior. There is usually a leader, but he/she always has back-up, and the children not involved with the pack know to steer clear and allow whatever they are doing to go uninterrupted. Leaving and pretending not to notice is what the ‘good’ kids do, and who can blame them? This pack knows how to make a person’s life miserable in ways that are difficult to define and report. They also know how to suck up to the teachers and other people in authority. Bullies are rarely the ‘bad’ kids. No, they are the ‘popular’ kids. The ones teachers like, and other children want to have as their friends, not because they are so nice, but because not being liked by them makes you ‘left out.’
A true bully cannot be overcome by beating him in a fight, or finding a way to become her friend. If you do embarrass a bully, they will enlist help and tomorrow, and the next day and the next, you will pay. There is no way to defend yourself against a bully. True bullies do not ever allow themselves to be that vulnerable. Here are some of the things that bullies do:
They make their target feel ‘special.’ They treat them as if they are popular, or wonderful, and when they believe the target has relaxed and bought into it, they pull the rug out from under them. Bullies will go so far as to elect a person homecoming queen, or have a guy ask her to the prom. The girl has no choice but to buy the nice dress, and go through the motions, hoping it may be true. Then, at the last minute, the bullies will do something to let her know that this kind of honor could never really be hers and that she was a fool for thinking it would. Because of this the victim will grow to never trust anyone being nice to them. When they do have a good time with friendly people, they will go home and cry. Why? Because they want it to be real, can’t trust that it is, and don’t want it to go away. Socially awkward kids crave acceptance too.
Bullies pick on things the child cannot change, and things that are very personal. They know when people are watching, and choose their moments. Bullies love bathrooms, where a person feels most vulnerable. Many victims learn to hold their bladders until they get home. This is extremely tough on a girl with her period…
Bullies make it seem like everyone feels the same way they do. They set up scenarios that seemingly prove this. One group sent a blank sheet of paper around a class, claiming it was an attendance sheet. (Since the teacher had never taken attendance this way, everyone knew it was a set-up, but no one had the guts to not sign it.) After everyone had signed the sheet, they added a nasty paragraph to the top explaining that everyone who had signed did not like the person for the various cruel reasons listed. Bullies often enlist teachers too, using the schools rules to claim the victim was cheating, or cutting class when it was the bullies who somehow caused them to be detained etc.
Victims of bullying often develop ways of coping. One of my friends remembers a child who carried celery in his shirt pocket, neatly cut up, like a row of pens. Whether the child realizes it, or not, this is a self-preservation technique. If the children pick on him it is now not because they hate him, but because of the celery. The solution is not to get rid of the celery. In fact, getting rid of the celery will make it worse because the child will still be picked on, but now it is personal again.
Our old pediatrician had an interesting thought about acutane, the wonderful acne medication that sometimes leads to suicide. His theory was that the child with severe acne assumes that, when the acne disappears, they will no longer be picked on in school. As the acne resolves, and they continue to be a target, they become depressed, and end their life.
Why do people become the target? Typically it is because they are socially awkward. They may have acne, birthmarks, or just a high, or low IQ that keeps them from fitting in with their peers. It is not their social lack of ability that is the problem. Most people can find ways of liking and accepting them of given time. It is their isolation that makes them the perfect target. The wolves never go for the animal in the middle of the herd, no matter how defenseless the herd is; they always wait for an animal to be alone.
So what can we do?
As adults we can recognize the behavior of bullies for what it is, and actually do something about it. Punishing the bully directly will only make it worse. What needs to be done is to take away the bullies’ power. To do this, when you find the ‘attendance sheet’ with all of the names on it, you must make it public, and embarrassing for the ‘good kids’ so that it becomes less likely for it to happen again. But do it when the victim is not available, or you are just increasing their humiliation. Adults must also stop getting sucked into catering to the bullies. They are not your best friend, nor do they think you are the coolest teacher ever. These are ploys that allow them to do whatever they want without consequences. Don’t fall for them.
Since bullying is so far under the radar you will never totally eradicate it. But you can do things to help the victim. Gifted classes, special interest clubs etc where small groups of social misfits can find that niche where they feel accepted and loved help. But know that the bullies will show up. They will feign an interest in an attempt to destroy the club. This is what typically happens:
A group of socially awkward kids begin to enjoy an activity, like the school newspaper. It is a small group, and the teacher in charge would really like to see it grow. The popular kids show up. The teacher is ecstatic that they are showing an interest in something he/she loves. But on some level the teacher knows that they are not there to work, so she cuts them some slack. They are not held accountable for the things she assigns, and she gives them the best assignments that everyone who has been loyal to the paper wants. The children who loved working on the paper now hate it. Why? Because they are doing more work, since they have to make up for the things the popular kids are doing poorly, or not doing at all, leaving what used to be an easy task as a rush job to be done at the last minute. They are also not getting to do the things they really love, since these perks go to the kids the teacher is trying to bribe into staying. The original children are also getting picked on in a place that used to be a sanctuary. Not that the teacher would notice. First, bullies are always careful, and if they do get caught they are gifted at twisting the facts to make it look like they were not doing anything wrong, at least not knowingly. And second, the teacher is so motivated to get these children to stay that they ignore obvious problem behaviors. (Knowing a person may leave makes people chase after and cater to them.) Further, the bullies usually have a favorite teacher or two they can complain to that will talk to the teacher in charge and ‘fix’ things for them.
So how do we do things differently? We treat the popular kids the same as everyone else. When they show up they are required to learn, and are held accountable for the work assigned. They do not get breaks. We also make it so that the children who have been loyal, hardworking and ‘good’ feel that they can come to us with complaints. We then take their complaints seriously, and do something about them. If the paper needs to be late, who cares? We never, ever make a conscientious child pay for the laziness of another, and we let it be known, as a fact, kindly, not meanly, that by not doing what they are assigned the bully is the problem, but help is available if they need it- by the teacher. Never, ever force the victim to help the bully. This only gives the bully the opportunity to make things worse and traps the victim by placing him in a situation he does not feel he can get out of.
We also show love to the victim. Real love. Find ways to support what the victim likes, or teach the victim things they do not know, like how to dress, do their hair, put on make-up etc. But, do not expect the victim to do these things on a regular basis. A plain girl, when she suddenly looks beautiful will be bullied more than if she had not done anything, but these skills will help her in the future, when she is in a new situation and no one knows her yet, to not look like the type of person the bullies seek to destroy. (I called make-up my ‘war paint’ and put it on mainly when I knew I would be in a situation I felt forced to ‘do battle’ in. I grew out of the ugly duck stage and into a swan, and then back to an ugly duck- but at 43 that is more acceptable…)
Do not trivialize bullying. Do not ignore it. You will never catch everything a bully does, nor stop it entirely, so support the victim. If the victim is so socially awkward that you cannot honestly love them, then find people who can. No child should be made to feel so unloved that they cry when someone is nice to them, or kill themselves because no one seemed to care.