October is bullying prevention month
It’s up to us
(*From now on I’ll be referring here to my daughter as A*.)
Regret is an emotion I try not to indulge. I can’t change the past, and I have learned from it. I make healthier decisions now about how to handle many situations than I would have 10 or 20 years ago. That said, bullying prevention month is a tough time for me. It highlights a significant failure of mine to act when action was necessary. I can’t change how bullying impacted my daughter’s mental health, but I hope talking about it will inspire others to make more informed choices than I did.
Bullying, both verbal and physical, was one precursor to my daughter’s diagnoses of severe depression. A* first reported bullying-type behavior–other kids saying mean things and hurting her feelings–in preschool. My heart broke whenever she said, “Mommy, he said I look like a boy,” or “She smashed my sandcastle,” or “He pushed me.” In response, I’d scoop her into my arms, coo apologies, and then employ distraction. As if eating a snack or watching a cartoon could resolve that type of pain. Truth was, I felt powerless. Kids bully. They always had and I figured they always would.
I knew the teachers talked to the kids about being nice, like my teachers had when I was young, and my husband’s had when he was young. Our parents told us bullying was part of growing up and a chance to develop thicker skin, like we were the problem rather than the bad behavior. When I told teachers I was bullied nothing changed. I stopped mentioning it, instead pouring my heart out to my diary. No one acts like it’s a big deal. I guessed I was overreacting. On occasion, I resorted to acting like a bully myself because that’s how cruelty works. People knew it was wrong and did it anyway. Nothing much changed by the time A* was going to school.
The summer before A* started eighth grade I made an appointment with her pediatrician. She had drastically reduced her food consumption and I was worried she wasn’t eating enough to stay healthy during puberty. I knew she wanted to fit in, but she was going to an extreme. With the doctor’s support, I was sure we could get A* back on a healthier track.
“What’s up?” the doctor asked.
A* sat on the exam table, picking at the paper covering. “Kids are mean to me. They call me names. I haven’t admitted this before, but it’s gotten physical. I don’t want that to happen anymore.”
Gotten physical? I had no idea. Why hadn’t A* said anything? Did she think I didn’t care? That I wouldn’t do anything about it? Couldn’t? All the above? Rage at the kids hurting her flooded my system, and I bit my lip, again.
The doctor patted her knee. “Bullies have the problem. Not you. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
And, that was the point, wasn’t it? For decades we’d known that the bully is the problem. Why wasn’t anyone changing the fact that the recipient gets the consequences? By anyone, I meant, mostly, me. I still felt powerless to prevent bullying, but now I knew they’d upped the ante. Shame flushed my face. I nodded agreement with the doctor, and said nothing. I was unwittingly repeating patterns of silent avoidance I’d learned long ago. It would take years of personal work to see and understand them. Nothing else was said that day about the bullying or the bullies.
We left the office, and I was relieved. As a mom, I’d done my due diligence. The doctor had assured A* she was fine, not to worry about those “other kids.” Just eat a little more and life could return to normal.
A* wasn’t fine, of course, and soon she’d be diagnosed with severe depression.
Lest I give the wrong impression, bullying was not the only or even (probably) main cause of her illness. With mental illness, there’s rarely a clear cut line to the “why.” I’ll never know what might have been different, if only. If only I hadn’t remained silent. If only I hadn’t chosen the easier course. If only I’d shown my daughter she was worth standing up for her. That is my heartache to bear.
So then: Now what? Whether it’s your kid that’s getting bullied or someone else’s, or your kid is the bully, see the guide below. I found it on the Autism Society website. It should surprise us not at all that kids with disabilities are bullied at far higher rates. I have no good excuse for why I didn’t do more to protect my child from bullying. “It’s what kids do,” has gotten kids killed. And, on the heels of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we must include bullying at the fore in the dialogue of creating safe environments for children to thrive.
You can download the attached document, by Lori Ernsperger, PhD, and print it out. The 3 R’s are:
We have a long way to go. Use the guide and the 3 R’s to help anyone who is affected by the scourge of bullying. Recognize what’s happening and respond to it. Report to the proper parties and don’t give up until concrete actions elicit change.
You’ll never have to wonder what might be different, if only. . .
Bullying Prevention: Additional Resources
The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that, nationwide, 19.5% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Article on Healthline: Anxiety, Depression & Suicide: the Lasting Effects of Bullying.
Help Children Build Resilience
The Surprising Reason Mindfulness Makes You Happier
National Bullying Prevention Center
Stomp Out Bullying
American Society for the Positive Care of Children
Oh, Tracey, my heart aches for you and your daughter for the bullying she went through and the fact that you felt helpless to make a difference. So many children and parents have been, and are, in the same situation even now. Yes, there have been strides to stomp out bullying in school, but being mean is a problem in the adult population, too. Getting the kids, parents, teachers and administrators all onboard with curtailing bullying is no easy task. And the pediatrician should have absolutely guided you to contact school personnel!
My children, 7 & 10 years older than your daughter, were both bullied at school, and for prolonged periods. My son was bullied during most of 5th grade by a former friend of his. It was verbal only, as far as I was able to tell. I spoke with the boys’ teacher, who said that because it was a he said/he said situation, she could only tell the boys to not engage with each other. That didn’t make a difference since she wasn’t with them at lunch or recess. Anyway, over time my son stopped talking about the other boy, so I eventually asked my son, “Is he leaving you alone now?”
“No,” my son answered. “I kept telling [our teacher] what [the boy] was saying, and she said, “I know, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” (The boy once told my son he should kill himself).
My daughter was also bullied by a former friend of hers. This happened throughout 7th & 8th grade. The abuse was physical. The bully would pick up my daughter and drop her on the ground. She’s throw basketballs at her. Once she pulled down my daughter’s pants in class (of course, the teacher didn’t witness it). Once she held onto my daughter’s wrist so hard that I had to take my girl to a doctor. Connective tissue had been broken. In the midst of all this, I’d talked to the vice principal several times in person, written letters to the vice principal and the superintendant to document everything. For so, so long, no adult at school could help my daughter. Eventually, the bully was watched more closely by a lunch supervisor and things tamped down.
So with both of my children, for all I did to try to help, I don’t really think my involvement made a difference. The bullies just stopped eventually when they went on to the next school (middle school in my son’s case, high school in my daughter’s). So there is a good chance that had you stepped in to help your daughter, it would have been fruitless. Some kids, including my daughter, sometimes begged me NOT to get involved. In her mind, she’d wind up looking like a “tattle-tail” and she felt that would only make things worse. Bullying is hard to stop no matter what you do.
I think the key to solving issues between two children is having both sets of parents willing to find the truth and help their children through it. That is not easy, mainly because it is so difficult for parents to accept the idea that their child is the aggressor. One day when my daughter was in middle school, I got a phone call from one of her classmates’ mother, who said my daughter was bullying hers. I told her I’d talk to my daughter and then call her back. It turned out that both girls were being mean. No physical abuse, at least. But this time, both moms were willing to investigate, find the truth and talk to their kids. Fortunately, this situation was resolved by the two girls ignoring each other from then on.
Bullying is an ongoing issue, for sure. And I’ve always felt adamant that bullies are in high need for help themselves. Their behavior is a sign that something is wrong. The ol’ “kids will be kids” adage for bullying is ridiculous.
Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking story, Sue. Yes, prolonged behavior is the earmark of bullying rather than one off events. But the one off events can take an extraordinary toll of their own. And when my daughter was older, the bullying was prolonged. I included that image on what makes a bully because I try to remember that they are kids, too, and that something must underpin their behavior. Bullies are usually bullied, and thus the cycle continues. And cyber-bullying. Where even to begin?!!! Our kids can now be bullied from far and wide..or from an entire school population within minutes. The whole thing is excruciating to think about. And you sure hit the nail on the head re: the necessity for both sets of parents to be willing to get involved. No parent wants to think that it’s their kid that’s a bully. It seems like it shouldn’t be, but it’s a complicated issue, like so many things. I hope that continued conversation helps keep it in the spotlight and communities can keep taking steps forward to eradicate the issue. Thank you, again, for sharing.
You and your daughter are not alone – I know you know that. I live with the guilt and frustration and anger of a system that let my youngest daughter down. And how sad and completely avoidable with everything else our kids have to face on a day to day basis, we cannot count on those in charge to keep them safe, physically and mentally. I’m afraid there are a lot more children bullied than anyone would want to admit.
I’m going to say something here, that I’ve only said at home – and it may put me in the crosshairs, but like you said, the me that is older and wiser all these years later stands a little taller and is unafraid to speak out. This morning I watched in horror a cell phone recording of the boy who shot classmates not aim a gun and fire, but who was being beaten mercilessly in a classroom with no adult in sight. I am not saying that he had any right to pull a gun and shoot anyone. But I find it inexcusable that he was tortured in a classroom with no one to stop his attacker. And the news skimmed right over his pain.
If any one of us walked in and saw someone beating our child the way this young man was pummeled, slammed to the floor, repeatedly punched – how would we have reacted? I guarantee you I would not have stood off to the side and yelled “stop it”. This kid was being assaulted, apparently on a regular basis. No one was doing anything to help. His thinking was beyond the norm (an interesting side thought: or was it? What is the ‘new’ normal when kids see adults screaming for their right to be armed?) to even bring a gun into school – and again, I don’t condone his reaction. But the response is understandable. He was afraid and he thought with a gun he could protect himself, because it was obvious no one else gave a damn.
The question is – Now what? What we are or not doing isn’t working. The kid doing the shooting, the kids shot- anyone who witnessed it, all the kids in the school, all the parents in a panic to get their kids from the school – have now all experienced trauma. You and I both know having a counselor come in and say anything for ten minutes isn’t enough. Having an assembly on bullying does what? Sending a letter home is lame. What do we do?
Sometimes I wonder, if my kids were still in elementary or high school would I even let them attend or home school? My gut tells me the latter. Sad but true. Thank you for posting, thank you for allowing me to speak.
Oh my god, Patty. What a heartbreaking and terrible story. Yes. Those videos have been surfacing more and more, of young students, mostly students of color, being tortured by other students or the adults charged with protecting them! To say the system is flawed is the understatement of the century. And you’re right..now what is the question on so many different fronts. Feelings of powerlessness and frustration are overwhelming. I wish I had answers. I wish anyone had answers. There’s so much work to do. Thank you for speaking your truth. We, here, bear witness to the pain and reality of what you shared.
Such a heartbreaking story, Patricia. Of course shooting the bullies isn’t the answer. But as we’ve seen, from the victim’s point of view, he or she can be in such distress and so otherwise hopeless that using a gun may be the only response that seems to make sense. It’s a travesty that adults haven’t been able fix this problem for our children. There are so many problems in our world, and life has gotten so complicated. Kids having access to guns in the US is a big part of the problem.