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