Bullying ~ Guest Blog by Marsha Graham
Words hurt. The childhood rhyme sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me is wrong.
In my career as a child protection worker I learned the most devastating abuse was emotional. Emotional abuse occurs in a variety of ways. Generally, with words and either inappropriate inclusion or exclusion. Sometimes with gestures meant as threats of violence. Emotional abuse occurs in all types of neglect and abuse. It is the most difficult problem to treat. A bone heals. A bruise fades. The emotional trauma is often there for life.
Today the media makes it appear as if bullying is the new epidemic. It’s not. It is as old as mankind. We are the brainiest primates and primates bully. Chickens have a pecking order. Humans have better brains than chickens, therefore we can think past primitive urges if we learn how. Bullying is equal opportunity for genders and ages. Little tiny kids bully and there are bullies in nursing homes.
We now have social media. It’s a boon for many people. The deaf, blind, and shut-ins have had their lives enhanced by ease of communication. There are many benefits to both individuals and societies.
There are also serious drawbacks. When you are three and your cousin Bobby calls you a poo-poo head, the insult stays local. When you’re thirteen and a text goes out to a hundred people that you’re a slut, this is not a local problem. There is the reality of a firestorm of Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Kik posts. People kill other people or kill themselves as a result of social media bullying.
My brother had to deal with bullies in high school in the 1950’s. I dealt with them in the 1960’s. There were 89 people in my high school class and it was rife with classism, elitism, and bullying. Not a lot has changed except for the intensity of the problem. The kid at the bottom of the pile had psychomotor epilepsy. I was his only friend. Kids have always been brutal.
Someone said, “We need an army to fight this,” to which I replied “There is no army. We are the army.” It’s us. Look in the mirror.
I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who has not, at one time or the other, been bullied. We can decide it is normal and people need to deal with it on their own. Don’t you think if they could have, they would have already? Or we can be a part of the opposition.
There is an old Nigerian saying: It takes a whole village to raise a child. Unfortunately, society is changing. Culture and technology have outstripped our ability to adapt. Rarely are communities stable with extended family support, not to mention that not all families are functional. Then there is the issue of proximity. The average American moves about 12 times in a lifetime. You cannot maintain either an army or a village with that sort of flux.
This leads to the only permanent relationship in a child’s life. Parents. There is no substitute for involved parenting.
I had the good fortune to live in a multi-generational home with my eldest granddaughter until she was seven. I enriched and enhanced her life, as she did mine, but the rubber met the road with her mother. It comes down to priorities and support systems. My teen-parent daughter focused on a teen parenting support group, her own education, and her daughter. We were fortunate to have a little village where needs were met and a small, dedicated army to protect the young mother and daughter.
One of the most important aspects of parenting is communication. It isn’t easy to tell when your child is being bullied. Not at home. Not at school. Not in the neighborhood. Bullies are chameleons. They flip charm with aggression in a heartbeat. They are great gaslighters. Gaslighting is when a victimizer makes the victim think they are losing their minds and cannot trust their own senses. It is an insidious abuse. Bullies are also great at bullying until the other person reacts and then playing the victim. The bully gets away with bullying; the victim is punished. The victim loses twice.
A watchful, connected parent who invests time in their child is required. Never assume your child will tell you that something is wrong. Bonnie is not going to say, “Mommy, Cathy bullied me today.” Encourage them to chat about their day and listen closely. There are no bad or wrong answers. Everything is a clue to the mystery of your child’s life.
Are they talking about drama at school? Are people “messing” with them? Are their friendships stable? Have they recently lost all or some of their friends? Do they come home sad? Are they moody after getting a text or being online? Do they resist going to school in the morning? Do they verbally blame themselves for things? Remember, bullying is embarrassing and they may feel that they failed by not being able to handle it themselves.
We sometimes think that regular family meals or play times will do the trick. The act of sitting down to eat, watch TV, or even go to a game is simply shared breathing space. Communication requires actual work on the part of the parent. I remember being bone tired and yet my day was not done until my daughter was asleep. She used to get irritated with me and yell, “Stop social working me, Mom!” I remember her friends saying, “Don’t complain. I wish I had your mother.” I was not close to being a perfect parent; I was merely involved up to my eyebrows.
Things we need to watch for in our children that are non-verbal include everything from unexplained physical injuries to complaints about headaches, stomachaches, or general malaise. Kids act out issues concerning bullying by overeating, undereating, or being excessively hungry from having their food stolen at school. They may have nightmares. Your child could develop academic problems. Or they may say they lost a treasured item – when it was actually stolen. They may have their things torn or damaged and say it was an accident. One incident is an oopsy. The second incident is an eye-opener. The third is not a coincidence.
So what do we do when there is bullying? Parents must involve the child as much as possible because decision making empowers them. Don’t bother calling the other child’s parents. That’s going to lead to an argument, defensiveness, and possibly escalate the situation. Gather facts. Once the facts are gathered it is time to involve the school administration.
Create your argument from your facts and present a reasoned case. Document. I can’t emphasize that enough. I’m a firm believer in hard copy letters with a return receipt requested that goes into a file. It shows you are serious and have a paper trail.
Never assume the school will handle it. Even the best intentions get swallowed up by the hubbub of a busy school. It is just children being children, they think. It will blow over.
Follow up. In person. By phone. By email. By hard-copy letter. Talk to your child. Verify that nothing is worse. Bullying often gets worse before it gets better. If the bully is being watched the bully sometimes has compatriots do more bullying for them. Prepare yourself and your child to act if things escalate.
Talk to an educational law attorney and find out what your rights are as a parent if you feel discounted by the school administration. Knowledge is powerful even if you never use it. Certainly talk with an attorney if there is another problem with bullying.
Here is where it gets time intensive. Be proactive. Get involved with the PTA. Go to school board meetings. Get to know the members of the school board. Talk to them about the problem of bullying in the school. Get to know your child’s teachers, the principal, the school nurse, and anyone else who is involved with your child. Listen. There is always more than one side to the story. Even if it is not flattering to your child, it is all grist for the mill. Be realistic about your own child – mine was never an angel and I’m certainly not. Volunteer in the classroom even if you have to take a day off of work to do it. Be highly visible. This may embarrass your child to which I say, “Too bad.” If they could have handled it alone they would have done so already. This is not a two-week project. This is for the rest of that school project.
Some children respond very well to Judo or Karate classes. A good martial arts instructor advises to stay focused on personal safety, having a plan, and remaining calm, as well as how to avoid danger. A child doesn’t need a black belt to start to feel better about themselves. They’ll gain confidence and new friends at the dojo.
My physically disabled daughter took about a year of karate. She learned observational skills, how to avoid danger, how to get away from danger, and how to be more self-assured. Sometimes your child will talk to the martial arts instructor about bullying before they will talk to you. Because Sensei has answers to aggression. Neat trick, eh? New ally.
If your child continues to have emotional problems from being bullied, finding a therapist for your child may be in order. Therapists know how to build self-esteem from shattered egos and help children become more resilient. It’s mental judo rather than physical judo.
It is easy to want revenge or justice. Such thinking is natural and perpetuates the situation. You want just two things:
1 – stop the bullying.
2 – make sure it does not happen again.
As an attorney I insisted that a school separate my granddaughter and the bully who hit her with a desk. I insisted this happen for the entire spring semester. No classes in the same room, not even the same path through the school. The school said it was impossible. It was a small school. I insisted. Compliance or war in the courts. They found a way. It was not about retribution. It was about safety. The next year the other girl was no longer combative. Separation changed the dynamic. Sometimes it is just that simple and just that difficult. If I had not threatened a lawsuit I doubt the school would have done it.
Bullying is complex. There are no simple answers. It is prevalent in all human society from preschools to nursing home residents. Bullying is damaging to the person on the receiving end, and the person doing the bullying. Kids can’t fix it on their own. It can get worse before it gets better. This is why your child always must be involved in any solution. If there is no free flow of information you could have a child run away, self-harm, be killed, or kill themselves.
Some parents remove their children from schools and home school. Some parents change schools. There is no perfect answer. There is only stopping the bullying and preventing it from happening again. Never give up. Your child is worth it.
About the author:
Marsha Graham attended university in Australia, lived in Mexico, worked in Idaho and Alaska as a social worker, and been a member of the legal bar in Massachusetts. She now resides in Tyler, Texas where she is a member of the East Texas Writers Guild. She has a legal workbook published by Wolters-Kluwer and writes in a variety of fields. The first chapter of her memoir And Then I Fell Down won second place in the international First Chapter contest. We are all anxious to reed more. Her second language is American Sign Language. She is an avid photoblogger at iPhone Photoblogging , writes the Dog Mommy Blog, and loves spending time with her dog and foster dogs. To send her an e-mail, click here.
Thank you, Marsha for this wonderful article. The breakdown of the family unit, a more transient society, and desensitization of violence by media, computer, video, and even the news, has all worked together, in my personal opinion, to cause rise in frequency and cruelty. Although there have always been bullies and there has been a fairly steady ebb and flow in the number of teen suicides, I believe that the reasons they are taking their lives has changed, and bullying is a significant factor. Cyber bullying brings it into our homes where our children should feel safe. I encourage families to have family dinners and recreational activities together; however if we aren’t vigilant in observing our children and communicating with them, it’s not going to do the trick.
This responsibility does fall primarily on the parent; however, parents cannot always be present, and in some cases, a parent is the abuser. So soak in this information Marsha has shared and research for more tips and suggestions for protecting your child from bullies. Create a small army of people of good character to help love, teach, and protect your children: family, church family, teachers, friends. Will all this keep your child from being bullied? No. But the odds of your child growing into a strong, confident adult increases significantly.
How grateful I am for people like Marsha in the community who are unafraid to stand up for what is just, who speak up for those who are silenced by bullying. I have no doubt that she would be part of my village if she were to witness my child being bullied. Be one of those people.