“Courage is fire, bullying is smoke.” – Benjamin Disraeli
“A negative mind will never give you a positive life.”
Bullying hurts everyone and it takes courage to stand up to it. This past week our family challenged to do the right thing about bullying when our 13 year old son shared he was being bullied by friends in his school. As a parent it is not always easy to know how to act in a way that is supportive and will lead to a good outcome. Luckily I was teaching a class this weekend on developmental psychology at the Institute of Traditional Medicine and the theories of Erik Erikson which gave me a framework for understanding why bullying happens in adolescence and how to deal with it.
Bullying has been going on goes on in schools, workplaces, and any social environment where humans are vying for their identity and place in the group. When it happens during adolescence it can be particularly harmful as this is the stage of life when kids are figuring out their identity and who they are amongst their peers. Erik Erikson’s life cycle theory identifies different stages of development where there is a core conflict to be resolved in order to move onto the next stage in a healthy way. During adolescence, which spans from 12 to 24 years, there is a conflict between identity and role confusion. Peers are most important in one’s life, more than parents. During this age span, kids will try on different identities and see where they fit with different groups. There is a lot of brain development happening so it is not unusual for kids to engage in risky behaviours that don’t make logical sense to parents, but can be seen as a stage of testing out limits. Adolescence is the toddler stage of adulthood. There can be a lot of protesting and defiance towards parents and authority figures as a way of trying to negotiate this stage.
So how does this relate to bullying? In this case, my son was the person who was bullied. He was subject to physical shoving in the halls, giving the finger in class, and social ostracizing amongst a group of friends he had known, some for many years. He was also teased by others for being open about his own mental health struggles amongst his peers. Rather than being compassionate about his problems, the bullies used this information to mock and criticize him in public in front of him and behind his back, but under the radar of teachers and parents. It wasn’t until the bullying escalated to a point where it could not be ignored that it all came out in the open.
The sad part of this story is that this happened between two friends who had been best friends since they were toddlers. Now in their adolescence, they are both trying to figure out their identities and how they fit into their social groups. One vying for attention by asserting his power and gathering support from peers who take his side and participate in the teasing and ostracizing, the other by seeking comfort amongst peers rather than parents and teachers, and not speaking up soon enough to get the bullying to stop. They were each vulnerable in their own way and yet could not speak up about how they were hurt. Learning about this was extremely painful for all family members involved.
What we did learn is that bullying is not acceptable under any circumstances. Sure one might be hurt that your former best friend has made new friends or has a girlfriend, but that is no reason to retaliate in a hurtful way. If there is a problem, it needs to be dealt with directly. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the person who is bullied to speak up and get those with authority involved to take action. This can be hard as there is a stigma amongst peers that this shows weakness and is considered “snitching”.
While it took time for my son, to speak up, at the end of the day I was proud of how he did eventually come forward. We supported him to take action and encouraged him to do so in a way that would be assertive but not critical and judging of the kids who were bullying him. We did not want this to escalate and we wanted to be open, but not pushing, for the possibility of reparation.
We had the good fortune of having the school respond quickly to the issue head and arrange an immediate meeting with parents and kids to discuss in an open and supportive manner. After the meeting and the school communicating to other class members involved that bullying under no circumstances would not be tolerated, a classmate asked my son why he snitched. His response was “Speaking up is not snitching. It is taking care of my problem.” My hope is that in sharing this difficult story it will help others kids and parents to speak up and take a stand against bullying. The more we find the courage to do so, the better it will be for all the kids, schools and families involved.
Want to learn more? Here are some suggested websites on bullying for parents and kids:
Parenting Expert Barbara Coloroso on bullying: