Bullying: When Words Hurt
"I was bullied," says Heather S. from Houston, Texas. "Even after 18 years, I can tell you her name, describe what she looked like, show you where she lived and tell you all the horrible things she did to me – in detail. She ruined all my memories of fifth and sixth grade. Those two years will always be remembered as the time that Christie tortured me."
Bullying is in the news, on the talk shows and is often the theme of television sitcoms and after-school specials. Millions of kids each year are bullied, mostly while at school. With that many kids affected by this problem, it's high time that grown-ups start taking bullying seriously.
Is it Really Bullying?
What counts as bullying behavior? Name calling? Being pushed up against a locker? Being tripped in the lunchroom? Threatening bodily harm? Starting a rumor about a person? Simply put, bullying is when someone does something to have power over another individual. Kids will joke, call each other names and even "horse-play," but when one of the parties wants the interaction to stop and the other party won't, it's bullying. Normal teasing and horse-play are only fun if both children involved are enjoying it. Bullies want to make their victims suffer. They want power.
"I found myself being tripped while walking down the stairs, stared at from across the room, pushed, called names, followed home from school, my clothes written on with chalk, rumors spread about me and my parents' phone ringing off the wall every evening with hang-up calls," says Heather. "And you know what? I never fought back. That is one thing I will regret forever. If I had fought back, it would have stopped."
Who Gets Bullied?
What type of person is singled out to be the victim of bullying? Maybe they are different in some way: the color of their skin, the way they talk, their name, the way they look. Some people are bullied for no particular reason at all. Bullies do tend to seek out others that will not defend themselves; someone who will not fight back. Remember, a bully is seeking power and most of the time is trying to show everyone how tough they are. What better way to do that than to find someone who won't fight back?
"Looking back, I see it was my timidness and shyness that attracted the bullies to me," says Sally from Missouri, who was bullied at school. "Cruel kids hone in on any weakness displayed by other kids and they focus on that." One day Sally stood up to the person bullying her. "In sixth grade I overcame my shyness and triumphed over my tormentors. I will always remember it as a victory!"
The "new kid" at school might be singled out. "My parents moved when I was in third grade, and one older boy in my grade began picking on me," says John from Texas. "My father told me eventually I would have to stand up for my rights. He said bullies, like animals, sense fear, and you must stand your ground."
Prepare Your Kids to Deal with Bullies
It is usually the first reaction to a bullying incident that will determine if the victim will be approached again. Bullies don't want a confrontation. They don't want their power questioned. What happened to John after he stood his ground? "I think we probably had a couple of pushing and shoving matches, but nothing that amounted to much. Afterwards, both of us simply went our own separate ways."
Most of the time the victims are too embarrassed and humiliated to tell their parents. They dread going to school. Victims often feel lonely, depressed, scared, isolated and trapped. Once at school, it's hard to get away from a bully in the cafeteria, playground or classroom. Kids being bullied usually suffer alone in silence. The emotional scars of being bullied can last a lifetime.
"I remember wanting to die when my mom would answer the phone and hear her daughter called names through the receiver," says Heather. "The humiliation of explaining to my parents why my jeans were covered with chalk marks, or why I had gum stuck to the back of my jeans was awful. I used to sit in the bathroom before school and pretend I was about to throw up. I prayed my mom would let me stay home from school. Every once in a while I got lucky."
The Damage a Bully Can Do
Many feel that bullying is just a natural part of growing up. It makes kids tough, right? Wrong. Bullying should not be considered a natural part of childhood. The pressure on the victims can affect them the rest of their lives. "Both of our sons were victims in school and have suffered tremendously with low self-esteem," says Dawn from Illinois. "Our oldest son has many difficulties unrelated to being bullied – but has a great deal of unexpressed frustration and a quick temper," she says, adding that she thinks these characteristics are related to being bullied.
Sue from New York, whose son was bullied at school, says, "As an adult, we are told we don't have to take harassment and have laws to protect us. Kids are told 'It'll make you strong,' and have to suffer." Sue had a friend tell her, "If you take him out of the situation, he'll only learn to run away from trouble." Sue's answer to that? "Where does it say that kids have to take humiliation, physical attacks and abuse?"
"I think the bullying affected me until I became a mother," says Heather. "Before that, I never stood up for myself. I watched everything I said so I didn't make anyone mad at me. That changed when my kids were born. I'd fight a bear for them and would stick up to anyone for them. The fear I live with is that my kids will go through the same thing as I did. I'll do anything to keep that from happening."
Being bullied can leave both physical and emotional scars. Whoever said, "Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," was never bullied – or has a very short memory.