I had my first experience with bullying when I was 5 years old. Struggling with my high energy and tendency to experiment with dangerous household items, my mother was able to convince the school principal to let me start Grade 1 early. I was noticeably shorter than all the other kids around me and by the second week of September, Patrick Sweeny had started hitting me. When I told my parents, they recommended the usual solution for the sixties:
“Hit him back!”
I was horrified by this, since hitting anyone else – like my brother or sisters – had clearly been discouraged. As a result, I did nothing and so the bullying got worse. I continued to seek solutions from my parents, nattering on about the situation until one day my frustrated father said:
“I don’t want to hear any more about this until you’ve hit him back to see if that works.”
The next day when Patrick Sweeny hit me, I drew back my hand as far as I could and hit him with my fist as hard as I could. My fist smashed into his nose. Blood began to pour out of his face and he fell to the ground. I ran off towards home, terrified, convinced that I had killed Patrick Sweeny.
By the time I got home, Mrs. Sweeny had reached my mother by phone. As I was trying to sneak up to the room I shared with my sister, my mother called to me, “Mrs. Sweeny just called. She said to tell you, ‘Good job!’” The whole situation still confuses me a lot. Punching him in the nose hard was just what Patrick Sweeny needed to convince him to stop bullying. After that, he tried to become my best friend, which my parents and his encouraged, but that seemed even weirder so it never happened.
I am now less confused by bullying and what helps and, although I haven’t hit anyone since I was 5, I have certainly learned to stand up to bullies. Standing up to bullies is the only thing that works to manage one’s own anxiety about them and it usually works to stop bullying. In my work with teens, I often provide strategies to those who’ve been bullied, or to their families and school personnel. Here is what I advise, and here is an article I refer everyone to that is easy to understand.
How do you stand up to a bully? You must plan it. Talk about the entire situation with someone or several people that you trust. Some of the best allies can be friends who are also bullied, or who want to stop the bullying. Surrounding yourself with friends and allies helps to insulate you from bullying. Your allies can include parents and siblings, or even teachers or older people in school or your neighbourhood. Some schools have begun to use a buddy system when youth are being bullied so that the person who has been bullied feels supported and safe.
You must also think through all the details. Does the bully have a “bully club”, that is, a group of people who support them and cheer them on? Is the “bully club” considered the “cool” group or do they have support? I am always amazed to learn how many popular teens are bullies, and at the tacit support they can receive from their parents or teachers.
The most difficult part about being bullied is not letting bullies get to you and not believing at all what they may say to you. Once again, this is where a group of allies can help because they can remind you of your strengths and that no one deserves to be bullied.
I think that most parents and those who work with teens will find that the above advice includes good general guidelines as well as enough leeway to discuss the nuances of specific situations. Also, both this post, and the article I’ve referenced can be used by youth who want to help a friend who is being bullied.
Finally, the one other suggestion that I have is that I would like the bullies to be referred for help. Of all the youth who’ve been referred to me, I cannot remember one circumstance in which the referral mentioned that the teen was a bully. Bullying is considered one of the most serious difficulties affecting youth today. Please refer the bullies for help – I’m sure they’re hurting also.