Bullying is Serious: What’s a Parent to Do?

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Remember the scene in Back to the Future when Marty McFly dodges mean ol’ Biff and his gang? On a homemade skateboard, Marty turns at the last second, and Biff runs his convertible into a truck full of manure. Who didn’t cheer for Marty?

In the movies, bullies often get what’s coming to them amidst a cheering crowd. One of my favorite middle school movies was My Bodyguard, a story about a middle school boy being bullied who stood up for himself and befriended a slightly odd fellow who happened to be twice as big as the bullies. In that movie, the bullies got what was coming to them, and we all got a good laugh out of it.

In real life, bullying is more serious. The standard definition of bullying is behavior that involves unwanted, intentional, aggressive physical or verbal behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power and is repeated over time (Olweus, 1993). The American Educational Research Association (2013) opens a comprehensive report on bullying with the following quotation: “Bullying presents one of the greatest health risks to children, youth, and young adults in U.S. Society” (p. 1). This indeed is serious and apparently widespread.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, an estimated 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of another student (Fried & Fried, 2003). Ninety (90%) percent of 4th through 8th graders report being bullied. Seventy-five (75%) percent of school shootings that have occurred over the past decade have been linked to harassment and bullying. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine analyzed studies from 13 countries and found signs of an obvious connection between bullying, being bullied, and suicide. (Kim & Levental, 2008).

For most of these beaten-down kids, there is no bodyguard to save them. There are no cheers in the theaters or cafeterias. Some children endure bullying their entire educational lifespan.

I cannot think of one thing worse than being bullied…except, learning that your own child is being bullied.

Over the holiday break, my daughter let it slip that a girl in her class keeps taunting her and embarrassing her in front of her friends. I know this child fairly well as my daughter and she ran around in the same circle for a while. She is a very pretty girl, who is always surrounded by a group of girlfriends, and her personality can be little intimidating. She meets the typical criteria of a bully. My daughter is shy and somewhat insecure. She doesn’t ever want to make waves socially. I am guessing my daughter is an easy target also because she has been in special education classes and struggles to read.

During the break, I talked with my daughter to give her some ideas on how to handle herself. I gave her the you-need-to-stand-up-for-yourself lecture and the only-way-to-handle-a bully-is-to-bully-them-back talk. Neither seemed to be a viable option for her. Almost every day since returning to school, my daughter tells me that her bully was at it again intentionally embarrassing her:

  • Are those your real nails, or are you wearing fake nails?
  • What is up with your hair today? Did you just come out of the river?
  • Why are you wearing those shoes?
  • I can’t believe you got such a low grade on the test.

Each question/statement is made with smirk and followed by a belittling laugh. The other day she asked my daughter why she was wearing a bandage on her arm. When my daughter explained she had scrapped it when she fell out of a tree, this girl just fell on the ground laughing.

I say, “Just ignore her.” I can’t. “Why?” It hurts, and it won’t matter. She’ll say stuff anyway.
I say, “Answer her questions with a question of your own, you know, push back a bit.” I could never do that. She’s surrounded by her friends.
I ask, “What do your teachers say or do?” Nothing. She’s real sneaky. She knows just when to say something when the teacher isn’t around.

I ask, “Do you want me to talk to her mom?” No, that will just make her mad, and it will be worse.

So, now what?

I want to tell my daughter this will pass, but if they go to the same high school, it may not pass. This behavior could escalate and become more violent or psychologically torturous. This bully could take her campaign to the World Wide Web or a viral text. She could post something nasty about my daughter on Facebook for the whole world to “Like”. I am relatively sure my daughter has the resilience to handle this abuse, but one never knows.

I remember back in 2010 being stunned by a suicide in a small town named Hadley in Massachusetts. It was right next to Amherst where I lived for four years. Phoebe Prince, a young girl who had recently moved to Hadley from Ireland hung herself after three months of relentless bullying. She briefly dated a boy, which angered some of the other students. The bullying that ensued was horrendous. She was verbally harassed at school, physically assaulted, and victimized over the Internet. At the time, I was sickened by this event. It was so difficult for me to wrap my mind around how cruel people could be to another human being. Phoebe must have been in a hopeless state of mind to see suicide as her only way out. I wanted to shake this girl and say, “Hey, it’s only high school. It’s a small blip on the timeline of your life.” Yet, for the victim it must have felt like a life sentence with no parole.

Lesson learned: Some people are not resilient enough to handle bullying.

So now I wonder and worry. I have no idea how to help my daughter deal with a bully. Obviously, if it escalates I will involve the child’s parents and the school, but for now I just listen with a sympathetic heart and pray this situation will resolve itself soon.

AERA (2013). Prevention of Bullying: Research Report and Recommendations. AERA Issues Report on Prevention of Bullying in Schools and Colleges. Washington, D.C.

Fried, S., & Fried, P. (2003). Bullies, targets and witnesses. New York: Evans.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Kim, Y.S. & Leventhal, B. (2008). Bullying and Suicide: A Review. Int J Adolesc Med Health. Apr-Jun;20(2):133-54.

5 thoughts on “Bullying is Serious: What’s a Parent to Do?

  1. Cara, I’m so sorry she’s being bullied. Back when I was in school (100 years ago according to my kids), it was called “teasing”. You didn’t bother telling the teachers. You could never prove it. They were the “popular” girls. The ones no one would ever believe did it. I tried telling Mom at least once. She told me “they’re just jealous”. OF WHAT? I had an extreme overbite and wore glasses from the 2nd grade on. Back then it wasn’t “cool” to wear glasses. But I did because I finally knew I had never seen the world really. By the time I got braces, it was worse. I was in 6th or 7th grade. Back then you didn’t get braces until all your adult teeth were in. When we moved between 7th and 8th grade – I actually didn’t WANT to move! I wanted to graduate 8th grade with these kids! Including the ones who had been torturing me for years! I guess better the devils you knew than the ones you didn’t. There was one girl and I still remember her name. (won’t say it here). Well, there were at least 2, but that one didn’t harass me as much as we got into older grades. I don’t remember if she was even still at the school. But anyway, the one I started to talk about, she started up and wouldn’t stop. I finally got to where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I physically fought back. Guess who was in the most trouble? Me. I had to see one of the nuns to work out why I was a “fighter”. No one ever asked me what was wrong. No one ever thought that maybe that girl was pushing me too far. Hell no. I was the “bad” kid.
    I wish to God I had the answers for you. Mom doesn’t even know that in 9th grade I came home one day so tired of being – not even popular, I didn’t want to be. I just wanted to be seen for me, not for what I couldn’t do. I came home. Went in my room. Locked the door. And took the only sharp thing in my room – a pen top, and tried to slice my wrist. I pray she doesn’t get to that point. But I know with you, Michael, and Mom, you can work it out with her. I don’t know what to tell you or how to help. It’s NOT her. It IS them. But unfortunately no one will listen. It’s not worth talking to the teachers or whomever. As your daughter says, that WILL make it worse. Maybe you can talk to the Parent-Teacher group president about bringing in adults who were bullied and survived. And maybe at the same time find some of the bullies who have seen the light, and bring these people in to talk to each grade. That way no one person will be pointed out. Let the victims know that there IS a way to survive. Let them know they aren’t alone. That’s my best suggestion. I wish someone had been there to tell me I was ok.


  2. Kelly

    Cara, I’m so glad you wrote this. Right now we have stuff going on with our kids too, it’s not as much bullying, but this one boy is being left out. And I honestly don’t know what’s worse. My kids are not “in the popular crowd, or the jocks” but they have a few friends they call their own. This other boy doesn’t. Thanks for sharing your story & I hope she rises above all this middle school drama!

    Liked by 1 person

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