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.