How to Talk to Your Kids About Bullying
There’s no doubt cyber bullying is a very real and prevalent issue facing today’s children and teens. I’m sharing real life experience on some of the worst kind of bullying, staying silent or turning away, and how we as parents can talk to our children about bullying.
Middle School Lessons:
I was 12 years old in a brand new school, in a brand new town. I transferred out of district to finish middle school at a new Charter School in the next town over, hoping for a different social scene and more academic challenge. What I got was a quick lesson in middle school survival and a true test of my character.
The good thing about moving to a brand new, never formed school, is that we were all “new.” Some of us had a friend or two but most of us were all scrambling to not only figure out who we were but also just looking for acceptance. Ohhhhhh, middle school.
Generally speaking, our class of 7th graders grew to be pretty close. Many of us are still friends today. There were a few outliers who were growing up too fast hanging out with high schoolers … and a few that liked to poke and tease everyone (sometimes a little too much). But we were all generally pretty cool and accepting of one another.
That was until she transferred in.
She was a girl I knew from my elementary school days who always danced to the beat of her own drum, so to speak. She was different and often kept to herself. Her appearance was always a little disheveled, and her hair was often uncombed. Her obsession with childish things was intense, and she’d rather draw cartoons (that were very well done) than talk with, well, anyone. She avoided any sort of social interaction and really didn’t seem to care what people thought about her, or so it appeared.
But let me tell you, this girl was brilliant. Odd, no doubt, but the most intelligent person in our class and probably even the class above. And even though we didn’t hang out (I don’t think she hung out with anyone) … I thought of her as a friend.
When I saw that she transferred in, I felt a bit of a pit in my stomach. Partly because I figured she would have a hard time being “accepted” at this school …and embarrassingly to admit today because I knew I was the only one she knew. And one thing was for sure: I was not ready to lumped into the same category she was in.
Selfishly, I was just starting to fit in myself, and I knew that association would be, in the words of Regina George, “social suicide.”
So what did I do? Well … I didn’t do much of anything. I said hi here and there, sometimes invite her to sit with my group of friends at lunch, but overall, I kept to myself and turned in the other direction when I saw she was coming. Yep. I was that person.
Then the day that I will forever remember happened: the girl, myself and a few boys didn’t need to switch classrooms during periods, so we stayed in the same classroom. With nothing but time to kill and with no teacher in the room, the boys really picking on her. Calling her nasty names, getting up in her space.
I felt my face get burning hot and while my stomach was tied in knots, I knew what I had to do.
“Just stop already!’ I said to them with a shaky voice. “Leave her alone.”
The boys did stop. And just as I feared they would, they looked at me instead.
“What are you GAY? You must love her if you’re going to stand up for a freak show like her.”
My thirty-something grown ass woman self today would have said, “YES!! I do love her! She is a person just like you and me, and she doesn’t deserve to be spoken to like that. She is my friend.”
But … The awkward and shy 12 year old version of me slinked away, face burning red with a lump in my throat. I didn’t say anything.
Her mom pulled her out of school shortly after that day because the bullying was so bad.
What I Learned From That Day:
I sometimes think of her and the middle school experience with regret. I know I didn’t do enough. I know I didn’t try hard enough. I know I didn’t try to get through to her to tell her she was okay and that I was her friend, despite what everyone said. And I can only imagine what was going through her own head.
And for me? That label of “gay” or “lesbian” and the derogatory slangs associated with were muttered under the breath of those boys each time I would pass them in the halls. At 12 years old, I didn’t really know what being “gay” really was, just as I didn’t really know the intricacies of sex. I knew general concepts taught in health class, but that was really it. So I took it more as an expression of hatred than them literally questioning my sexuality.
That expression of hatred made me feel small, insecure, unsafe and like I didn’t belong. But if I was gay or bi or wanted to be transgender, can you imagine how those comments would have made me feel?
I’ve often thought back to this moment, as well as others, where I should have done more, said more, not looked the other way. And I know I’m not alone, especially as the “bullying awareness” has become so prevalent (thank God!!). When I was growing up, no one talked about bullying. And if they did, we all pictured Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, not the person like me who looked the other way.
How We Approach Bullying With Our Kids
Of course, social media usage among kids and teens is like pouring gasoline on bullying issues. The access to peers 24/7 with often zero limitations is really quite scary when you think about it. Kids that are bullied never can escape their harassers, whether via content that’s posted about them online or the never-ending messages that infiltrate their phones, even when they’re supposed to be home and safe.
So what can we do? What should we do?
We need to share. We need to talk. They need examples. They need to see what bullying is, what it does … and what staying silent can do also.
When my step daughters were entering middle school a few years ago, their dad and I sat them down and talked about bullying. While we didn’t anticipate them being the ones who were active bullies, my firsthand experience of being silent in the presence of hatred is just as bad.
We showed them a few movies and clips, shared some personal experiences and just reminded them that kindness comes in many forms and that even if they’re the only ones saying something, DO IT. Be the one.
My Favorite Bullying Resources for Teens:
If you’re looking at having this talk with your pre-teens and teens (and I hope you do), a fantastic documentary to watch together is Bully. This movie shows several kids who are bullied, and follows them through the highs and the lows of life. It’s horribly sad, but so incredible to watch together as a family. It’s intense so maybe watch it before you show your kids. Our girls were 11 when they saw it.
Another good show to watch together is a piece Anderson Cooper did back in 2013 called “The Bully Effect.” He shows real life kids dealing with bullying and what technology is doing to fuel the fire.
You watch The Bully Effect on YouTube.
Other organizations with fantastic content and resources about bullying are:
Ditch the Label (UK-based but very progressive and probably most relevant to young people 12-25)
Stomp Out Bullying (Widely used in schools, focused on cyber bullying)
Do Something (Focused on social good overall for our youth, including anti-bullying)
Supporting pre-teens and teens as they gain access to technology is important, but so is supporting young children. I often chat with my 4 year old about treating people with kindness. Starting the conversation early that kindness and inclusion is who you are and how we treat people sets the tone for their lives. And just like I tell her to be kind, I also tell her to speak up and stand up if she ever sees something that doesn’t feel right. When she comes home from preschool, she’s so proud to tell me that she “blocked” her best from another kid who wasn’t nice. And that warms my heart.
Let’s Support Diversity and Inclusion:
The connection between what is different and what is wrong is so strong in our world.
Instead, we should celebrate the differences in our communities, in our schools and in our families. Whether you’re different because of who you love or you’re different because of how you look, or act thank you. That diversity is what makes life beautiful.
To think there are people out there still living in fear to be who they were born to be because of the hatred that still exists in the world … 💔
Let this be known that I am an ally and friend no matter who you love. No matter what you look like. No matter where you come from.
I love 𝘆𝗼𝘂 just the same, 𝘪𝘧 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦, because you have the courage to be who truly are. 🌈
Please, the next time you see someone sitting alone or feeling uncomfortable in a social setting, be the one to introduce yourself and include them. After all, the desire to be accepted doesn’t ever change, no matter how old we are.