Many of our initial beliefs about power & control are hatched on the elementary school playground and in our initial, unsupervised interactions with peers at a young age. These beliefs, whether inherited, learned or both, become solidified by experience, become internalized and color how we are in relationships for years to decades to come. And here lies both the problem and solution when it comes to bully behavior. Please allow me to explain.

In my 30 or so years of working with children, teens, and young adults in my medical & mental health offices, I have talked to tens of thousands of people affected by bully behavior. Sadly, some people are still affected and traumatized by it for years. The #MeToo campaign has opened the door to talk about bullying & harassment and its widespread occurance is shocking and sad. But we can pave the way for a different future for our children, patients and their families.

Once upon a time, there was a 12 year-old little girl who moved to a new community.  After the initial excitement wore off, the little girl was left with lingering feelings about her former school: loss of friends, loss of support from trusted teachers, and loss of her former tightknit community.  Also, this little girl came from a musical family who encouraged self-expression and communication.  She was at a loss to understand why teachers were very upset by any talking in class (way different from what happened at home).  Teachers did not seem to want to hear girls talk. Our patient was moved to the back in every class where she met several unruly boys. She learned many new swear words. It was all to much for her and she ended up in the office every day after lunch with stomach aches. Luckily, this was not the first time this girl had moved or delt with bullies; she had already developed her internal, little voice, and in the end everything turned out ok.  From an early age, we can proactively prepare our children for these kind of simple but painful situations at school or on the sports field by giving them a plan.

Preventative Strategies for Kids

Keeping it simple, here is a plan if you have trouble with a bully.

  1. Use your words – tell the attacker that you do not like this kind of attention. Say things like, ” I don’t like it when you hit me,” or ” Your words hurt my feelings.” If it sounds hard, practice saying these phrases to the mirror so you will be ready when you need them. Your voice can be a powerful tool. If the person keeps bothering you and strategy #1 has not worked, go to strategy #2.
  2. Tell a trusted adult that you need help – Parents, teachers, bus drivers, doctors, and school advisors care about you and want to help. Smart people get the help that they need and do not tolerate being hurt, either with fists or words. If you have tried strategies #1 and #2 and these have not worked, go to strategy #3.
  3. Tell another trusted adult who is in charge – Principals, doctors and police officers are trained to help in an emergency. If you get to strategy #3 it is serious and time to get real help. Good luck and don’t give up, many people want to and can help.

Advice for parents and pediatric providers

Whether parent or provider, listening is your greatest skill.  Try all of your self-soothing strategies to calmly  listen to the story and really be with the child or teenager.

Almost everyone has been bullied at some time in their life. It is powerful to quietly hear what an upset child has to say; one who is indirectly asking for sympathy and understanding. Dealing with the emotional part (theirs and ours) can be tough if we were ever bullied when younger or smaller. But before moving to fix-it mode, we can calmly say,”I am sorry this happened to you and that sounds terrible.” We can provide a safe haven, as it may be extremely hard for kids to talk about bullying. They may have to implicate a trusted friend, sibling or adult.

If we proactively teach our children & patients to use these 3 talking strategies to minimize bullying from an early age, they will gradually develop excellent self-advocacy skills. While not always easy, the more one practices self-advocacy, the better one gets at it. The better they get at strategy #1, the less they will have to use 2 & 3. Letting kids try to deal with bullies (at least initially) gives them the important message that we trust them to handle their own problems and we are here to listen and help, if necessary.  Naturally we want to step in and help right away, but if one can be a little patient at the beginning and watch as our wonderful kids learn to manage these kinds of threats it can have amazing results.

If you are a pediatric provider, all well-child care visits & sick visits should include at least one question about bullying. Simply asking,” Is someone bothering or hurting you,” can yield amazing revelations about a kid’s experience. It is especially important to ask these questions if there has been a change in school performance or attendance. Lingering bodily complaints such as stomach aches, problems sleeping, constipation, under or over-eating could have a relational cause.  You are sending a very important message that the doctors office is a place to talk about hurting, and you can and want to hear about it. Please ask girls and boys of all sizes, ages and backgrounds. No one is safe from bullying.

While we are less inclined to feel sympathy or empathy for the bully, these children & teens need help too. Bullying is a learned behavior. Children are not naturally mean or cruel, so most likely the bully is copying and acting out behavior that has been done to them by an older, bigger or influential person. When adults have diffused the situation, someone will also need to talk to and help the bully to find out the back story and why they have resorted to these hurting behaviors. Do they need better negotiating and self-soothing skills? Do they need to learn better, more non-violent ways to disagree or get what they want ? Many times these interactions start off simply and a good mediator could do a world of good. Imagine that every child learned & practiced these important skills and what a less violent and more peaceful world we could eventually live in. Happy relating. – Dr. Jeanine