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October 14, 2013

Bullying: A Post I Didn't Want To Write

I know Mondays are usually Mumble days, but today I have something else on my mind. I have often stopped short of writing about bullying because it's difficult for me to do so without getting into personal details of anything that's happened. But I think I have found a way to keep it objective, and therefore (I hope!) useful. 

The reason it's a post I didn't want to write is because I often wonder if I am too sensitive or I take things too seriously. But when there are kids out there committing suicide because it seems they can't get away from bullies and their parents can't help them either, I realize that perhaps it's best to err on the side of over-caution if I must.

I was recently asked to give some information on my experiences with bullying from a parent's perspective. I was happy to give the information, but sad that I had enough experience that I could give it extensively.

I was bullied as a kid. I went to Catholic school and the bullying there was worse than anything I ever experienced in public school. The bullying I experienced in Catholic school was a big reason that Catholic school wasn't a huge priority for me at first. I was bullied heavily when I began playing school sports and was actually kind of good. You see, I had been a swimmer, and 7th grade was the first time I seriously attempted volleyball or basketball. And girls don't take kindly to newcomers who kind of step in a little further ahead than where it seems they should be.

Due to my experience as a child, I am probably hyper-sensitive to the topic. However, I work hard to stay aware of what is going on with my children at school. Last year, when my oldest entered sixth grade (first year of middle school), I suffered through the hardest 18 weeks of my life (school-wise) raising my children. During the first eight weeks of school I watched my daughter withdraw and retreat from me. I'm the kind of parent who was always checking her iPod every night. I checked iMessage, kik, Instagram, not only for my daughter's posts or comments, but also those with whom she interacted. I saw the things going on via Instagram and instant message on her iPod that, coupled with her withdrawn behavior, gave me pause. I finally tried to "have it out" with her to find out just what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks was going on. Finally, she started talking to me and let me know that she didn't know why certain friendships had changed. And, she and one of her friends were victims of mockery at the hands of a few girls in her class. Honestly, a lot of it sounded like some of the "mean-girl" antics you witness on TV shows these days -- stupid at the core, but hurtful to an 11-year-old or 12-year-old.

I talked with some parents and I also took it up with the teachers at conferences because, while it did not seem severe, I sure didn't want it to end up that way. That was my first course of action. The next thing we did was decide that we would shut off my daughter's iPod Touch for awhile. No good was coming from the connections on Instagram and my daughter had been the target of a group message gone bad that caused some emotional damage. Probably more to me than her, but we both decided it was probably for the best to lay low on the technology for awhile. (It turns out she broke her iPod Touch about eight weeks later and we simply haven't replaced it -- best decision ever.)

Over the holiday break last school year, I had a lot of heart-to-heart talks with my daughter and I am happy to say that she put a plan together to move forward. We talked about the things that matter in life and priorities (God - Family - Responsibilities/Friends). We reviewed what we knew about how true friends act -- in word and deed -- both to each other and when in the absence of each other. We put a plan together for her to know how to be a good friend, how NOT to be taken advantage of and to remember always to attempt to be Christ-like to others. If the "mean girl" antics continued at all, she either didn't notice or did, but found the behavior lacking enough to allow it to bother or worry her. My daughter was also playing club volleyball on a team with completely new girls and her confidence grew by leaps and bounds. We also discussed how she should act to ensure she was not behaving poorly to others. We spent some time discussing sensitivity awareness and also that other kids are just trying to "fit in" like she was and sometimes we have to cut people some slack, but not at the expense of doing what is right.

I've remained aware but less antsy about the social interactions of my daughter over the course of the last ten months. I check in with her regularly, of course, and I also check in with like-minded parents. I also reiterate to my daughter my expectations of her behavior. Every so often something rears its head and we have to talk about it, but mostly, I see that she remembers what is truly important and doesn't get caught up in the negativity like she did early on. 

I won't lie: I am sad and sometimes upset when I learn that certain things still go on. And it bothers me knowing that most parents would say, "Well, that's just the way kids are..." or even if they are confronted that their child may be disrespectful or hurtful to another child, they will say, "I would never tolerate that behavior from my child..."

The vast majority of parents these days seem to brush off what I would consider rather serious or even egregious behavior by their kids as being "normal" or "typical."  I think that smaller schools with a less diverse population (such as small Catholic schools, for one, but not the only, example) have environments rich for bullying. Sometimes the parents I talk to seem to say, "I would never tolerate that behavior from my child" in such a way that it seems it should be the end of the conversation. It is almost as if, because that parent made such a declaration,they think it absolves their child from any potential wrongdoing. It seems almost as if, since they have declared that position, they should never be questioned with regard to their child's behavior.

Newsflash to about 75% of the parents out there: Just because you say you won't tolerate bullying or mean behavior from your children, does not mean they don't and won't bully or behave in a mean manner. 

I have often felt as though bullying and mean behavior is much more insidious with females. Although, I think in today's world of internet and emotional overdrive, the world of male bullying is getting to the same level. I only have girls who have hit the stage where bullying or mean-girl antics are in play. My oldest son is only four years old and at this point. But I've seen a lot where girls are concerned -- both my own instances as well as watching things with my daughters. I've seen enough to know that the way girls can be mean is very subtle, usually parents and teachers are not aware unless they are very diligent. Girls are very good at doing and saying things quietly. Girls often have little sayings that adults would never understand, but the kids around them get the message.

I have witnessed the following ways that kids bully and demean each other:

  • They will mock a child's name. In some instances, they will mock a pair of children (who are friends) simultaneously by making up names for them and using the made up names in a mocking manner.
  • Sometimes girls will claim a certain hairstyle (I know!) and will then shun or shame an "outsider" (child not in their social circle) for wearing her hair the same way
  • On Instagram, kids often list people as special in bios, to the exclusion of others. I will grant this is not always meant in a mean way. But I've seen some girls use it as a power ploy within their group, holding a place in their bio as some prize to be won somehow. Regardless, there's enough discussion about bios, that I wonder about it often. (i.e., "Why did you take me out of your bio?"; "Why do you have so-and-so listed as your BFF...I thought we were BFFs"; "You're the dork with so-and-so in your bio")
  • Some children will claim that a girl "copied" things such as school supplies (umm...we all shop at the same places, people!)
  • Sometimes a girl or group of girls will pull other girls away from one or two "outsiders" (girls not in their circle). Sometimes the girl(s) doing the pulling don't even really care to be friends or talk to the ones they are pulling away. Their goal is to ensure the "outsiders" don't get to be friends with any potential "insiders."
  • Sometimes the girl being pulled away from a group is the one being bullied, as well. Especially in the case where the one doing the pulling is trying to monopolize the girl to keep her from making friends to the detriment of their already established friendship. (I continually work with my daughter to help her identify ways to keep herself from being a "puppet," though I can't be sure how successful we've been.)
  • At times, I have witnessed group messages that target an individual, while the larger group watches that one individual be humiliated somehow
  • Comments on Instagram pictures ("ugly", "stupid", "retarded" -- what you would think is harmless/stupid stuff -- but the negative is usually targeted toward one or two individuals regularly)
  • When a group of children are walking together, one speeds up or slows down, in an attempt to "ditch" one or more of the children in the group and encourages others to do so as well
  • "Inside" jokes -- the incessant use of them in the presence of those kids that have no idea what it is. (My opinion -- if you have an "inside" joke -- keep it to yourself for goodness sake)
  • Some kids are in the precarious position of being  caught in between, having friends in different social circles. The girls from one circle can put pressure on the this girl to "ditch" friends in the other one. This is a way of bullying these girls, too. The pressure can be external as well as internal (to the girl in between).
Middle school is a time when a lot of bullying behavior takes place. Part of it is because that is when we start to expect more responsible and grown-up behavior out of children, but they have to transition there and feel their way a little bit. So, some forgiveness is required at this point, as kids are going to make mistakes and they need to know that there is life after a mistake. BUT -- and this is a big key -- parents MUST be aware and involved. Too many parents think this is someone else's problem. Too many parents think this only happens at such-and-such schools. Too many parents are far too busy with many things to take time to deal with something so seemingly trivial. And, to be honest, many parents just assume it is never their kid perpetrating the harm.

I have read one too many stories about kids my daughter's age committing suicide because they had trouble relating to other kids or felt they had no friends at school. The way kids talk to each other on Instagram and Facebook and ask.fm and any other social media avenue can be confusing. They often use put-downs with each other. Then they follow up with "j/k" for "just kidding." They have no concept of the idea that simply putting "lol" or "j/k" after something hurtful DOES NOT make their harmful words come off with any less sting. Sometimes you see kids say things like, "I should kill myself" in jest or even worse, "You should kill yourself." Whether in jest or not, our children should NOT be speaking to each other, or messaging each other or tweeting each other in this manner. 

I have actually been thinking about getting my thoughts on bullying out on this blog ever since I read about this girl in Florida who jumped to her death a few weeks ago. I ran across this story when I came into work and it was on the TV in the lobby as it ran CNN. I was shocked to learn that the girl was 12 years old. My oldest daughter is 12 years old. CNN showed her picture and I could see my daughter in her eyes. They talked about the cyber-bullying the girl had endured after she had already endured physical and emotional bullying at a school she had left. a year ago. Yes, the girls who bullied her at that school couldn't leave well enough alone and basically stalked this girl on a few different social media avenues. And her mother didn't take away her phone.

I don't have a lot of patience for bullying behavior when I witness it. When my daughter was having trouble last year, I did go to parents -- some were accepting and helpful, others were not as much -- in conjunction with enlisting the teachers' help. And I took my daughter off all social media. I think we could have gotten to a better place with it, but it would be easier without that distraction. And it was clear to me that I could not handle seeing how kids my daughter's age interacted on social media and that it seemed only a few parents actually monitored.

My daughter has not allowed her confidence to be shaken this year, but it's clear to me she is still suffering some of these ill behavior to a degree. My daughter now recognizes it for what it is and has chosen not to allow it to affect her as deeply.I hope the strength my daughter shows me is truly what's in her heart (she's always been a strong one). But even then -- even though I can see this strength in my daughter, I refuse to stop talking with her about it in case that should change. Even a 12-year-old who is strong, can be beaten and broken down quickly if the right weakness is attacked. 

We have discussed getting her a phone and whether she is interested in social media. She did say that she would probably like to participate on Instagram again, but she understands the boundaries she must set with it. I am thankful to have a daughter with a strong head on her shoulders who has witnessed how awry even something like Instagram can be.

How do you address bullying or mean behavior with your children? How do you help them cope if they have been a victim? What programs do your schools employ to assist in handling bullying?

***Update***For anyone not aware, the minimum age to have a Facebook and Instagram account is 13. I have never researched Twitter on that, so can't speak to it. This has been my strongest defense against my kids having these accounts, and even though my oldest did for a time, she doesn't now and she and I discussed why it is good to restrict it to 13 and up. Personally, I think older would be even better, but I'm not in charge. The reality is that even if they have this age restriction -- is seems a majority of the kids/parents do not abide by it and there's no way to police it.


  1. Scary stuff out there. For us, no instagram (none of my kids, from the adult kids on down, have it -- I am not even really sure what it is), and no phones till at least eighth grade (but my current eighth grader still does not have a phone). No smart phones (my husband is the only one with a smart phone, for his business).

    I know that it won't solve all the problems, but I think the less social media for kids, the better. I've seen it not only with my own kids, but other kids as well. :)

  2. Junior High was the worst for me too, though elementary was surprisingly bad too. The changes that happen so quickly in junior high are why I'm hoping I can actually take my kids out of public school for 7th and 8th grade in the future.

  3. I just found out last week that Ryan was bullied all throughout school- up until he graduated high school. I knew he was bullied in elementary, but I wasn't aware it happened to him in high school, too. I got so mad and wanted to go back in time to defend my 17 year old future husband. I cannot imagine how it will feel if it happens to my own kids. And I thought the toddler years were tough! :-) Your kids are very very lucky they have such a great and caring mom to defend them and to teach them to navigate life with confidence!

  4. This is a great post. I'm so grateful social media wasn't around when I was in seventh grade. I wasn't a cool kid and some of my sixth grade friends drifted away. I kept up with library volunteers, religious classes and Girl Scouts. I had four close friends and happily two are still friends. I think a distance from social media at twelve is a great idea.

  5. I was bullied throughout my school years. It is so important for parents o step up and in when they sense trouble. My parents weren't able o stop the bullying at school, but my home was such a safe haven for me, as was my church youth group. My parents practiced attachment parenting (though they wouldn't agree) in that I looked to them to have my needs met. Love, acceptance, protection, fun, etc. they are still my favorites 20 years after leaving school far behind.

  6. Note that the minimum age for Facebook, Instagram, etc. is actually 13, so the kids have to lie about their ages to establish accounts. I see no benefit, only hurt, to teenagers on social media.
    While I see how - taken as a whole - your list of exclusionary activities could constitute bullying, I also think that people are far too quick to call any missteps bullying. Making fun of a name? Trying to walk with certain people instead of others? Strikes me as absolutely normal behavior for kids - yes, juvenile behavior, but they are juveniles. Especially when schools institute "zero tolerance" policies, we need to be careful to not "over call" bullying. Part of developing social awareness is learning who your friends are and aren't, and it's an awkward stage. Of course they need supportive parents and watchful schools, but a lot of harm can come from a "bully" label, as well.

  7. Thank you, Theresa...I do know that about the minimum age. In reality, and in my experience, it seems that 85% of parents do not abide by that (meaning they allow their children to have access to these things). In our case, actually, our daughter ended up with the Instagram app on her iPod Touch via iCloud when her dad got it and we had "apps" as something that iCloud could put on every device in the house. We did as much damage control as we could and honestly, I am happy she doesn't have any of it anymore...but the fact remains that in the reality I witness just about every kid seems to have Instagram regardless of whether they are truly old enough for it.

    I will add that as an update, though.

  8. Thank you for this post, Michelle!

  9. This was a very honest post. My three year old actually had an incident with a kid being mean. As a parent it breaks my heart it see that happening so young.

    I was both a bully and the one brig bullied. All through high school I was on the outsider list. I also feel extremely guilty for my bullying days in elementary. These experiences are actually one of the reasons I am choosing to homeschool. I know bullying can happen beyond the school years and I want to give my kids a good amount of confidence in who they are before that step.


Thank you for reading. I enjoy reading other perspectives, please feel free to share yours. :)