Just About Everyone Has a Bullying Story. So Do I!
Mine happened when I was eleven years old. Every day after school, children of all ages played on my block on Long Island, New York. The house we grew up in was close to the next house and it was up to me to make my own good time with whoever was out to play that day. Some days were more relaxed and easygoing because of the makeup of the group of kids, but there were two kids who could ruin the mood and tone of the whole group just by their presence. It was as if a storm cloud would come overhead and break the silence with lightning and thunder without warning. All the other kids felt scared and tense, wondering if the lightning would strike them that day.
I was a little short for my age, not aggressive by nature, and tried to avoid conflict. Billy, on the other hand, was a pretty big kid, fifteen years old, popular, affable, and aggressive. He loved to make other kids laugh by torturing one of us with others looking on. John, who tailed him, was my age, fun to play with, but really mean whenever Billy, the teen I would now label “the big bully,” was around. I never quite understood what made John turn mean whenever Billy was around, but I could feel my stomach sink when the two of them were outside together.
There was a period of time when John would tease, taunt, and physically knock me off the fence across the street whenever I wasn’t paying attention to him. He would always walk over to Billy after an attack and look to him to receive that victorious “high five.” All this happened when Billy was there, and I tried to stay out of the way of both of them whenever I could. This became very difficult and I would come home pretty miserable and dejected for what seemed to be an eternity.
Running home to my room, I would try to bypass my family— but I wasn’t too successful at this because the back steps to my room were through the kitchen and living room. This meant meeting one of my parents along the way. I remember my mother feeling upset about these incidents, and trying to reassure me that it would stop as I grew and got older. I remember my father coming home late and hearing about these incidents. He felt so angry about my helplessness, and I, in turn, experienced his anger as something to fear.
In the meantime, I remember thinking food would comfort me, staring into the refrigerator endlessly, never knowing what I really wanted. I remember turning my anger and rage on my sister, who was three years younger than I was. It seemed like we were always fighting, and in hindsight, it felt pretty good to take out my frustration on her because she was an easy target for me.
My father talked to me about sticking up for myself and came up with a plan to teach me to defend myself. Unless I learned how to fight back with my fists, he thought, I was going to be teased forever. I remember how driven he was to teach me the ropes. He never knew that I thought to myself, “I’ll never hit another kid.” I never told him that, but I just tried to convey to him that this idea wasn’t going to work by rolling my eyes and kind of going along with the plan.
One day he arrived home with a punching bag. It took two days to put up the bag in the garage. He presented it to me proudly . . . and I couldn’t reach it. I just stared at it above me. I remember my mother shaking her head, and how I felt a sense of reprieve for the moment of truth. My father ended up spending hours lowering it to a height I could use, while I hoped this idea would pass very quickly.
My first instructions were awkward. I missed the bag, couldn’t get a cadence, felt frustrated, but I didn’t feel that I could quit and disappoint my father. Saying no to him was not in my vocabulary back then. There was a schedule to punch the bag each day, practicing different kinds of punches and moves to and from the bag. I would like to tell you I became proficient at this, but I didn’t. However, I became adept enough to make my father believe I could handle myself outside if the boys bullied me again. Even though the plan was to have me stand up to John when threatened, I never quite thought that I would actually have to punch someone.
The day of reckoning came on a summer afternoon I’ll never forget. I was outside playing, and Billy and John had started name-calling and getting aggressive with me. I was turning to go home (my usual tactic) when I noticed my father standing in the doorway of our house watching the situation intently. I hesitated, looked back at John, and experienced a moment of panic. I had nowhere to go. I can still feel the anxiety rush that came over me at that moment.
What would anyone do in that situation? When I ask my audiences what they think I did at that moment, the room is usually split between running away or standing there and hitting this boy to avoid the pain of my father’s disappointment. I must have turned my head a hundred times before I turned around and hit John square in the mouth. Blood gushed from his mouth and he burst into tears. I ran home mortified that I had done this to him. (I’ve thought to this day that this experience contributed to my becoming a psychologist.)
People ask me whether I felt bullied by my father. My father’s intention was to help me and not to hurt me, and this makes all the difference when thinking about bullying. Although my father was much more powerful in his influence over me, I never felt his intent was bad and, in fact, I knew it was just the opposite. He didn’t bully me, because his intention was good. However, his power was scary to me, and I have always been fascinated by this power dynamic and the issues involved. Unequal power is one of the significant components of bullying, but it’s not enough on its own. This book will begin by addressing the definitions and issues of bullying, and how the power dynamic becomes a critical piece in understanding bullying.
When I share this story, most people figure that this must have stopped the bullying. Regrettably, it did not and actually made John more creative in ways to try to catch me off guard. I think it is important for parents to be aware of their own anger and belief that aggression toward another in retaliation will equal the score. Unfortunately, that kind of response may escalate the problem and make matters worse. Part of this book will address the kinds of responses that are appropriate and most helpful to parents when bullyproofing their children from these incidents.
In the early 1980s, I began my career as a psychologist working on violence prevention. I was trained as a researcher and clinician and published papers in graduate school. In my first year of a job directing a pain center in a medical school, I saw a patient with a complicated history: Sharon had a very unusual pain problem that seemed to defy biological explanation. The physicians asked me to evaluate her because she seemed quite comfortable discussing her pain and needing her seventh surgery in a three-year period for chronic intractable pain. They thought it was odd that she wasn’t in the least bit distressed about needing more surgery, so they wanted me to interview her and figure out if there was something more going on.
She did ostensibly appear to be very comfortable with surgery, but I noticed a slight twitch when I casually asked about her marriage. After several interviews and support, it became clear that she was a woman who was severely abused at the hands of her husband and would gain a reprieve from the abuse with a medical condition that her husband could see. She found an adaptive coping response in cutting off circulation to her limbs at times to create pain and discomfort rather than face abuse. Inflicting pain on herself that created a visible medical condition to her husband was the only way she knew how to make him pity her enough to stop hurting her for a while.
I followed my instinct after this case and became involved in uncovering the roots of violence and power in these medical cases. My work and research led me to work with families with abuse— the abusers, the victims, and their children. The histories of these abusers were pretty clear. Children who went unchecked as bullies became abusive spouses. As the medical and mental health consultant on the New York State Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence, I became a trainer in the domestic violence field for several years and lectured about violence to medical and mental health professionals. I taught others about the effects of violence, power imbalances, and the cost of violence to the medical and mental health communities.
Many years later, after a presentation, a school principal approached me asking for help on the bullying problems being faced in the school. I met with a representative group of faculty, administration, and parents about their concerns. Together, we put together a plan to face the bullying issue in their school head-on. Although this project grew a hundred times more than I expected, I was struck by an enormous sense of pride in helping families and a school community beginning to tackle this problem. I think back on that year as a labor of love and the beginning of my real work in the bullying field.
What better way to stop the pattern of violence in adults than to uncover the problem where it really starts? I realized this was my true calling. Ever since that time, I’ve been traveling to schools, summer camps, and sports programs to shed light on the bullying crisis and provide practical solutions. I speak to thousands of parents every year and am the American Camp Association’s official bullying consultant, so I’ve also spoken with thousands of camp counselors and directors.
And I solve their bullying problems.
Both in private practice and in these group settings, I work directly with all the people who affect the bullying dynamic—kids, parents, and the other adults in the kids’ lives. I listen, come up with solutions, then we try them out and find out what works. The methods I’m going to teach you are tried and true and can be effective in any bullying situation for boys or girls from preschool to college.
My work has earned me the moniker “The Bully Coach” and appearances all over the media, including the New York Times and CBS News. At most of the presentations I’ve done, I’ve collected surveys to find out more about the scope of the bullying problem today, trends we need to be aware of, what works and what doesn’t. And each time I speak, people ask me if I’ve written a book about bullying.
I have now. It’s been my life’s mission to prevent violence in all its forms—physical and emotional—and I hope this book will help spread the knowledge I’ve gained. Moreover, I hope it will help you personally to help your child.
In my book, Bullyproof Your Child For Life, I’ll teach you my “Bullyproofing Prescription,” a set of instructions for adults to use with kids to get them out of bullying situations and keep them out of bullying situations. These aren’t goofy comeback lines, and we won’t get into too much theoretical discussion about the bully’s sad home life or the state of society. What you need are practical answers to help your child right now, and I will provide them.
You’re going to learn how to get your child to open up to you; how to teach your child resilience; what the most important factor is in repelling bullies; how to approach a teacher, principal, coach, or camp director with your concerns; how to track a cyberbully; how to help without taking over; what to say when it seems no one’s listening; and more. We’ll do all this with sample scripts and exercises, written policies you can show to authority figures, and checklists to help you follow each step.
The bullying statistics are daunting; together, we can change them. I hope this is the last book on bullying you’ll ever need.