“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is archaic and inaccurate. It has given freedom to bullies for decades. Bullying comes in three forms: verbal (taunting), social (exclusion), and physical (pushing, hitting). Twenty percent of children experience bullying first-hand. For special needs children the number rises to a staggering fifty percent. Who is affected? Nearly all children: the bully, the bystanders who join in, the bystanders who do not join in but quake in fear knowing it could happen to them, and the target of the attack. This can lead to long-term and severe problems: low self-esteem, anxiety, a drop in scholastic achievement, isolation, depression, chronic mental health problems, drug abuse or even suicide (StopBullying.gov).
The worst advice for children: do nothing, ignore it. Children who experience or witness bullying and do nothing suffer anxiety and fear. Their sense of helplessness can run through adulthood. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s father quakes around Biff, his tormentor from childhood. But the first time he takes action, it changes his future. He becomes confident. When children stand up to bullies, the bullies lose power, and the children who stand up gain power. Of course, at no time should children openly engage with bullies known for physical violence.
Fifteen years as a teacher has taught me the difference between teasing and bullying. Many children who tease one another do so with friends for fun. Parents joke with their children—that is not bullying. But when the taunting is directed at a particular child in a class or social group or it is repeated over time against the same person, it is bullying. Intentional exclusion of a child is social bullying. In order to stand up to bullies, the first step is to identify them.
There are two groups of bullies: isolated children who view aggression as positive and who often lack parental supervision, and the children with strong social skills and a desire for popularity—yes, the popular kids. Teachers and school administrators often deal with the aggressive loners quickly, but they may overlook the taunting done by popular kids with strong social skills. After all, popular students perform well in school and have a strong rapport with teachers and administrators, as do their parents.
This is not to suggest that all loners or popular students bully others. Loners may be strong, independent individualists, and popular students may be strong leaders or take up social causes. But some loners and popular kids degrade others for the sake of power or popularity, ignoring the human cost. They lack empathy.
When students feel valued and accepted within a community, they prosper. Every child should feel this way. By standing up to non-violent bullies and responding appropriately, children learn to handle problems in life. They learn to take action. This boosts confidence.
My eldest daughter became the first person I taught to stand up to a group of mean girls. One day, she hopped in the car and burst into tears. She had tried to handle the bullies on her own, and she could not take it anymore. She had an overbite (before braces), and the mean girls never let up with Bugs Bunny comments, like “What’s up doc?” To deal with the verbal bullying, we role played various lines to use against them. With words, she stripped away their power, and by the time she reached high school, she’d grown a spine of steel and the confidence to go with it. Since then, I’ve taught many students the same effective techniques, and this has changed lives.
First, teach children to “respond” but to not react to provocation. Reacting to provocation includes taking up bullying behavior in retaliation: swearing, hitting, yelling, calling names and so on. The old saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” applies here. Instead, find the words the child is comfortable saying. A simple response like, “Wow! That was really mean!” calls out the bully for bad behavior. If the bully says, “Hey, I was just kidding”—a common retort to bad behavior—the response is, “If you were kidding, it would have been funny. But it wasn’t. It was mean.” After speaking up, the child should walk away, so as not to escalate the situation. If taunting repeats again, the child should continue to call out the bully: “Wow! Another mean comment. Do you ever say anything nice?” Again walk away. Many other strong but non-confrontational comments serve the same purpose.
In addition to speaking up for oneself, empowerment comes when we stand up for others who suffer at the hands of bullies. Children who witness bullying should also empower themselves and use the same tactic as above to say, “That was so mean. Stop it.” If enough children stand together to aid those in need, the bullies lose power. In middle school, I dropped back from my friends to walk beside a girl who was always left out. The other girls turned and sneered, “Why are you walking with her?” I said, “Because she’s cool.” I don’t know why I did it. I just did it. The girls then included this person and got to know her. New kids at school face this problem. They simply need one person to reach out to them.
At Boca Raton Community High School in Florida, a group of high school students formed a “We Dine Together,” club, so that no child feels left out and isolated. During lunch, they walk around, sit with students, and invite them in. This example shows how children with strong social skills can use their popularity for the greater good of all.
It just takes one child to reach out or stand up for another to make a huge difference.
Sandra Woffington is a middle school teacher, freelance developmental editor, and author of Evil Speaks, book #1 in the Warriors and Watchers Saga, a mythological fantasy series, featuring quirky and special needs teens who must become warriors to save the world. For more, please visit WarriorsandWatchersSaga.com
By Sandra Woffington