By Keri Bowers
Bullying is a major call for help – both for the one being targeted and for the one perpetrating the bullying.
From the earliest age, I knew I was different from other little girls, and life as I knew it was anything but normal. I experienced myself as being on the outside looking in, as if watching my life – much like an out-of body experience – from high above my tiny waif-like human shell.
I was detached from myself, my family and from everybody else around me. And although I couldn’t put these feelings into words, by the time I was five, I was convinced the universe had played a cosmic trick upon me by dropping me into a family I didn’t recognize as normal, nurturing, safe or loving.
In those early years, I fared no better with many peers and teachers. It wasn’t as if every kid or teacher was horrible or mean to me, they weren’t. But there were enough of them – those who were unkind, or out-and-out bullies – who validated my belief that I was relatively worthless. Low self-esteem and lack of self-worth were early hallmarks of my childhood. As a defense mechanism, I learned to consciously separate myself from people around me in order to protect myself from that which was not safe. In so doing, I created a hardened, if not stoic protective shell around me.
From the kids who laughed at me, taunting me for the black eye patch I wore over my lazy left eye, to those who called me albino for my all too white skin, I learned that children could be cruel. From Mrs. Schlockman who berated me in front of the class for not knowing the answers to random math problems, to Mrs. Gordon, who slapped her ruler on my desk while harshly admonishing me for daydreaming, I learned that adults – who should nurture, redirect and grow esteem – could be punitive and were not to be trusted.
Hard lessons extended to others, including the girl in the white bunny fur jacket and her girl posse. They tormented me daily on the playground when I was in the third grade – following me, pushing me around, while calling me names.
“Say ‘I am a bitch!’” bunny-jacket girl would yell at me. “Say ‘f you.’”
Frightened and flustered, one day, I stopped going out to recess altogether. And one day soon after, I peed in my pants in front of the class, which only brought on more humiliation. At age eight, I was a nervous wreck and felt I had no one to turn to.
I never did understand what I did to attract the bunny-jacket girl’s assaults. Maybe it was because I wore hand-me-downs in a privileged Beverly Hills elementary school. Maybe she instinctively knew I had low self-esteem and would be a perfect target for her own unhappiness. I don’t really know, yet, as water seeks its own level, it would only be a short time later that I would come to turn the table on a boy weaker than myself. For one day, I became a horrible, terrible bully, determined to exert power, control and revenge upon another.
I was a bully for a day: his name was Troy
It was the summer between the bunny-jacket girl and my 4th grade year. Happily, things were taking a positive turn in my life. I was adopted as a foster child in an amazing family. I was living with people who took me in and really, really loved and cared for me. I never knew that type of support and nurturing in my birth family. In this new environment, my heart-sick soul began to emerge. I was less stoic and had a good deal of hope. But I still had wounds to heal, esteem to grow and great lessons to learn.
Troy was a tiny little boy, younger than I, who lived down the street. One day while playing outside, I cornered him as my foster sister, Deborah, watched. I called him names. I tugged on his shirt. I pushed and taunted him as I had been taunted. I told him to strip down. And for a few minutes, I recall feeling powerful. I was in control, bullying him as the bunny-jacket girl and others had done to me.
“Leave him alone!”
Why my foster sister, Deborah, was more powerful than my hateful actions, I don’t know, but she was. She yelled at me to stop.
“Leave him alone!” she rallied.
She took a stand for Troy. Instead of joining in with me in a “mob” mentality, she snapped “Stop it, Keri! Stop it!” Hearing her, immediately stopped my actions. For a moment, I was silent. This “reverse” peer pressure instantly shook me, waking me up from the horrible act of hurting another living being. I told Troy to run home.
As he ran down the street crying, a profound sense of shame and humility rushed over and through me. I knew I did something terribly wrong. A bully wasn’t who I was, but a bully was what I could or would become had it not been for the sober moment of a very brave little girl who took a stand for goodness.
As I write this 45 years later, my heart still hurts. I deeply regret that I intentionally and willfully hurt an innocent boy’s soul. I wonder what became of him. Was he, like me, an easy target for others to bully? Why did I choose him as a target? How could I do such a thing? In turn, I wonder, what choices would he make in his life about how he would treat others?
Years later, when I became a mother, and in particular became the mother of a son with autism, I feared the bullies on the playground who might hurt my own innocent, awkward child. Though any child can be the target of bullying, kids with special needs are more likely to become targets. I knew that and feared for Taylor. The memory of my own shameful behavior that summer day haunted me. Would others hurt my child as I had hurt Troy?
Experience is a teacher…
I’m grateful to learn from my own experiences, and to be able to pass that on to my own kids. I knew early on I needed to talk about bullying with my children. Whether they be bullies or the targets, I knew we needed to have open, realistic and recurring dialogue at age appropriate levels. I knew I needed to give them strategies to cope, to react, and to avert.
In response to bullying at the junior high school both of my boys attended, I started a program in 2002 (which continues now into its 12th year,) called “Abilities Awareness.” That program went on to win the State and National PTA awards for Excellence in Education. My kids were proud of that program – and they were a part of its origins. They both benefited from its many lessons (six cumulative years for them,) and I am proud to say, also lived into the program’s example.
A few years after Taylor graduated to go on to high school and Jace began his years in junior high, one day I asked him “Do you just sit by and watch kids bully others? What do you do? Do you take a stand?” He told me he was troubled by kids who teased others, but he was not sure what he could do. Every day I said the same thing to him as I dropped him off at school “Do something nice for someone today and don’t tell them about it.”
The example plants a seed
Then one day he came home and shared with me: “Mommy, I told those kids to stop teasing.” He had learned to do nothing was a part of the problem – a conversation we had many times over. He did something nice for another and he chose to share that with me. And his efforts continued.
One day when the mother of a little girl with Asperger’s pulled me aside to thank me. She told me that Jace had intervened for her daughter who was being teased. Jace told those kids straight up: “Stop it!” And, just like Deborah had intervened with me to save Troy, my son helped another little girl from being bullied. The kids did not bother Jessica again for the rest of the year.
Guidance of Authority
I’d learned from Richard Lavoie, an expert in child social behaviors, that when children interact without the guidance of an authority figure that’s when they experiment with the (good and bad) relationship styles they’ll eventually have as adults. In the case of Jace and Deborah’s interventions, reverse peer pressure to do the right thing provided “authority.” Peer pressure for negative is catchy and toxic. Peer pressure for good can also be contagious. Jace and Deborah had become bold gateways to stopping the bullies from bullying.
I’m not saying all children should put on the spot to be authority figures – not at all. But at a minimum, we can show them how being a part of the problem is the problem, and standing for the solution is who they are and who they want to be. We can teach them to be leaders for good, especially by setting our own examples. For our kids it can be simple as “I will not take part in hurting another person – dude.”
We can’t assume our kids will make the right decisions without guidance. Therefore, we must be proactive and practiced in our communication with our kids. Hopefully, if we are successful, we will help lead them to their own conclusions about who they want to be in life – as men and women.
We have to take a stand for our children – and not just our own, but for all children. With the escalation of bullying, including cyber bullying, and the pervasive tragic results of death, suicide, stalking, and the results for both the targets and the bullies, we are all in peril. So what to do? What can we do? What are the hallmarks of a bully and those who are targets? What if I or you do nothing but “like” a post on Facebook. Is that enough?
Breaking it down
Some common characteristics of targets and perpetrators include:
Surprisingly, targets may be good at what they do. Kids who get positive attention and reinforcement from others for something they do well may attract bullies who feel inferior and worry they are overshadowed by another. The target may be a student who is at “the top of the class,” or who appears to move easier through projects and assignments than others do. It may be surprising that gifted students fall into this category and are often targeted for being smart. Don’t assume your child is exempt from bullying for being smart.
Targets may have personal vulnerabilities. Kids who are anxious, submissive or introverted are more likely to be bullied than kids who are extroverted and assertive. Kids who lack self-worth and self-esteem, or who suffer from depression or other hardships may be more vulnerable and are potential targets for bullies. Kids who are bullied at home are more likely to becoming targets at school.
Targets may have physical features that attract attention. Short, tall, large or thin, too white, too dark, wear glasses, have braces, acne, or other physical features that stand out can attract bullies.
Targets may be loners or have few friends. Often, victims of bullying may have fewer friends or are isolated from peers and groups of kids. It may be your kid, mine, or the one who sits on a bench alone and/or does not readily play in group activities. This was my kid, Taylor. A very solitary kid at high school, who was very, very tall at 6’10”, yet he was harassed and physically assaulted by a high school boy who wanted to take him down for no apparent reason.
Targets may have a disability or illness. Oftentimes, bullies target kids with special needs. Any condition that sets a kid apart is a potential target. In autism, we now have evidence that kids who do not demonstrate “appropriate” facial ques and/or non-verbal communication are more likely to be ostracized or bullied.
Targets may belong to a different racial group. No race is exempt from being bullied and no race is exempt from having bullies. Our children learn from the world around them that certain racial groups are “bad.” How can we educate to eliminate or squash this racially biased hatred? Read on…
Targets who have different religious or cultural beliefs. No matter the religion, culture or practice of faith, if an at-risk bully can use religious affiliation to separate, they often will. Look at our global world. Our children are seeing the wars, and the hatred. We need to have frank and candid discussions about world affairs that live in our very own backyards.
Targets who have a different sexual orientation. Kids are often bullied for being gay. Some of the most brutal bullying incidents have involved children who are bullied for their sexual orientation. We see this fight for equality of gay rights – or the opposite desire to silent the “flawed ones” on talk radio. Where is your kid getting his/her messages and what is the message they are getting from you?
So what can we do to educate our kids?
Promote education for ALL at a very early age. Create an anti-bullying/leadership program in your preschool, elementary, junior or high school to educate kids about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Programs can be ongoing in-school activities that all children participate in, after school clubs, or a one time “circle of friends” presentation. Let children know that bullying takes many different forms. Bullying is consistent, unwanted, degrading behavior inflicted upon other students or teachers.
Invite other parents to get involved. Invite parents and students to an evening dedicated to stomping out bullying. Ask a local child psychologist and law enforcement to be speakers. Reach out to local experts or celebrities to talk to parents and children about their experiences with bullying.
Check out books from the library and engage in proactive communication. Choose books with, and read them with, your child. Choose age appropriate subjects and continue to expand to higher concepts as they grow. As a continuing effort to build trust and connection with your child, discuss central ideas, allowing for your child to be free to speak their mind. Let your child know they can talk to you and be free from judgment, right or wrong, but always direct them back to answering “Who do you want to be in life.” I ask kids I work with “Do you want to be average…. Or awesome?” Seriously, I’ve yet to meet a kid who does not want to be “awesome” over “average” or below.
Write your child a letter. Put a stamp on it and mail it to them. Let them get it from the mail box themselves and wonder what it is they are receiving. Share with them your personal experiences, anecdotes and current news on the subject of bullying. Be honest about the consequences of bullying and being bullied. Direct them to desired outcomes in their own behaviors toward others. Help them to get in touch with their feelings about how they want to be treated and how to treat others. Discuss what they thought about getting an actual letter from you in the mail and what it meant to them.
Visit online sites and You Tube. Just look up “strategies to prevent bullying,” and the net will give you a lot of resources to follow. You Tube has some exceptional videos that support acceptance, love and compassion.
Get you kid involved in community service! I cannot emphasize this enough. When a child is focused on those in need or who are less fortunate, they are more likely to adopt compassion, acceptance and more well-rounded views of the world and the differences of people in it.
Role play with your child or students. Ask kids to design situations in which bullying could occur and ask them to act out those situations. Try to encourage each child to play both roles so they can see the situation from both sides. Afterwards, ask the kids how they felt being either the bully or the child who was bullied. Share strategies and supports for kids to seek help from adults, parents and others when they are targeted.
Introduce new cultures/ways of life. When a child does not understand cultures, religions and other differences, bullying is often used as a defense mechanism. Invite other kids over to discuss their different heritages or traditions at home. Make differences an acceptable and natural condition of the world in which we live.
Encourage your school to include anti-bullying on the school’s website and in its newsletter. Keep the school website and newsletter updated every month with new information or tips on how to prevent bullying. Ask kids to get involved in posting, contributing, and writing articles. Ask kids to interview others about bullying, to role play and to bring new ideas to social media. Talk about bullying in social media and its effects on people. Include local references and hotline numbers for parent and student access.
Practice what you preach! Show your children compassion, patience and acceptance toward others in your everyday life. (e.g. don’t blow your cool at the lazy Starbucks worker who gave you the wrong order. Be calm and fix it. Stop honking your horn to tell someone they pissed you off for not going fast enough at a green light.) Show patience when someone is too slow for your fast paced world. Slow down and enjoy – showing your child that we do not need to live a “fast food society” in our personal daily lives.
In finishing this blog, I have to say, it was hard for me to share that I was a bully for a day. For 25 years, I have lived a life as an advocate in autism, a teacher, and role model for my (now adult) children and others. But I wanted to open up and be vulnerable to my past in hopes that it might inspire someone reading this to create a new future for your own children and those around you.
“Who says one person cannot change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Meade
Keri Bowers is the owner of Normal Films, and co-creator of The Art of Autism. Her films, workshops and writings (contributing columnist for Autism Asperger Digest; Art Director for the Miracle Project, Autism Movement Therapy and the Friendship Circle) promotes self-advocacy, the arts, transitions, sibling support, and continuing education. www.normalfilms.com www.the-art-of-autism.com For personal comments or questions email firstname.lastname@example.org