Growing up I was “picked on” notoriously. There was the kid who threatened to kill me because he didn’t like my mail box, the era of the “anonymous” messages on my answering machine telling me I was stupid, name calling and “practical jokes,” that cut deep. Honestly, I felt like both third and sixth grade were the ninth layer of hell. It caused me to try and change my personality to better fit in. Funny thing is it never dawned on me that I was being bullied.
When my science teacher told the 11-year-old Leneita she should, “Just get over it, kids are not always nice, and you should learn to suck it up,” I believed her. I mean no one ever shook me down for my milk money, stuck my head in a toilet, gave me an “atomic wedgie,” or shoved me in a garbage can. Yet, I can remember many, many days with a sick feeling in my stomach that caused me to not want to go to school to face these tormenting peers that wouldn’t stop.
Fast forward to a world where kids are online and sharing all their feelings good and bad in public spaces from ages as young as nine or ten. This morning I learned of a fifth grader who was finally taken out of Christian school and is being homeschooled. After three years of never-ending “drama,” it needed to end. Instead of kids being “picked on” at school, bullies can now pick on kids anywhere, anytime.
Students have sat in so many assemblies about the topic of bullying they have almost gone numb to it. They either think it is the extreme of when someone gets beaten up, or they think it is every time someone is mean. Teens don’t seem to understand that a bully usually comes back time and again to tear you down.
It doesn’t help that those in “authority” can’t quite agree on how to approach the topic. I read an article by a school principle who made the point that their school has a “zero tolerance policy, ” and “every reported incident is investigated thoroughly.” However, he followed with pointing out that sometimes, “kids will just be kids and it is part of growing up to learn to deal with conflict.” (Sounds like my sixth grade science teacher.)
Worse yet, is this phenomena has become so subtle students live in fear of being the next victim. I work with two students who fit this category. One has had to deal with teasing. As far as I can get out of him, I’m not sure if it has crossed the line to something more. Yet, as a junior high boy, he lives in panic every day that it will. This young man exists in a constant state of anxiety. What if today is the day that the jabs turn into a consistent persecution? Another young lady that I work with tries desperately to just “fly below the radar”. A good friend of hers has been the brunt of a bully. On the one hand, she is the first to stand up for her young friend. She will tell the other girls that call her names that it isn’t right. For herself though, she must maintain a constant state of perfectionism. What if someone observes her flaws as well? For both of these kids the potential of bullying is just as notorious as living through it.
Going to school between sixth and 12th grade can feel like jumping ship into a river of piranhas, on a daily basis. That is the nature of those years. It is all about status and survival. However, there is a dark undercurrent that we must recognize.
A couple of friends of mine proposed the statement, “peer harassment,” to delineate a one time “issue” from an ongoing struggle. I think this helps students and adults navigate what a “bully” truly is. It is a much better wording. Losing an Instagram friend might hurt your feelings, and that is real, but it may not be the act of a bully.
If we can change the wording there are some things that could happen:
Listening and Responding:
Really listening, between the lines hearing what is being said. We can learn to ask if this is something that keeps happening or if it was a one time offense. We must let students know that they are not “weak” if they “can’t handle being picked on”. In addition, some students do have softer hearts than others. If we listen and respond then we won’t just dismiss a kid because they aren’t strong enough. We don’t live in their shoes and truly listening beyond words to the soul is vital.
Avoid Telling Students What They Feel:
We need to stop telling students when it shouldn’t bother them. “Oh, those kids are just jealous of you,” is our common response. Maybe. Knowing why you are getting hurt doesn’t make the pain go away. If someone keeps you that you are stupid at some point you might believe them. For others a one time bad experience might do the same damage. Not every student will be able to “handle it”. Harassment and bullying can create the same wound depending on the student. Our empathy must rise, and we must stop pushing their feelings aside. Letting the victims know that their pain matters is a first step. Then we can teach them how to navigate these waters.
Recognize There Are Rarely Simple Solutions:
Students put hands on another student and they end up suspended and on some occasions they are even expelled. However, when you are the student who stands up for “what is right” in these delicate years, it can open “Pandora’s Box.” Yes, the “bully” is gone. Now you deal with glares of some who wonder why you “made waves”? Disney and Nickelodeon teen sitcoms, would argue we can all laugh it off or stand up for ourselves and it will be fine. Sometimes it isn’t that simple. Believe me, I like quick and easy solutions. But, I think of a gay 19-year-old who took his life a few years ago who made the news. He was picked on from about 5 years old for being effeminate. Before he ever “came out of the closet” he was called horrific names. His parents thought he was demonized and attempted an exorcism on him. Supposedly he “got over it”. He even participated in the “It Gets Better” campaign with a video for other gay teens. The acts against him ended. The wounds were left oozing and bleeding. The ghosts of all of those years caught up with him and he took his life. Actions ended. The agony didn’t. This is what I call a “stinky onion issue”. The more layers we peel away the more it smells, assaults our senses, and makes us cry. No one “formula” will make is all go “poof.” It is about learning to undo, all the “layers”. We need to remind our students that Jesus saves, heals our afflictions, and provides us with the best role model of how to handle injustice.
Teach the Power of Hope:
I think of all of the insecurities I still have from my years at the hands of multiple bullies. There wasn’t just one kid who needed to “move away”. Instead, I was left trying to figure out what was wrong with me. What happens to those in the midst of bullying is that they are stripped of hope. They can’t see the Lord, he feels too far away. Sometimes our role is to simply hold someone close and let them know someone loves them more than they could possibly know. All is not lost. Sometimes, when they don’t know the way, we have to show them what He looks like. This happens through crying with them and whispering words of truth.
If you are like me this topic leaves you wondering. All of the training in the world still leaves me feeling like I don’t know what to do in every situation. Gone are the days of caricatures in teen movies of the “mean kids,” who can be dealt with by a well executed prank. Yes, we love the exhilaration of triumph in the last moments when they “get theirs”. However, rarely is that “real life”. Let’s work together to keep praying and chipping away at this topic. It may not be simple, but we need to keep working on it.