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Bullying Runs Deep: Breaking the Code of Silence That Protects Bullies

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Bullies are victims.

They are the kind that never let you forget.

They are not afraid to hurt anyone. In their own minds, they have suffered so much that social consequences mean nothing.

Those of us who are bullied learn to live by their rules: rigid and largely unspoken. Living by this code of silence is often a matter of life or death.

I grew up in an environment of tacit agreements. Silence was the coping skill my family and community modeled. It served not only to protect me but also the adults who were unable to control themselves and unable to act on my behalf.

With silence, I was taught to protect the reputation of the person who changed the terms of the most fundamental relationship a child has. As a single mother in the late 1960s, my mother's reputation was already at stake. Married for a mere eleven months, she chose to do the unthinkable, to leave her abusive husband, undoing their shotgun vows. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, she was determined not to become a stereotype: single-mom-turned-prostitute or worse, welfare-mother.

She left a perpetrator only to become one.

In normal monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, I protected my mom because everyone else did. I watched as my family and friends turned their heads as she hit, yelled at and intimidated me. Following the lead of the adults, I learned not to talk about it. Talking only implicated everyone else. No one wants to be implicated. After all, when it comes right down to it, everyone is afraid of a bully.

My mother's temper was extreme and unpredictable. I do not know anything that can change as quickly as the emotional state of a human being. On one particular evening, upset that I was too tired to continue to help her with her homework (she had begun college), she stormed my room, strangled me and threw me to my bed. The next morning driving to school, she asked me what was the matter because I was "awfully quiet." I told her that I thought she should apologize for hurting me. Her response, "You should smile more," was more crippling than the blows of the night before. I was 12.

To this day, I am not quite sure what was more damaging: the fact that her abuse continued or that I indeed learned to smile more. On more than one occasion in my life, I have been told that it is hard to take my requests for help seriously because I can always find something to laugh about. It is a fine art finding the silver lining in gray clouds but it can also be incredibly deceptive when real help is needed.

Truthfully, the complicit silence never stopped my mother's abuse. All it did was make everybody else feel comfortable knowing they didn't have to intervene. Plus, it secured my mother's position knowing she could get away with being out of control. No one was ever going to confront her. After all, I was a National Honor Society student. I was a good athlete. I must be okay.

My appearance and accolades were her cover, and were the very things everyone else used as an excuse not to intervene. In fact, on two occasions when I did seek help (from the school principal and the mother of my closest friend), I was told not to speak poorly of my hard-working mother. For a while, I did smile more. Then I did drugs.

In typical fashion, my family and school chalked me up to being just another rebel without a cause who was acting out for the hell of it. On the surface, I had no reason to act out. Very few people understood why a child in my position would act the way I did. Many didn't want to know and so never inquired, effectively silencing my efforts to talk about my circumstances.

I am always amazed when I hear anyone say that teenagers act out simply "to get attention." Of course, they do. Children act out because they do need attention: positive, proactive, compassionate, responsive and responsible attention. I am astonished by how many adults don't do anything because they don't know what to do or ignore the situation because they don't want to acknowledge that they might have to change. For a child in crisis whose parents and adult community have not shown the ability to appropriately respond in times of need, radical acts are often the only measures a child has in order to get someone to pay attention and take action.

I conduct workshops for children. In one such event, participants ages 13 to 15 were asked to develop an anti-bullying campaign. Out of a group of thirty-three, only three said they had not witnessed nor directly experienced bullying. Four of the students admitted to being bullies. The rest admitted to having witnessed or experienced bullying. When asked how many thought adults could be bullies, all of the students said "yes."

Of all the campaigns created that day, one in particular caught my attention: "Bullying Runs Deep." When I asked the two working on the poster what it meant, one talked to me about his experiences. He said sometimes when he is bullied, he goes and bullies someone else. He said in a very serious yet matter-of-fact way, "It's like there is no difference between us. Everyone's a bully sometimes." He was 13.

This is the truest statement I've heard in this current dialogue about bullying. When kids are taught not to be "tattle-tales," it is hard to know how to redirect our emotions after we are bullied or have witnessed someone being bullied. However, emotions will always find a way out through other actions especially when words are silenced. Those actions look different for everyone, some bully others, others bully themselves.

Thankfully, I was surrounded by different family structures that showed me my experience with my mother was not the norm. I clung to those experiences believing that if I could graduate from high school, I would live to see not just another day but another life.

Now I am an adult with another life. I have had over a decade of trauma-based therapy. My mother has clocked a few hours herself. Though she has apologized for her past behavior, our relationship is not without conscious effort, and one I constantly navigate.

Society asks why bullying is rampant without looking at how adults might use bullying as an acceptable form of parenting, teaching, relating to children, or to each other for that matter. When we bully our children into acquiescence, we teach them to distrust themselves. We teach them to reach conclusions about their experiences based on the comfort or expectations of another person. We teach them to lie to themselves, and in so doing, we teach them to lie to each other.

When we teach them to lie to each other, we teach them how to start rumors. When we teach them how to start rumors, we have facilitated what was once an invisible social inferno that is now magnified in this era of social media where everything is visible. We commit social arson.

Unfortunately, people confuse advocacy with conceit, and silence with respect. I like to imagine a time when silence is no longer a socially acceptable response to bullying, and when bullying is no longer a socially accepted form of parenting.

There is real momentum behind advocating for children among peers. Among adults, changing the terms of familial and social agreements that protect perpetrators would be a giant step forward. I strongly believe shifting societal silence towards individual and social advocacy will foster a move towards truth telling that will permeate homes, schools and professions. I believe it starts with looking at our own actions as adults and as parents.

When I consider the work those students did that day, I have to ask how many of us would be able to stand in a crowd and admit to having been a bully? How many of us can admit to having bullied our kids? How many of us can apologize for our mistakes and take genuine steps towards changing our actions? It isn't easy. It isn't comfortable. Yet until we do, we will continue to point fingers, and pointing fingers only begs the question, "Who is bullying who?"