During the recent White House Bullying Summit, the president challenged the people who work in bullying prevention to look at their current work and see where we could improve. His request came at a time when I'd actually been thinking about the same thing. Why? Because about a month ago I was asked to review a commonly used bullying prevention guideline often given to parents and children. As I read it, I realized that I had never taken the time to read these guidelines and I should have because they weren't as good as they need to be.
Among the advice I thought was most counterproductive?
"Ignore the bully." By the time a child reaches out to an adult, the vast majority of kids have been dealing with the bullying and trying to ignore it for a long time. The only thing that happens when you tell a kid to ignore the bully, is that they no longer think you care or are capable of helping them.
"Explain to your child that bullies are weak and insecure." Who cares? Even if that were true, the bullies themselves don't believe it, and that fact doesn't help the target respond effectively to the problem.
"To avoid being bullied develop friendships and remember there is safety in numbers." This is an example of a tip that is simply not reflective of the reality of people's lives. Sometimes bullies are your friends and very rarely do bullying prevention tips acknowledge this fact or what to do about it. Equally unhelpful and inadequate is "safety in numbers" because you can't depend on that being the case. In truth there's sometimes danger in numbers because people are often encouraged by the group to fight or at the least not back down from a situation.
This information is regularly given out at schools all over the country and specifically when people are in great distress. In such a situation, advice has to be good. As educators on this issue, we owe it to the families we work with to give them our best. We have to look at our standard protocols and advice and ask ourselves a very simple question: Do we give people effective information?
So I've done a little revising to these tips. I don't have all the answers and it's likely I overlooked something so I encourage you to make suggestions to what you see here. I will start off here with guidelines for the target. I'll follow later with guidelines for the bystander and the bully. I look forward to seeing what you think.
If you are being bullied:
Many kids who are bullied feel helpless. Sometimes, they think the only thing they can do is hope the problem will go away. But there are things you can do to get some control in the situation and it starts with developing a strategy and a support system.
The moment it's happening:
• Breathe. Observe who is around. Breathe again.
• Ask yourself what the bully is doing that you want stopped and what you want them to do instead.
• If you can, find the courage to say those feelings. For example, "Stop pushing me into the lockers, I want to walk down the hallway in peace. I know you can do whatever you want, but I want you to stop." Or, "Stop sending texts to everyone in the grade that no one should talk to me."
• If you can walk away, think about walking towards safety not away from the bully. For example, walk towards a classroom where you can see a teacher you trust. If you are in a park, walk towards a group of adults or a coach.
• Don't retaliate or threaten to retaliate. This often leads to an escalation of the bullying.
If you are being bullied online:
Any time someone is bullied through social networking, a cell phone, or any type of social media, it can be really hard not to want to defend yourself by retaliating or finding out why this person is attacking you. Sleeping with your phone in your bedroom is never a good idea, but it's even worse when you're bullied online because it's too tempting to stay up all night trying to "fix" the situation -- which isn't possible anyway. Same thing goes with a computer. Sleep is hard anyway when you know people are saying mean things about you, but it's impossible if you're checking Facebook, Twitter, and your texts all night.
After the bullying has occurred:
Remember that reporting a bully is not snitching. People snitch when all they want to do is get the person in trouble. People report when they have a problem that is too big for them to solve on their own. People who report bullying are doing the right thing. And the reality is adults can't address the problem if they don't know about it.
Report the bullying to an ally: An ally is an adult that you trust to help you think through your problems. An ally can be a parent or guardian, a teacher or counselor. Avoid describing the bullying in generalities like, "He is being mean." Be specific about the bullying behavior, where you are when it occurs, and what you need to feel safe.
If you are scared to go to school, show up for practice, or any other activity, tell your ally or the adult who is in charge. It is not your fault that you are being bullied, and you have the right to be in school and participate in after-school activities, just like everyone else.
What do you do if the bully is a friend?
It's always important to have strong friendships that you can depend on, but sometimes the bully can be a friend. If that happens ask yourself the following questions about your friendship.
• What are the three most important things I need in a friendship? (Most people say, trust, respect, and honesty)
• Are my friends treating me according to what I need in a friendship?
• If my friends aren't treating me according to my standards, why am I in this friendship? Is it worth it?
• If my friends were nice to me tomorrow, do I believe the bullying will stop or am I hoping for the best and putting all the power in their hands?
If you're the adult who is helping the child or teen think through these questions, it's OK for them to think about their answers. They need to come up with the answers for themselves so they can internalize the realization that the cost is too high to maintain these relationships.
I look forward to seeing what you think! Tomorrow, I'll post tips for bystanders.