"You're a bully, Mother."
"I am not!"
"Yes, you are. Anyone who makes another feel less of themselves is a bully."
~Sue Sylvester, calling the kettle black in 'Glee'.
Bullying. What a stupid word to describe such aggressive, terrorizing, malignant behavior.
Bullies come in all sizes, genders and ages. They can be found in all environments where human interaction takes place. As parents we focus on protecting our children from bullies at school, but that can just as easily be in our workplace, neighborhood, even our place of worship.
When I was a kid I had my share of teasing but not what I would call aggravated bullying. There was a little girl younger than me, though, in my neighborhood who was harassed by her brother. He could be verbally vicious, and that was what I saw. God knows what happened behind closed doors. It still makes me cringe that I did nothing for that child, even though I was a child myself. Where the hell were the parents? Probably confusing run of the mill "sibling rivalry" with the horrible reality of the sibling bullying occurring in their home.
As a grown up I ran into bullying from an unlikely source – my boss. It took years and comparing notes with co-workers to fully comprehend what was going on. Rather than continue to absorb the psychological blows, I quit. Workplace bullies are not as uncommon as I naively thought. Today sexual harassment and environmental safety laws help but I believe that has only driven the behavior underground.
And then there are the schools. Middle school is a particular hotbed of bullying. My daughter had a typical episode of "mean girl" behavior targeted at her by former friends. Smart girl that she is, she went to the school counselor who dealt with the matter professionally and effectively.
In another situation it was a teacher who was bullying my 5th grade son, M. It was unbelievable. A gentle, shy kid, given to daydreaming, the teacher would point him out in class as lazy and dull. My son was getting depressed before my eyes. The mother of a fellow classmate called me to tell me that her child was upset to tears by how M. was being treated!
Teacher abuse is not unheard of, just hard to do anything about. It was early in the school year. After talking it over with my son, my husband and I went to the principal, a newbie, who looked like he just graduated high school himself. We demanded that the behavior stop. The older teacher denied it all; the principal looked intimidated by her himself and he went with her report. Of course she had tenure.
My son did not want to leave the class, he felt it would be too much like running away. We respected his wish but the lack of response from the school administration was frustrating. As we left the meeting, we quietly made it clear to both the teacher and principal that we believed our son was being bullied and we'd be watching her. To my satisfaction she turned pale and a bead of sweat appeared at her temple.
Afterwards we wrote a letter to the principal, with a copy to the teacher and to the district superintendent, describing the meeting, the result and our concerns. The bullying stopped for my son, but as with most bullies, God knows if her rath was turned on someone else.
Recently, the toxic danger of bullying has been exposed in the suicides of the innocent young people who were its target. That is what prompted this article.
Whether you or someone you care about is dealing with a bully:
1) Take care of yourself first by calling out the behavior for what it is. Recognize that anyone who is making you feel badly about yourself is being abusive. You are wonderful; anyone would feel small and anxious under the circumstances. They are behaving criminally. That is not too strong a word. You say you deserve the criticism? There is a way to give feedback, even if negative, that is kind, even empowering, instead of cruel.
2) Tell someone you trust about the bully. Just saying what is going on out loud helps diminish the power the bully has over you. Terror lies in the dark.
3) Document. With another person as a witness if possible, write down the incidents of bullying, with descriptions and dates. This record will help if it doesn't stop and you need to take stronger action.
4) Avoid the bully if you can. Ignore them. Do not let them see you sweat. Sometimes, zero reinforcement (positive or negative attention) will extinguish negative behavior. If you have to meet with them, do everything you can to meet in public or have a third party there. If avoiding them becomes a kind of intimidation itself…
5) Assertively, firmly demand that the behavior stop. This step is more for you than them. Sometimes confrontation, not to be confused with bullying back, is all that is needed to make the bullying stop. A show of strength is not expected. In other cases…
6) Get professional help. This is not weak or a sign of giving up. On the contrary, seeking professional guidance is calling on a resource. If the setting is a school go to the administration, school counseling office or a sympathetic teacher. If it is work, go to the Employee Assistance Program counselor. If you have no EAP seek out a professional yourself, either a therapist or an attorney.
Here are some related articles that may be helpful. Please share your own story or other helpful links in the comments!