When I was in 5th grade, the bully thing became a problem. There had been minor amounts of it in previous years. But- as the social world become more complex, and my awkwardness created more tension- the number of bullies increased.
After one particularly unpleasant incident, a teacher finally recommended that I visit the school counselor. I went and, once a week for several months, we discussed bullies and friends and self-esteem.
Overall, I was confused. Sending me to a counselor after a bullying incident: this left me with the impression that it was my fault; like the bullying was due to problems with me, and not the aggressors. The other kids were punished, but that in no way diminished the confusion I felt. They received an obligatory, textbook penalty; I was sent to a counselor. I couldn’t help but feel that I was the one with a problem. (That particular counselor was too fond of platitudes to be of any help; later in life I met with an autism spectrum specialist and had a much more constructive discussion; click here for a recent post about that.)
6th grade. Another unpleasant bullying incident. This one required being picked up early by my parents for a doctor visit. On the way there, my dad asked for details about the incident. When I finished describing it, he sighed and said, “That’s it. We’re signing you up for karate.”
He followed through on it. A few weeks later, I found myself in a local martial arts studio, wearing a stiff, blindingly white gi. A dozen or so other kids were there roaming around, all uniformed up, ready for action. Let’s teach M to defend himself: I suppose, in a way, this makes sense. I can see the crude logic at work there. But as I looked around the studio, my only thought was: great; now I’m surrounded by kids who have PERMISSION to hit me.
(For the record, I’m not suggesting that martial arts are a bad thing for kids who face these difficulties. They can certainly boost confidence and have a variety of health and recreational benefits. The issue here is one of timing. There is a time and place to discuss confidence-building activities. Immediately following a bully encounter may not be it.)
Again, the response to a bullying incident left me with the sense that it was my fault; that I should have done something differently. The karate thing in particular felt pretty humiliating. Where I’m from, boys are pressured to express overtly masculine traits at a young age. My awkwardness, introversion, never went over very well. Standing in that martial arts studio, it just felt like I had failed some invisible test and let the adults down.
This was all happening in the 1980’s. My hope is that it’s a little better today, that schools and parents are responding in more constructive ways to these issues. At that time, the well-meaning but misguided attempts to “help” me took a heavy toll on my self-esteem.
After 6th grade, any modicum of confidence I possessed evaporated. I became increasingly withdrawn…and less interested in going to the adults for help. Parents, teachers: they seemed to mean well…nice people and all…but I no longer trusted them. They were just one part of the confusing social world that I no longer felt any connection to. (I tried to put a lot of distance between myself and others; in this post, I describe just a few of the hiding routines I developed.)
In the discussion about bullying, we often focus on awareness and preventative measures, which is great. But it’s also important for adults to establish guidelines for their own responses. Will a reaction cause anyone to feel judged? Will it inadvertently make the bullied individual feel at fault? Questions like these need to be an ongoing part of the discussion.
Bottom line: how an adult responds to a child or teen after a bullying incident can have as much impact as the bullying itself. We have to get these things right, because it’s not enough for kids and teens to simply feel safe. They also need to feel that their dignity is intact and protected.