My 10-year-old daughter goes to a good school with terrific teachers, a caring principal, and the support of some pretty amazing mothers (okay – dads too). A group of parents recently had to deal with a bullying issue. Now if your child has ever been bullied, you will know how devastating it can be for a child and also for a parent. The first time it happened to my child, I felt like someone hit me in the stomach, and I wanted to march over to the school and deal with the bully myself! But of course I couldn’t. In this case, the parents worked together to ensure the bullying stopped and continue to work together so that it doesn’t happen again.
Some parents have trouble getting over the anger, fearing their children are scarred for life, given all the media hype about children committing suicide as a result of being bullied. I have also learned, through the study of positive psychology, that learning to deal with adversity can sometimes make children stronger and more resilient, contributing to overall well-being. Here is what I would say to every parent whose child has been bullied.
Don’t ignore bullying. Boys may be more direct, gaining power through pushing, shoving, and hitting, while girls may use relational aggression, leveraging the hurt the victim suffers from being socially excluded. Relational aggression may be harder to detect since it is more covert and victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of even greater social exclusion imposed by the bully. Geoff MacDonald of Queensland University and Mark Leary at Wake Forest University found that social exclusion can hurt as much as a punch to the stomach. From their explorations of social pain, the emotional reaction to being excluded from desired relationships or groups, they conclude:
“Because inclusion in social groups has been a key to survival for social animals deep into the past, we propose that threats to one’s social connections are processed at a basic level as a severe threat to one’s safety. In fact we argue that such threats are partly mediated by the same system that processes physical pain because the pain system was already in place when social animals evolved adaptations for responding to social exclusion.”
In other words, social exclusion is experienced as physical pain in the most primal part of our brains. This is also supported by the work of neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger who designed an experiment where participants played a computer game called Cyberball while having their brains scanned by an fMRI machine. The Cyberball game begins with all three avatars happily tossing the ball to each other but soon, the study participant is excluded from the game, showing activity in the same region in the brain that physical pain might cause.
Regardless of the kind of bullying your child is enduring, it has to be stopped swiftly. If your child is showing signs of depression from a bullying incident, seek professional help.
Forgive the Bully
Once the bullying has been dealt with in a manner that reassures everyone the behavior will not continue, it is time to forgive. Forgiveness can reduce residual anger and bring us back to higher levels of well-being. Steve Safigan offered this advice in a comment to a previous article I wrote on forgiveness:
“Forgiveness does not mean restoration of the relationship. A relationship requires two parties who are willing to work at the relationship. Some relationships are toxic and should not be continued. If we place any conditions on the other person in order to forgive, then we allow the other person to deny us the healing that forgiveness offers. In this way, the other person continues to exert power over us. We can, however, choose to forgive with no preconditions, while continuing to withhold trust and/or restoration of the relationship.”
I would tell parents that forgiving can be freeing and healing for us and our children.
Ask: What are you grateful for?
When things go wrong, I ask myself, “What am I grateful for as I go through this awful experience?” When my child was being bullied, here is what I came up with. “I am grateful my daughter is at a good school that takes these issues seriously. I am grateful my daughter has loving parents and a sister who will help her get through this. I am grateful my daughter is smart and has other good friends who will support her.”
I would tell parents that practicing gratitude can increase the hope that their daughters will be okay after all.
Seek Social Support
Often we think that handling things on our own is a sign of strength when in fact, reaching out to others for help is a sign of resilience. When a connection has been threatened by a bully, re-establishing trusting social relationships with others can help our children regain confidence. When my oldest daughter was once bullied at school, she said “Well, I will find other friends. Not everyone has to like me, and I’m okay with that.” I was stunned since it took me 37 years to learn that lesson!
As parents, I would say that we, too, need to reach out to others to talk about the experience, share strategies, and help each other heal.
Life’s Adversities Can Build Resilience in Our Children
Psychological resilience is developed and strengthened as we learn to overcome life’s challenges. While some difficulties can have significant effects on mental health, these same difficulties can help children learn positive coping mechanisms that can strengthen resilience, producing a reservoir of strength that our children can draw upon in the future to thrive in the face of hardships. These coping mechanisms can even protect them from mental illness.
I would tell our parents that if we help our children learn strategies to overcome bullying, they will be stronger in the future.
To the Parents of the Bully: Use this Opportunity to Teach Leadership
Hollywood would have us believe that the bullies are those marginalized kids who come from bad families such as the criminally-inclined character played by Judd Nelson (John Bender) in The Breakfast Club. Research performed by Robert Farisa at the University of California shows that in real life, it’s the popular kids who become more aggressive as they gain more social power. According to bully research conducted at Queen’s University, it is best to nip your child’s bullying in the bud.The problem is that the parents of bullies find it difficult to accept their socially advanced child is a bully, and they challenge the school’s interpretation of events. Choosing to stay in denial deprives your child of a tremendous opportunity to learn that being mean and abusive is not an effective or sustainable way to win friends and influence people.
Your child may have wonderful strengths of charisma and leadership. Now there’s an opportunity to teach that lasting friendships are acquired through nicer, friendlier approaches. Since positive relationships are so central to well-being, if you are protective and stand between your child and this lesson, he or she may not learn how to have lasting and meaningful positive connections with others, which will ultimately hurt him or her again and again.
When handled with love, compassion, and sometimes professional help, hard times have the capacity to make our children stronger. Whether we are dealing with the bully or the victims of bullying, let’s continue to cultivate pearls in our beautiful children.
Craig, W., Pepler D. and Blais, J. (2007). Responding to Bullying: What Works? School Psychology International, 28; 465-477. Abstract.
Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D. and Williams, K.D., (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 302 (5643), 290-292.
Farisa R., and Felmleea D., (2011). Status Struggles: Network Centrality and Gender Segregation in Same- and Cross-Gender Aggression. American Sociological Review, 76(1), 48–73.
MacDonald G., and Leary M.R., (2005). Why Does Social Exclusion Hurt? The Relationship Between Social and Physical Pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), , 202-223.
The Kingdom of Heaven by amboo who?
Alone on the school bus by woodley wonderworks
Have a heart by D. Sharon Pruitt
Strong Beginnings by familymwr
Pearl on oyster shells courtesy of Katie Storey
This is really lovely Louisa – reminds me of the “it gets better” campaign that was brought about by some high-profile gay teen suicides. Encouraging parents and students to take a longer perspective likely builds resilience in the moment as well as long-term. And it’s true that the bully and parents of the bully need to also see and cultivate the pearls. I’m fortunate (touch wood) in that my children haven’t experienced this yet. While I hope they never will have to deal with bullying, if bullying does enter our world, I hope positive psychology will prepare me, and them, for dealing with it in the best way we can.
Thank you Lisa. I do hope that your children never experience bullying, but as you say, I know you are well equipped to help them learn strategies that will build their resilience. I think if more parents of bullies put aside their defensiveness and worked together with all parents involved, we would see less of a negative impact on our children.
All the best.
Thank you, Louisa, for addressing such an important topic via a positive psychology lens. Forgiveness is giving up our desire to make the past better. Forward movement is where it’s at.
For me, I’m realizing that on some level, I contributed to my own bullying as a child (fat & gay, oh boy!) because the thoughts running through my head were already, “I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not athletic enough, I’m not whatever enough) and all the bully did was confirm my own bias.
When I take responsibility this way, I see myself more as a leader in the co-creation of my experience in life. Do you?
Yes, I know what you mean. While I do not want to propose that bullying is manifested by the victim, I can see how bullies are attracted to certain people. It’s interesting how some kids in the class were not affected by the bullying. Some kids are able to see what the bully is doing – posturing for power – as opposed to taking it personally.
So if we are co-creating this experience, how do we help our children?
It takes a special kid to see a bully posturing for power. As adults, we have a different vantage point. I think parents can help their kids by helping themselves. When we change our own thinking, we influence others to do the same. This means heightening consciousness so that thoughts are monitored and so, judgments can be suspended. Not an easy task, but less judgment of others = less bullying, victimization of ourselves. This I believe. Only took me 30-some years to realize! A HA!
Yes, thank you Louis. That is very insightful and very helpful in this situation. I will use that advice!
All the best.
This article does a great job shedding some light on the more covert forms of bullying that cause tremendous pain for the victims. I’d also love to see a part two of this article that addresses the psychological effects on the various ways that bullying is handled. We’ve had to deal with the bad experience of having the authority person handle the bullying experience poorly which only exacerbated the painful experience.
As with anything else, there are right ways and wrong ways to handle things and it’s irresponsible to ‘handle’ bullying without educating yourself on the matter.
It’s a serious matter in our society and continually shedding the light helps us all deal with it when we encounter it.