By Paul Coughlin
Before explaining proven techniques to help your child avoid being a target of bullying, we have to overcome some very popular misconceptions about what has now become the leading form of violence our children will experience during their school years.
Bullying is the deployment of superior power (social, physical, verbal) that is repeated and intended to harm another person for no justifiable reason. It's intentional abuse--not conflict, misunderstanding, miscommunication, "drama," or an inability to control one's anger. Bullies are highly selective at to who, how and when they attack. Unlike those who cannot control their anger, bullies often plan their attacks ahead of time. Most are highly calculating, not compulsive.
Another myth we have to destroy if we are going to protect our children and society from this anti-social behavior: Bullies on average do not feel bad about themselves. Most are not "broken" or "sad inside." An increasing body of research tells us that bullies possess average to excessive self-esteem. Many believe they are entitled, more valuable, important and smarter than others. Many hold others in disdain and contempt, which is the behavior of superiority. To speak in biblical terms, their sin is arrogance and pride in a very young body.
As an expert witness in legal matters regarding bullying, I'm often asked why bullies bully. Your average bully targets the weak because they believe they are superior to them, and because the pain, suffering and anguish of others brings them pleasure, which is the definition of sadism. These are hard truths I know, but if we are serious about helping our children, we must know the real nature of bullying.
These truths help us understand why physically and mentally challenged kids are often the most targeted in any youth gathering: public school, private Christian school, Sunday School, youth group, summer camp, Boy Scouts and so on. Families are leaving churches across the country because they failed to protect their special needs children from bullying.
People like my friend and brother in arms against bullying, Nick Vujicic , who was born without arms or legs: "As a child, I was an easy target for bullies. In school, I was constantly taunted with hurtful comments and mean-spirited teasing by my classmates. What made it worse, no one stood up for me." This is an all too common complaint in both public and private Christian schools. If no one stands up against such injustice in cruelty, how can a school call itself Christian?
Like many targets, no matter what Nick did, he wasn't going to escape the bullying unless the dynamics that fostered it changed.
Non-heterosexual children are also highly targeted as objects of disdain and contempt, a fact many church people don't want to hear or believe. These students wrap their trembling arms around my neck after I speak in their school and with tears in their eyes and shakiness in their voice they thank me from the bottom of their heart for coming to their defense. It is my privilege to help them. No one should be bullied for any reason. All children are made in the image of God and as such imbued with value, glory and honor [Psalms 8:4-5]
In many ways, we need another word or phrase to describe this behavior. We sometimes call it "pre-criminal behavior," because if an adult treated another adult this way--they would go to prison or lose their job. We also called it "Hating," because at the core of bullying is disdain and contempt. Serial bullies don't just dislike others--they hate them.
Now that we have a clearer understanding of the dynamics of bullying, let's get into some proven solutions.
The leading character trait that will make a child a target is being non-assertive. This means such kids don't appear or behave with much inner strength, power or vitality. I provide individual training to such targets, and usually the first thing I do is help them "Fake it till you make it."
I help them appear more assertive--even when they don't feel strong inside. We do this primarily through assertive body language. Here are before and after examples:
Non-Assertive Body Language:
- Shoulders that are bent forward and down
- Not standing up straight
- Inability to maintain eye contact
- Unhappy look on your face
- Shifting from foot to foot when standing
- Scratching a lot while standing
- Short strides when walking
- Head down while speaking; looking at the ground
Assertive Body Language:
- Shoulders pulled back
- Standing straight with chin level
- Maintaining eye contact for at least 8 seconds during a conversation
- A slight smile on your face while listening to others
- Not shifting from foot to foot while standing
- Longer and smoother strides while walking
After speaking at a Christian summer camp, I provided such training to a young man named Bobby. He was very bright and also displayed low-voltage body language. So during the walk to his cabin I trained him how to appear more assertive. When we got to his cabin he said, "Behaving this way feels weird." And he's right, parents. Your child is going to feel weird pretending to be more powerful than how they feel inside. Help them transition.
Most bullying is verbal, not physical, especially as our children get older. So as such our children need to know how to assertively but non-violently respond. Here are a few words and phrases that you can help your child memorize beforehand. Help your child say them in an assertive manner, not yelling or whimpering, then--and this is very important--train them to walk away with strong body language.
“This is over.”
“If you think so.”
“This is a waste of time.”
“Thanks for sharing that with me.”
Some of these responses are called "fogging." They do not engage the bully. Instead, they can disperse and deflect what could turn into an ugly situation fast. Explain to your child that she doesn't owe her bully the truth or candor.
Humorous comebacks can be helpful, though often overrated since humor is a difficult concept to teach a kids who isn't humorous by nature. Sometimes saying nothing at all and responding with a dismissive look on one's face is helpful as well. Remember that bullies want to overwhelm. Don't let them by standing there and verbally sparring. Remember the bully has probably planned his or her attack ahead of time. Your child will likely not have enough time to think about the rapid fire accusations and statements coming his or her way. To the best of your child's ability, help them at least appear unaffected by the verbal attack.
Use Their Audacity Against Them
Martin Luther King often reminded others that, "Evil carries within itself the seed of its own destruction." When it comes to bullying, that seed is the audacity of the bully. Audacious people overreach and overestimate their own abilities. They often think they are the smartest person in the room. They think they are too smart to get caught. They aren't.
If your child is a target, consider recording what is being done. This isn't "unChristian," it's wise. Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr explained, “The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” You're going to have to fight like a Christian, which means using the truth to rescue your child. The Protectors rents undercover equipment for this purpose. Cellphones can work as well.
And finally, no advice about bullying is complete unless it addresses how to handle and alleviate the suffering of a target. There are many ways to go wrong here, and just a few good moves to help your child.
Begin by addressing what bullying really means. “In some ways," wrote Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning , "suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning."
There are many who will answer this question in different ways. Fundamentalists tell me with varying shades of cavalier that the target of the bullying is put there by God to teach him or her more humility. The fact that most targets are non-assertive and as such do not suffer from excessive self-esteem but too little is usually lost on such people.
They exalt spiritual value and importance of suffering, and how it creates greater character and conformity to the true image of Christ. The Bible does talk about the value of suffering--but most of this suffering is in relation to persecution for one's faith. Almost all targets of bullying are not being persecuted for their faith.
Liberals tell me that the reason targets suffer is because the bully is suffering. So in order to alleviate the suffering of the target, we must help the bully heal by increasing efforts of understanding, compassion, love and related virtues. They believe we need to boost their dangerously low self-esteem and help their Inner Butterfly heal and sore to new heights.
Both Fundamentalists and liberals are mostly wrong in their assessments.
Parents, here's the answer: There are people in this world who gain pleasure from your pain. They are usually very arrogant and prideful people, and the Bible warns us about the connection between arrogance and violence. You're experiencing that connection right now. God is opposed to them and what they are doing to you. The sooner you learn how to circumvent such people, the better your life is going to be not just now but later in life since bullies will be with us always. Identifying, minimizing, and making sure to never behave like them is a key to the abundant life God wants for you. You can do all three, and it will be a challenge. I'm here to help you.