We don’t talk about…bullying. Whenever I write a post like this one or share our experience, the response I overwhelmingly get is private: a friend pulls me aside, an email or message finds its way to me and in confidence reveals there are dozens more parents and kids they know, suffering in silence. As you read on, please be reassured you’re not alone and please share this post with someone who needs to know it too.
We have all been on the receiving end of mean and not only is it not fun, it can really shake us. When it happens to our kids it’s even harder to traverse. Our mama bear instincts rise up and if we’re honest, we probably want to shake down the kids who are doing it. While we know that won’t help the situation, there are some real, tangible things that will. But before we walk through them, I want you to first know this is a no-judgment, drama-free zone to process your feelings. You don’t have to convince me, sister. Just bring it all here and let’s sort through it together.
You have likely heard the saying “hurt people hurt people” and while there is significant truth to this statement, there’s also truth to the middle school years (and beyond) just being awkward and difficult. I don’t know many who have gone through their teen (and even tween years) unscathed. Unfortunately, I think there are still many adults who haven’t processed the pain in those years. Collectively, we tend to approach it all as something everyone has to go through and get through. We can agree with this sentiment but also know our boundaries better by clearly defining when it’s just the typical middle school “junk” or a line crossed into something darker.
I want to preface this by saying anything cruel or mean can certainly indicate bullying. For the sake of finding positive ways for our children to move forward, we also have to be careful to not just lump everything under the umbrella of bullying as it can dilute the meaning of the word and even more importantly, the response to it.
- Cruel, incessant and relentless
- Essentially a form of stalking
- Social aggression and/or physical attacks
- Anger out of control
- Taunting, Trolling
- Instigating aggression (verbal or physical)
- Restricting access
- Spreading lies
Bullying Is Not
- A friend having a bad day
- A moment out of character
- A situation taken out of context
- One mean comment
- Competitive play in an monitored athletic setting
- A light-hearted ribbing
- Defending yourself when attacked (verbally or physically)
- Age or gender specific
- Telling a friend what happened to you
(This is a helpful post to distinguish the difference between rude, mean and bullying.)
As parents we go through a lot of hard things with our kids, and we’ve traversed some really difficult terrain with our boys, but there is nothing like watching your kid go through something painful that someone has the power to stop. When others in the school and community have the authority and tools to help mitigate effectively and they don’t, It can be excruciating. The years our son was incessantly bullied nearly crushed us. It started in the fourth grade and over the span of four years it grew from one single source into something that took on a sordid life of its own. Instead of the parents helping to squash it, they used every means possible to go after us. We did everything that we’re told to do—talk to trusted people, tell authorities, have the hard conversations with the people involved, ignore it, address it, pray about it. We built up our child even more, helped him learn how to diffuse the situation with humor, taught him how to tackle it head on, but it became so incessant and so insidious that it consumed our life. Nothing worked and people we once trusted, turned on us, some later disclosing because they didn’t want the backlash to their child. We felt helpless and the pain of being let down by friends and neighbors was deep. Even now, there are still situations that bring back those feelings of anger and helplessness quickly. It’s so important to realize the wide-range impact of bullying:
The Impact of Bullying (for children and parents)
- Trauma—fight or flight response
- Nervous system disorders
- Broken relationships
- Suicidal ideation or attempts
- Being ostracized
For our family, the pandemic provided a reprieve to regroup and rebuild. And while it came with its own hardship and difficulties, and we wish it would have arrived by way of something other than a global crisis, we learned it did give relief to many school-aged children. Among the many articles and posts on this, a personal friend who works as a therapist with kids and teens said that there was so much less anxiety (at the beginning of the pandemic) because it removed easy access to these kids. We all took a collective timeout and our kids and their bullies were forced to too.
The bullying our son endured was relentless, cruel and targeted. When we finally had enough and could no longer smile at people who hurt him, he was cut from the travel basketball team in his final year after playing for four solid years. We knew if we didn’t play along, he would no longer play. Even after we made the hard, but wise, decision to send our son to a different high school (causing a greater burden on us financially), the bullying tried to follow. The very first athletic event the two schools had together, a fellow classmate let him know that he was approached by someone from the other team who “talked trash” about him. He not only wanted to warn my son, but he told him he believed none of it and that this kid from the opposing school seemed really desperate. We finally felt, after living in some sort of strange altered reality for years, that someone my son didn’t even know understood the very basics of kindness and loyalty. He didn’t even have to know him well to know it was wrong.
Our son is now in his junior year of high school and thriving most days. He has a solid group of friends. He excels in school. He has worked hard and earned many different leadership opportunities. He is strong. He rises to every challenge. He plays varsity lacrosse and loves it. When the kid who bullied him got a job where he works, he just blew it off as absurd and another ridiculous attempt. He doesn’t fear him. He laughs it off. He understands now the jealousy, the envy. But still, he carries the scars. It’s hard for him to trust. He still wrestles with bouts of anxiety and mild depression. He questions intent. As his mom, what was most difficult to come to terms with was seeing this happy, love everybody, find the good in everything kid change not because he grew up (as I see happening in my younger boys), but because he had to battle every day just to make it through. Every text that told him to take his life. Every friend that turned from him. Every adult that let him down. A person doesn’t forget that and I think knowing that is what hurts me most—we want our children to have a good childhood and he had to grow up much too quickly and learn ways of coping that many adults don’t even understand. It’s not that they can’t handle mean people; it’s that being mean in the same way would cause them to betray themselves and others in a way they never would.
What Happens When Your “Tribe” Doesn’t Stand With You
We were the parents who did the full-out parties and invited all of the friends and neighbors. We wanted everyone to feel welcome in our home and I think that made it all even harder to swallow. The betrayal was overwhelming. Much like grief, even the well-meaning friends and neighbors would tell us bullying will make him stronger, but they didn’t want to get uncomfortable to understand the dark depths of it. First our kids need to survive it and the wounds it leaves behind are some of the deepest cuts they’ll ever endure. And while God can make good from evil, evil itself is never, ever good.
Still it is my hope and prayer your community stands with you, but please know if they don’t it is not you. I am so very sorry because it may take you a long time to truly realize that and rise from it. My heart breaks with yours. What people say is wrong and what they’re willing to do about it are very different. And mom friends with littles may not understand it all just yet, you can’t look to them for their validation of your situation. Hopefully, they will stand beside you as good friends do, but the wise ones will support you while admitting they may not have the experience to help you. But no friend you’ve confided in should create more drama. This is not what a friend does. A friend will never make you convince them or try to hurt you. I wish I could spare you from all of the, this is what middle schoolers do comments. I have four more boys in middle school now and I can assure you while it’s not often the most inclusive, kind or the best years of a kid’s life, and every kid will likely have moments of being rude and disrespectful, bullying is a beast not a bite.
What I Wish I Knew
Let me also be clear that bullying isn’t happening because your kid is sensitive or small or quiet. Bullying is always on the onus of the aggressor. Oftentimes they are sensitive too. but they haven’t learned the tools to help them process their sensitive nature in a positive way or have been forced to push it down in favor of a false bravado.
I also wish I understood that people will do anything they can to not have to confront what hurts them. This includes dismissing the bullying that happened to them all those years ago. I had a friend tell me she had her hair pulled and was thrown down a set of stairs to somehow make me feel better. No. NO! We don’t say, well I was tormented so it’s okay if your kid is too. That’s a horrible way to address bullying. And if we’ve come to a place of forgiveness with our aggressors and let it go over the years, that is worthwhile progress. Grace is beautiful, but it is not something for us to give in the face of violence involving a child. The word for that is not grace, it’s enablement, and I do believe it grieves God deeply when we don’t protect the ones He holds most dear.
It does help to find a way to process your anger and frustration that is healthy. Some days it may be an intense workout, another day it may be a long walk. Lean into your faith. Pray. Get help. Listen to what your body needs. Be aware of your triggers and be kind to yourself. Limit interactions if needed and set boundaries. Don’t feel the need to explain, to prove or to be liked during this time. Help your child be their true self by being your true self.
What Your Child Needs to Know Without a Doubt
They need to know they are loved. They need you to stay present and close, but not stifle them. They need you to know they will say they’re okay, but they’re not. They need you to ask them the important questions, but not overdo it. They need you to get them help even if they feel like they don’t need it. They need you to trust them. They need you to not pull away even if they push you away. They need you to be gentle. They need you to not stop believing in them or in God. They need you to hold onto them and let your roots sink down deep into Him. They need you to know without them saying it that they love you but that it hurts too much right now to say so. They need you to stay steady, grounded and rooted. They need you more than ever even if it seems like they want to lash out at you. You are their safe place so you will get the brunt of it. (It’s why you need an outlet too).
I do want to offer you this hope. You have choices even when it seems like you don’t. Pray to see your options and talk with wise and trustworthy people who can help you find them. My son’s new school ended out being amazing. My ministry, A Rooted Home, grew from the depths of our despair—knowing we couldn’t stop the storm from swirling around us, but we could root ourselves so deeply that we could not only withstand it but emerge stronger than ever. Keep looking up for the way out.